The greening of Ontario
Dalton McGuinty's Liberals are moving fast to spruce up
the province's environmental reputation
By Richard Brennan and Caroline Mallan
The Ontario Liberals are working overtime on painting
their government green in an attempt to return Ontario
to the days when its environmental reputation was recognized
around the world.
But critics say while it's a distinct change from the
former Conservative government, many of the measures the
Liberals have introduced over the past two months amount
to feel-good bluster, rather than concrete improvements.
From the mid-1980s to the early '90s, Ontario's environmental
standards for water, air and land were recognized as some
of the best in the world. But after the Tories made drastic
cuts to grapple with the deficit in 1995, that reputation
soon faltered, and Ontario was suddenly being compared
with the likes of Mississippi and Texas when it came to
the province's environmental record.
The Liberal government spent this week making a string
of environmental announcements as part of its "Green
Week" — among them the hiring of 33 water-quality
workers, including 20 inspectors, a year-long freeze on
development on a proposed greenbelt area across the Golden
Horseshoe, limiting the powers of the developer-friendly
Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) and efforts to limit municipal
And on Thursday, Environment Minister Leona Dombrowsky
announced a one-year moratorium on water-taking permits
for such things as bottling, aggregate use and other manufacturing
that taps into key watersheds. The ban does not affect
municipalities drawing water for local use.
"Water bottlers and others who remove water out
of a watershed cannot be permitted to just take more and
more water," Dombrowsky said in unveiling the move.
"We need to fully understand the consequences ...
on both the watershed and local water supplies. Nothing
is more basic to life - and the quality of life - than
an adequate supply of safe and clean water."
Municipal Affairs Minister John Gerretsen struck a similar
tone with the freeze on rezoning rural and agricultural
land for possible development.
"It is absolutely imperative if we want to do anything
about sprawl, gridlock, if we want to do anything about
improving the quality of life for people, particularly
in the GTA. It is absolutely essential we develop a greenbelt
area that ties in between the Oak Ridges Moraine and the
Niagara Escarpment," Gerretsen said.
"It is about the environment and the quality of
life that people want to enjoy in this area ... we cannot
allow the sprawl (of) the last 15 to 20 years to continue,"
But critics say the Liberals' sudden fascination with
the environment has more to do with deflecting attention
from broken campaign promises arising from the $5.6 billion
deficit they inherited. It also helps that these efforts
come without a large price tag for the cash-strapped government.
"The Premier promised to do certain things to restore
environmental protection, and the announcements this week
would indicate that he sure wants to at least appear to
be keeping these promises," said NDP critic Marilyn
Churley. "Unfortunately, there are huge holes in
Churley said the proposed greenbelt law is full of loopholes
allowing cabinet to exempt any piece of land at any time
for development. It appears "that too many compromises
have been made," she said.
Churley said it will take more than "half measures"
to turn around Ontario's environmental reputation.
"It has been seriously damaged and the only way
we are going to get it back is to make it a Number 1 priority
with a very strong, experienced minister in place,"
she said, adding Dombrowsky doesn't fit that bill.
A government insider acknowledges the Liberals are facing
"But we are determined to take this government in
a new direction ... and it's all about putting environmental
protection at the centre of what we do," the insider
"We want to send a message to people that there
is a new government in Ontario that is dedicated to re-tilting
the balance out there, and making sure environmental protection
was chief among considerations when looking at land-use
The government source close to Premier Dalton McGuinty
promised there will be more environmental initiatives.
"On one level, this is no-brainer stuff because we
have to make positive change in this area."
In the end, the insider said, the Liberal government
will be judged on "how far we move the yardstick
on environmental protection."
One of the key themes of McGuinty's oft-repeated stump
speech was a promise to ensure Ontarians have water that
is safe to drink, picking up on the spectre of the Walkerton
tainted-water disaster. Seven people died and 2,300 became
ill when E. coli contaminated the town's water supply
in May, 2000. McGuinty also promised "air we can
breathe" virtually every day of the 30-day campaign.
`With the Harris government, it was a race to the bottom
in terms of environmental protection'
David Oved, environmental consultant
Dan McDermott of the Sierra Club of Canada said he's
"cautiously optimistic" the new government will
walk the walk when it comes to its commitment to the environment.
"We are looking toward an improvement certainly
over what we got from the last government," he said.
"At least the commitments are there."
In the 1980s, the then-Liberal government and its environment
minister, Jim Bradley, tackled acid rain with a Count
Down Acid Rain Program, and received a United Nations
award for its blue-box program.
"I believe it is possible to return to those glory
days ... when the environment was a priority," Dombrowsky
said. "This government intends to consider the environment
in everything it does."
While environmental issues languished under the Tory
governments of Mike Harris and then Ernie Eves, and the
ministry itself suffered deep cutbacks, Walkerton thrust
the environment back into the spotlight. Many residents
of the south-western Ontario town continue to suffer the
effects of tainted water today.
"It forced all of us to stop taking things for granted,
like the water we drink and the air we breathe,"
the government source said. "I don't think there
is any question that tragic event was the beginning of
a broader public awareness."
David Oved, who worked for Bradley during the '80s and
is now a partner in an environmental consulting firm,
said the Tories simply did not consider the environment
"It was always my impression that the Harris government
wasn't just un-environmental, it was anti-environmental.
I don't think they believed in the vulnerability of the
environment or the need to protect it," said Oved,
of Environmental Economics International. "With the
Harris government, it was a race to the bottom in terms
of environmental protection."
The Walkerton tainted-water inquiry found the then-Tory
government's cuts to the environment ministry contributed
in part to the disaster, and recommended more staff be
hired, including water inspectors.
The Liberal "Green Week" initiatives come after
the new government took an early hit over breaking its
promise to stop 6,600 homes being built on the Oak Ridges
Moraine, the environmentally sensitive swath of land that's
referred to as the GTA's rain barrel.
The moraine is a glacial deposit of sand and gravel containing
headwaters for more than 35 rivers flowing into Lake Ontario.
Despite an election promise to halt development, the Liberals
discovered it would be too costly to stop because of lawsuits
that would follow — reasoning critics say they don't buy.
Peter Tabuns, executive director of Greenpeace Canada,
said it's a little early to start praising the greening
of the Liberals, despite their announcements.
"For us, it's still early days," he said. "They
say they are going in the right direction. Let's see the
concrete outcomes of these things they have set in motion."
Tabuns said his organization will be more impressed if
the Liberals produce "a practical" plan early
in the new year for phasing out the province's coal-fired
power plants, and the plan manages to "avoid further
wasteful and irrational investment in nuclear power."
The Grits promised during the campaign to phase out the
plants by 2007, and Energy Minister Dwight Duncan has
insisted that's one promise they are not going to break.
Air pollution in southern Ontario has become a major
health concern. Health Canada says smog is responsible
for 7.7 per cent of all the premature deaths in Toronto,
Hamilton, Ottawa, London and Windsor.
The Ontario Medical Association estimated in May that
polluted air will kill 2,030 people across the province
this year, including 530 in Toronto and 360 in the rest
of the GTA. Health-care costs and lost productivity will
combine for a price tag of nearly $1.25 billion.
Tabuns said the hiring of new water inspectors was welcome,
but success will be measured in charges laid, and prosecutions.
The Liberals' green initiatives have also made them some
enemies, chief among them the Urban Development Institute,
the lobby arm of the powerful development industry.
Internal government memos obtained by the Star show UDI
head Neil Rodgers was furious over Gerretsen's proposed
Greenbelt Protection Act, and demanded a seat at the consultation
table. He was reportedly not told the minister would immediately
freeze rezoning, even before the bill passes third reading
in the Legislature.
Publicly, Rodgers mused the freeze could lead to higher
housing costs and create more grid-lock in parts of the
Golden Horseshoe already approved for new home construction.