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A five-year battle comes to an end in Ontario

Time and again, the Ford government has tried to weaken conservation authorities. It’s the same old theme, since 2019 — and changes are coming soon

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In 2019, I broke the news that the Doug Ford government would weaken the role of the conservation authorities that have protected Ontario watersheds for nearly 80 years.

I learned through a 5 p.m. phone call on a hot summer day: a panicked source read an internal document saying the government would ask all conservation authorities to “wind down” non-essential activities. 

The obvious follow-up question: “Okay, but what does that mean?” 

It took five years to get an answer. 

Conservation authorities are the caretakers of lush natural spaces that stretch through, and beyond, Ontario’s growing urban landscape. They are unique to this province and take a bird’s eye view of how human activity impacts the environment, especially our water. That often puts them in positions of having to say no to things, especially when those things are developers who propose to interfere with floodplains and wetlands. 

Because of this, conservation authorities have often found themselves in the government’s crosshairs. When the Ford government came to power with a mandate to build housing fast, it decided the power of conservation authorities to review development applications was delaying construction and began proposing ways to “streamline” things.
 
This tension played out for five years. In that time, conservation authorities tried to work with the government to address its concerns while still protecting watersheds, but Ontario kept reducing their powers. There was plenty of pushback, as we reported on after being leaked document after document. People resigned; the public protested. 

But when the battle finally ended last month, the Ford government’s new official regulations for conservation authorities still limited their powers and reduced their mandates.
 

A photo of the Holland River in Ontario's Greenbelt
Ontario weakens watershed protections (again) as natural resources minister gets new powers


As you’ll read in my latest story, Ontario’s minister of natural resources will soon be able to overrule conservation authority permit denials, or the conditions they put in place to protect the environment. Developers can ask the minister to review denials and permits, and challenge the studies used to justify those. It will be easier to build docks and other small structures, even in places prone to floods, and the distance between development and sensitive shorelines and wetlands has been reduced. 

These changes take effect April 1, but they aren’t a joke. 

As The Narwhal’s Ontario reporting has shown again and again, there is a pressing need to consider both the housing crisis and the climate emergency as the province grows. Conservation authorities’ work is meant to ensure Ontario’s homes and ecosystems are more resistant to extreme weather, floods and pollutants — weakening them puts the most populous part of the country at risk.   

To quote one of the dozens of experts I spoke to last week: “This is just setting the stage for a bunch of new problems rather than addressing the problem the government has been talking about — slow development.”

Take care and wind down your non-essential activities, 

Fatima Syed
Ontario reporter

P.S. Get The Narwhal’s latest Ontario reporting — and more — by signing up for our newsletter here.

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