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Just before the 2022 provincial election, Doug Ford said five words Ontarians hadn’t heard often during his first term.
“I believe in climate change,” he told reporters in May, days after a deadly derecho storm left hundreds of thousands of homes without power. “And we’re doing everything to prevent it by building electric vehicles, having investment into the battery plants.”
The premier’s second term has yet to see any increase in electric vehicle production, while promised investments haven’t resulted in operational battery plants so far. Instead, the Progressive Conservatives’ current tenure has been defined by battles over land use, as the government opens up protected land and weakens environmental oversight to ease development, while conservationists, cities and citizens push back against losing farmland, wetlands and wildlife habitat.
Despite intense opposition, the government made its omnibus land use bill, the More Homes Built Faster Act or Bill 23, law in late November. That was followed by regulation making its Greenbelt changes official in mid-December: it outlines how 15 separate parcels of land totalling 7,400 acres, including part of the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Reserve, will be removed from the Greenbelt.
Playing in the background is a looming energy supply crisis, which the Ford government is largely planning to tackle through a steep increase in natural gas use that will also increase Ontario’s emissions. In fact, Ontario’s widely lauded clean grid — its low emissions due almost entirely to a reliance on nuclear energy – has already gotten dirtier per the government’s own estimates: in its March 2023 budget, Ontario’s grid is touted as “approximately 90 per cent emissions free,” a four percent drop from the number the government was using in 2021.
The government has been told that climate inaction would be expensive. The Financial Accountability Officer, a watchdog reporting to the legislature, has estimated that even an optimistic “medium emissions” scenario would mean around $171 billion in costs over the rest of the century to deal with roads, rail and bridge repairs alone. In a higher emissions scenario, those costs climb to $322 billion. And damage to transportation infrastructure is just one of the many costly aspects of an expected increase in heat, flooding, rainfall and snow.
For the second time, The Narwhal is keeping a running tally of how the Ford government is reshaping environment, climate, conservation and energy policy. Stay tuned for updates — and remember we have you covered if you’d like a refresher on what happened in the Progressive Conservatives’ first term.
In 1993, the Ontario government was legally mandated by the Environmental Bill of Rights to consult the public before changing environmental or energy policy, with the independent environmental commissioner’s office acting as a watchdog.
When the Ford government axed the commissioner’s office in 2019, those responsibilities shifted to Ontario’s auditor general. In the past four years, Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk has found “recurring” violations. In her latest, likely last, review of how the Ford government is upholding the bill of rights, Lysyk found that the Progressive Conservatives are failing to consider expert opinions, while also neglecting to fully explain “the potential environmental implications of proposed legislative or policy changes, or how public consultation affected the decision-making.”
With less than a year left in her tenure, Lysyk found the government did not properly consult the public about three major policy changes that affected the environment.
One of these was the Progressive Conservatives’ first housing bill — Bill 109, or the “More Homes for Everyone Act” — a “complex” law with “great” environmental significance that was made law last April, two weeks before the required 30-day consultation period ended.
While there has been some minor improvement to the public consultation process, Lysyk also found that 20 per cent of the Ministry of Environment’s decisions last year were made without giving the public “timely notice” and failed to make serious consideration of the public’s knowledge or perspective. In some cases, Ontarians weren’t notified of plans with environmental significance at all: neither the Ford government’s plans to try and build small modular reactors nor its low-carbon strategy were posted for public consultation.
“As Ontario’s population and infrastructure needs grow, increased development has the potential to negatively impact natural areas and the environment,” Lysyk wrote in her review. “Fully embracing the intent of the [Environmental Bill of Rights] Act and following transparent and meaningful consultation can only help government make informed, long-term environmental decisions that benefit all Ontarians, while building public understanding and support.”
Lysyk isn’t the only one noticing the Ford government’s failure to meaningfully consult the public. The Chiefs of Ontario are calling for the repeal of the omnibus housing act, Bill 23, citing the Progressive Conservative’s lack of consultation with Indigenous communities, which Indigenous leaders have called “unlawful” and an “abuse of power.”
After losing a Supreme Court battle against the federally implemented carbon price, the Ford government was forced to introduce its own that met national standards. On Jan. 1, 2022, Ontario’s Emissions Performance Standards took effect on industrial polluters. The concept is similar to the federal carbon pricing system: it sets a price on carbon and creates a market for carbon credits.
Companies that produce less than their applicable limit earn credits, or “emissions performance units,” that can be sold to heavy emitters, which are defined as companies that produce 10,000 tonnes or more of carbon dioxide annually. Companies that emit more than this benchmark must buy these credits, or pay a price per tonne of carbon dioxide. Details of the program are sparse, but Ontario companies were asked to transition from the federal carbon price program to the provincial standards by Dec.15.
Despite past laments about what Ford incorrectly dubbed the “job-killing carbon tax” — and repeated denials of the program’s climate benefits, including through a $4-million sticker campaign that an Ontario court ruled unconstitutional — the government has already signalled that its pollution price will increase in lockstep with the federal carbon price. According to its September 2021 regulatory proposal, Ontario’s price per tonne of carbon for industrial emitters will increase from the present $40 to $65 in 2024 and $170 in 2031.
On Nov. 8, 2022, the Ford government announced plans to open up 7,400 acres of Greenbelt land in southern Ontario for housing development — a stark reversal of the premier’s years of promises never to touch it. Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark, who has also promised not to touch the protected area in the past, said the move would help the province build 50,000 new homes, a small fraction of its goal of 1.5 million over the next 10 years.
The government is “considering every possible option to get more homes built faster,” Clark’s ministry previously told The Narwhal. But the move goes against the advice of the government’s own housing affordability task force, which said Ontario’s housing crisis can be solved without cutting into the Greenbelt.
Ford and Clark’s plan is basically a land swap. They removed 7,400 acres from 15 sections of the Greenbelt. In exchange, they added in 9,400 acres elsewhere. But whether that compensation land actually amounts to a net benefit is up for debate. It comes from a small portion of a rock formation called the Paris-Galt Moraine northwest of Toronto, where farmland is already protected under other mechanisms, and from a series of urban river valleys that are publicly owned and cannot be built on anyway. (The government previously announced plans to add the urban river valleys to the Greenbelt earlier this year.)
The government has said the 15 sections of the Greenbelt that are now open for development are on the edges of the protected area. But it also hasn’t answered questions about why it chose these specific spots.
Two weeks after the government announced it would cut into the Greenbelt, an investigation by The Narwhal and the Toronto Star found that nine developers who would particularly benefit from the proposal have donated significant sums to Ford’s Progressive Conservatives. As well, six developers spent significant sums on Greenbelt land in the past four years, since Ford was recorded in 2018 telling a private audience he’d “open a big chunk” if elected premier, even though the land was protected at the time.
The investigation also showed that several of the development companies benefitting from the land swap are connected to the Progressive Conservatives through former Tory officials, staffers and politicians now working as registered lobbyists.
The reporting raised questions about why the government settled on the Greenbelt land it chose, and whether it gave developers advance notice of its plans. Clark initially refused to say, but amid multiple calls for investigations and after days of pressure from reporters and opposition parties, Clark eventually denied giving developers a heads-up.
“I look forward to being vindicated and I look forward to the apology from the official opposition,” Clark said.
In the meantime, other groups have raised concerns about the proposal: Parks Canada has said the move would go against an agreement between the federal and provincial governments, and could cause “irreversible harm” to species at risk and Rouge Urban National Park. At least 20 protests happened across the province on the first weekend in December, and a group representing engineers in Ontario said the plan would “hinder Ontario’s carbon targets without providing enough economic return, nor reducing the cost of buying a new home.”
The Ford government’s plan to make it easier to build housing also included measures that would make it more difficult for wetlands in Ontario to be protected. This is significant because Ontario has very few wetlands left — and because bogs and swamps help sequester carbon and mitigate floods.
Experts evaluating which wetlands are eligible for “provincially significant” status, which protects them from development, are guided by a manual from the province’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, which outlines rules to score wetlands based on their benefits to the ecosystem. The government has proposed a huge rewrite of that manual.
The biggest changes eliminate two major avenues for wetlands to qualify as provincially significant. First, wetland evaluators now can’t consider whether the habitat is important to species at risk. As well, wetlands must now qualify in isolation — disconnected from the wetland complexes they’re often a part of. That means very few wetlands will actually be eligible for the protection, experts told The Narwhal, particularly smaller wetlands that don’t seem important on their own, but are part of complex watersheds and migration paths.
The new rules, finalized in December 2022, also give the province the ability to remove protection for wetlands that qualified under the old requirements but not under the new ones.
Wetland experts told The Narwhal the changes could contribute to problems with flooding, worsening water quality and the decline of endangered species.
For the second time in four years, Ford’s Progressive Conservations have disempowered conservation authorities, agencies unique to Ontario that are tasked with protecting watersheds. This time around, the gutting came via Bill 23, which weakens the authorities’ oversight powers over development plans, and instructs them to find land in the natural conservation spaces they protect that could be suitable for development.
The list of changes is extensive. It includes watering down the criteria conservation authorities can use to review development — they can no longer consider “pollution” or “conservation of land.” The authorities are also no longer mandated to work with municipalities to ensure vital environmental spaces that supply drinking water and contain wildlife habitat aren’t damaged: these relationships are now optional and can only be advisory. For the most part, the important responsibilities of a conservation authority are now being downloaded to municipalities, which even developers say have neither the in-house technical expertise nor the financial capacity to take on the many tasks done by conservation authorities.
The government has said repeatedly that conservation authorities will maintain their key role: to protect people and property from flooding. But authorities say the sweeping changes were made quickly and without any consultation. They came into effect on Jan. 1, 2023.
On a Friday afternoon in November, the Ford government released a series of bombshell decisions about municipal growth plans without notice. These were unilateral decisions ordering some of Ontario’s largest urban centres to expand beyond their current boundaries and start allowing development on farmland and green space that, in some cases, local residents had clearly signalled they wanted to protect. These decisions cannot be appealed.
In Hamilton, Ont., the municipal government underwent a year-long public consultation that saw 18,000 residents opt for intensifying development instead of permitting sprawl. Halton Region took a similar stance after conducting a detailed study of its residents’ housing needs and concluding itsy could meet its growth targets by focusing on intensification.
Despite all this, both Hamilton and Halton Region were overruled by the Ford government and forced to expand their urban boundaries. Residents and local politicians told The Narwhal the move was an affront to local democracy that also threatened farmland and food security. The provincial order gives these municipalities two years to plan and begin development.
Other Ontario municipalities, including Durham, Peel and York, submitted growth plans that aimed to open thousands of acres of farmland to development, as the Ford government had wanted. For these places, the government’s decisions were permission to begin.
Later, in April, the Ontario government imposed similar requirements to sprawl on Waterloo Region, Wellington County, Belleville and Peterborough.
One of the big challenges with residential development is ensuring new neighbourhoods are properly serviced to support a growing population, including with wastewater infrastructure. Development cannot begin without these pipes and supporting facilities in place.
Since 2009, York Region north of Toronto has been trying to set up a new sewage plant to serve the rapidly growing towns of Aurora, Newmarket and East Gwillimbury. York has spent $100 million of a $715 million proposed budget, some of it on the most expensive environmental assessment the region has ever conducted, which examined the impacts of carrying so much wastewater into Lake Simcoe. All along, the Chippewas of Georgina Island have expressed concerns about impacts on the watershed and the region’s failures to include the First Nation in the process.
Successive governments have long delayed making a decision on this facility. In the fall of 2020, the Progressive Conservatives offered an alternative solution: instead of creating a new facility that would dump sewage in Lake Simcoe, it proposed to expand the sewage lines from York Region to reach the existing high-tech Duffin Creek Water Pollution Control Plant in Pickering, which releases treated water into Lake Ontario.
This proposal was made official in late October, when the government issued its decision to expand the Duffin Creek plant. The government-appointed York Region Wastewater Advisory Panel, set up in 2021, supported this decision in a report released the same day, calling it “the most effective option available.” In its analysis, the panel weighed heavily the opposition by the Chippewas of Georgina Island, and noted that building a sewage plant in York Region would emit 50 per cent more greenhouse gases than the Duffin Creek option, which could also be expanded at a lower cost than building a new facility.
Much needs to be figured out by both York and Durham now that the province has made its long-overdue decision. In October 2022, Durham regional chair and CEO John Henry told Newmarket Today the municipality needs more time to “understand the technical details and implications for Durham residents.” Henry previously told The Narwhal he would be opposed to taking on additional sewage waste from York Region because Durham needed to support its own residents first.
Expanding the Duffin Creek plant will require an expansion of a grid of pipes that service the rapidly growing populations of York and Durham regions. This wastewater flows from the Lake Huron watershed, namely Georgian Bay and Lake Simcoe, to the plant to be cleaned, after which much is released into Lake Ontario.
Ontario’s proposal is to permanently increase the quantity of water — tens of millions of litres — moving between these two Great Lakes regions, which could irreversibly change and harm them: sewage carries the mineral phosphorus that can cause excess algae to grow in water, which could impact the quality and quantity of clean drinking water available to residents in both regions.
Lake Ontario is already dealing with unprecedented levels of accidental sewage spills: 396 million litres of wastewater have flowed into the lake since 1996, resulting in a provincial decision to audit parts of the lake sewage system. The potential for low water levels in the Lake Huron watershed are also a concern.
Aside from ecological concerns, there are diplomatic ones too: Ford’s proposal may breach an international agreement Ontario signed in 2005, pledging to protect and improve the Great Lakes ecosystems in perpetuity. The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Sustainable Water Resources Agreement was signed by all the American states and Canadian provinces surrounding the Great Lakes, which hold about 85 per cent of North America’s freshwater. It explicitly bans any new large transfers between Great Lakes regions, unless all signatories are properly informed and permit it, which has only happened once. Ontario briefly mentioned its plan at the last meeting of all signatories in December 2022 and told The Narwhal it is committed to meeting the conditions of the treaty.
Since being re-elected in June 2022, the Ford government has been backtracking on a number of energy policy decisions made in its first term, when it cancelled hundreds of solar and wind contracts and clean energy policies, including a wind farm already under construction in Prince Edward County.
But green energy is back in a big way. In July, the Progressive Conservatives released their first comprehensive energy policy — “Powering Ontario’s Growth: Ontario’s plan for a clean energy future” — which opens the door to renewable energy in the province again. The 86-page plan is designed to address a looming energy supply shortage and an accelerating shift to the electrification of transportation and industry: the province is expected to see electricity consumption double by 2050, perhaps even sooner.
The Ford government expects much of the supply shortage to come from existing and new nuclear sources, which currently make up more than 50 per cent of Ontario’s electricity supply. Energy Minister Todd Smith has asked Bruce Power, the company that runs the nuclear station in Kincardine, Ont., to double its output and help power 4.8 million homes by creating a new nuclear facility, the first new full-scale nuclear plant in Ontario since 1993. The government has also announced the building of four small modular reactors at the Darlington nuclear plant, a new and untested nuclear technology.
Ontario has also for the second time delayed the long-planned shutdown of its oldest nuclear power plant, in Pickering, to September 2026. The plant provides 14 per cent of Ontario’s electricity and was meant to begin a phased shut-down in 2024. Any operation beyond 2026 would require a complete, costly refurbishment, which could allow the plant to run an additional 30 years.
The biggest shift in the Tories’ energy policy is marked by the return of renewable energy projects, with the government offering policies to enhance them for the very first time. Smith said Ontario’s next round of energy procurement, set to happen after 2025, will include solar, hydroelectric and wind projects.
The Ford government is also investing big in battery storage projects to help the province bridge the energy supply gap in the short term.
Smith told The Globe and Mail the market conditions for clean energy are different today than in 2018 when the government was first elected, noting “this is the first time in 19 years that electricity demand is increasing.”
But the new energy plan doesn’t make a commitment to a net-zero grid, a federal directive for all provinces to reach by 2035 to limit the worst effects of climate change. The government has separately awarded contracts for four new natural gas facilities — the first new gas plants in over a decade — in a move that will sharply increase the emissions produced by Ontario’s grid. Energy Minister Todd Smith told the Toronto Star natural gas was needed to ensure the system is “reliable” in the short-term.
These policies come after the Independent Electricity System Operator released a study projecting natural gas will make up almost a quarter of all electricity generation in the province by 2040. This would increase emissions by 260 per cent but, the operator wrote, “without gas generation, Ontario’s electricity system would see frequent and sustained blackouts in 2030.” But the operator also said this could change dramatically if the government accelerated the procurement of non-emitting and low-carbon energy sources.
Despite this recommendation, Smith refused to renew a seven-year, zero-emission hydroelectric power purchase agreement with Quebec.
On Nov. 9, 2022, Ontario Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney announced that the province had broken ground on a bridge needed for the construction of the Bradford Bypass, a proposed highway through Ontario’s Greenbelt.
The bypass would connect Highways 400 and 404 north of Toronto, running a 16-kilometre path that cuts through York Region, Simcoe County and the Holland Marsh section of the Greenbelt. The bridge is an early step that moves the project forward, enabling an existing road to go over the bypass.
“This important milestone brings us another step closer to getting the Bradford Bypass built, improving economic productivity and eliminating the gridlock that hurts us all,” Mulroney said in a statement.
The marsh was once one of the largest wetlands in southern Ontario, but settlers drained it for agriculture in the 1920s. Today, it’s nicknamed Ontario’s vegetable patch because of the high-quality produce grown there. The highway would run through some of the remaining wetlands in the marsh, which are supposed to be protected from development. It would also cross over the Holland River, which drains into Lake Simcoe.
The project last received an environmental assessment in 1997, before the existence of the Greenbelt or policies tackling climate change.
The government has argued that the highway is needed to relieve already-congested traffic in the region, especially as York Region and Simcoe County are expecting a continued explosion of population growth in the coming decades. It has also said it’s holding the project to a strict environmental standard — though it has exempted the project from undergoing a new environmental assessment, it is updating that old review with a round of fresh studies.
Critics, meanwhile, point to concerns about its environmental impact. That 1997 assessment surfaced a few issues: road salt from the Bradford Bypass could contaminate groundwater and the Lake Simcoe watershed, air pollution from traffic could be higher than what’s currently recommended and the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation had raised concerns about archaeological sites along the route.
In May 2023, the Ontario government locked in changes to the province’s Mining Act through Bill 71, which it’s calling the “Building More Mines Act.”
The legislation made a few key revisions to the law, including making it easier for mine projects to move ahead even if their plans for closure — which should outline how they’ll rehabilitate the mine site once extraction is finished — haven’t been finalized. The bill would also make it easier for mining companies to recover minerals from mine waste, or tailings.
Mining Minister George Pirie said the changes wouldn’t compromise Ontario’s environmental standards. He’s selling them as an environmental win, saying they’re aimed at boosting the mine approval process to help Ontario produce more of the priority minerals, or critical minerals, needed to make electric vehicle batteries.
Pirie’s office has also argued the bill would increase environmental scrutiny on mining projects — it would require that all aspects of mine closure plans be certified by professionals, when only some aspects of those plans need that certification right now. And although the changes allow applications to move through the system more quickly, closure plans must be in place before companies can begin building new mines.
The push for critical minerals as part of a homegrown Ontario electric vehicle supply chain has been a central focus for the Progressive Conservatives, who have touted the idea as a way to lower carbon emissions.
First Nations and environmentalists, however, say Ontario’s environmental protection regime is already too weak and further cuts to mining rules are concerning. And there are real questions about Indigenous consent that still need to be answered before many mining projects can go ahead, along with the issue of how the greenhouse gasses released by development and mining in environmentally sensitive areas, like the Ring of Fire in the Far North, stack up against the lower-emissions technology the minerals could help facilitate.
Ontario already watered down its environmental assessment regime in the Doug Ford government’s first term. And less than a year into its second, Infrastructure Minister Kinga Surma introduced a bill to speed the process up again.
When an environmental assessment has been completed, the minister is supposed to consider its findings and public feedback for 30 days before deciding whether to approve the project. The legislation, Bill 69, allowd the environment minister — currently David Piccini — to change or waive that 30-day period in some circumstances. The bill passed in May 2023.
Environmentalists and opposition parties expressed some concerns about the bill, the Trillium reported. But Piccini’s office has said it would maintain environmental standards, and the waiting period would only be waived for projects that have fulfilled all of their requirements and have no outstanding issues.
Separately, the government is also proposing changes to which types of projects undergo full environmental assessments and which ones can follow a “streamlined” process that environmentalists have raised red flags about. If the change is finalized, railways, multi-lane highways, electricity transmission and waterfront projects will all qualify for streamlined reviews. The government hasn’t announced a timeline for finalizing the proposal.
The concept of carbon capture, utilization and storage is gaining popularity with governments like Ontario that are lagging on efforts to cut emissions. The idea — at least in theory, though it’s been criticized as greenwashing — is essentially what it sounds like: pursue technology that can capture carbon emissions, which fuel climate change, then, store it indefinitely to keep it out of the atmosphere or use it to make other things.
One use for captured carbon is injecting it underground into old wells to push more oil and gas to the surface. It’s less emissions intensive than other ways of extracting oil and gas, but does still use carbon to extract more products that will then, in turn, emit carbon.
That practice used to be prohibited, but the Doug Ford government signalled intentions to change its carbon storage rules for a while. In November 2022, it took the next step towards that, proposing to remove the prohibition as part of Bill 46, dubbed the Less Red Tape, Stronger Ontario Act.
The Ontario government has touted this plan as a way to help industry decarbonize. Environmentalists, however, are taking issue with it for a few reasons. Some argue that carbon capture, utilization and storage won’t make a big dent in the climate crisis because it enables more oil and gas extraction.
Others say Ontario’s oil and gas history makes storing carbon underground too delicate, if not impossible — especially given the current government’s level of oversight. Keith Brooks of the charity Environmental Defence made that point to lawmakers, which NDP MPP Terence Kernaghan referenced during debate over the bill on March 6, 2023.
According to Kernaghan, Brooks noted the reasons Ontario had avoided underground storage so far are mentioned in a 2022 government discussion paper on the practice.
“Under the right conditions, carbon dioxide might also be stored in other geologic settings such as former hydrocarbon reservoirs where the resource has been depleted,” the paper reads.
“However the long legacy of drilling for oil and gas in Ontario has affected the suitability of many of these reservoirs for the storage of carbon dioxide. Careful site selection and extensive study would be required to ensure that the carbon dioxide could be stored safely by proponents.”
The same report notes that “stronger, more proactive oversight” would be needed to protect people and the environment.
But oversight has been a problem with Ontario’s existing oil and gas wells. Last year, Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk found the province is failing to identify and inspect high-risk wells.
Some of those high-risk wells have caused real public safety problems in southwestern Ontario, where many are concentrated: a few in Wheatley, Ont., are believed to have caused an explosion in 2021, levelling buildings and sending seven people to the hospital. An investigation by The Globe and Mail found the Ontario government failed to act on warnings about leaks from the wells.
The Less Red Tape Stronger Ontario Act passed in March 2023.
In March, German automaker Volkswagen announced it had picked St. Thomas, Ont., a former auto-manufacturing city, as the location of its first overseas manufacturing plant. The decision came after the Progressive Conservatives rushed through a bill that consolidated 1,500 acres of farmland to form the site of the facility, land that was previously split between St. Thomas and the neighbouring township of Central Elgin.
This is the fifth electric battery facility the government has announced, in partnerships with Stellantis and LG Energy Solutions in Windsor; Umicore in Kingston; Ford Motor Company in Oakville; and Magna International in Brampton. Canada’s first full-scale electric vehicle manufacturing plant — a General Motors facility that was retooled to build 50,000 electric vehicles — also opened in Ingersoll in December.
Even before the Volkswagen announcement, Ontario had seen around $16.5 billion in investments by global automakers and suppliers of electric vehicle batteries and battery minerals over the past two years. But despite these developments, the success of a full electric vehicle supply chain depends on a whole host of factors. This includes how easy it will be to access critical minerals — future mining in the Ring of Fire is far from certain, given yet-to-occur detailed consultation with Indigenous communities, as well as environmental assessments and infrastructure building.
There’s also a need for a larger culture shift, to convince consumers to choose electric vehicles. While the Ford government is quick to peg the success of its supply chain-focused Driving Prosperity plan, it has yet to make up for all of the electric vehicle programs it scrapped when it came to power, including cancelling rebates and ripping out charging stations.
In its March 2023 budget, the Progressive Conservatives committed more than $110 million over three years to improve emergency readiness. This includes creating a new emergency preparedness grant for community organizations and a fund for municipalities to provide urgent relief. On budget day, provincial officials said the emergency funding could be used “for a wide range of emergencies,” such as floods, wildfires and extreme heat.
The funding commitment comes after Ontario launched its first-ever Provincial Emergency Management Strategy and Action Plan in February, an attempt to create a uniform and detailed approach to everything from immediate evacuations to rehabilitation after a natural disaster. Part of the plan includes enhancing flood mapping to understand flood risk, which is projected to increase as the climate changes, and creating a First Nations Emergency Response Association to find best practices for community safety.
The funding and plan are much needed. In 2022, 58 community and provincial emergencies were declared in Ontario, and more than 1,900 members from four First Nations communities were evacuated due to extreme flooding.
The Progressive Conservative government first pitched the idea of creating a new provincial park in its 2020 budget. It has since promised a new park in subsequent budgets but until 2023 gave few details on where it would be, how much it would cost or when it might become a reality.
The park, first announced in Ontario’s 2023 budget, doesn’t have a tentative opening date or a price tag yet. But if it becomes a reality, it would be located on the Oak Ridges Moraine in Uxbridge, a rocky landform that’s already protected as part of Ontario’s Greenbelt, Piccini announced in April. The environment minister also said the park could include up to 532 hectares (1,315 acres) of provincially owned land, with its design meant to incorporate hiking and birdwatching.
Speaking to reporters on budget day 2023, Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy denied the Uxbridge park was a response to criticism over the government’s decision to open Greenbelt land for development.
In the same budget, the Ontario government also teased the idea of a new operating provincial park — in June 2023, Piccini announced it would be Bigwind Lake Provincial Park near Bracebridge, in the Muskoka area north of Toronto. Bigwind Lake is already a provincial park but is classified as “non-operating,” which means it doesn’t have facilities like bathrooms or campsites. Now, the government is adding 250 campsites and up to 25 cabins to the park, and will staff the park and upgrade it so activities are open there year-round.
The government said it would begin upgrade work in fall 2024, with designs set to include low-energy buildings and wildlife-friendly design.
In July 2023, one month after the Bigwind Lake announcement, Piccini also unveiled the new Monarch Point Conservation Reserve on the south shore of Prince Edward County, east of Toronto. The area, which is 1,618 hectares (4,000 acres), had been designated as Crown land and was already used for a variety of outdoor activities. The province said turning it into a conservation area would give the land stronger protections. The south shore area is known as a hotspot for birds and for having one of Canada’s three monarch butterfly reserves.
Plans for another new protected area remain fuzzy. In its 2022 pre-election budget, the government repeated a promise to “support a large near-urban provincial park at East Humber Headwaters in King Township,” just north of Toronto. But it has not given an update on that pledge since.
The Ontario Carbon Trust was a central pillar of the Progressive Conservatives’ 2018 Made-in-Ontario environment plan — but it has never materialized. It was meant to be a $400 million fund to encourage private investment in clean technologies. But it hasn’t been included in a single government budget since then, and as of right now, there’s no indication the Tories will follow through.
Ministry of Finance officials did not directly answer when The Narwhal asked about the Carbon Trust at a briefing for reporters for the 2023 budget. (They didn’t answer when The Narwhal asked about it in 2022, either.)
Soon after taking office in its first term, the Progressive Conservatives slashed the Environment Ministry’s budget by a third. Successive governments had already underfunded environmental measures for decades, and the added cuts compounded long-term problems caused by that lack of resources, according to Ontario’s auditor general.
The 2023 budget, however, shows the Environment Ministry’s funding is now at higher levels than the Progressive Conservatives planned back in 2019.
The previous Liberal government gave the Environment Ministry $909 million in the fiscal year ending in 2018. The Progressive Conservatives cut it to a low of $612 million by 2020, but have gradually bumped it up every year since. The government’s 2023 budget projects it’ll spend $742 million on the Environment Ministry this fiscal year and sets aside an additional $40 million for it the year after. That would bring the ministry’s budget to $782.6 million.
Ontario Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy didn’t directly answer when The Narwhal asked him on budget day to explain the Environment Ministry’s funding. However, it appears some of that increase came from extra spending for COVID-19, and some is likely due to inflation.
Towards the end of its first term, the Ontario government inked an agreement with the federal government aimed at protecting the province’s quickly dwindling woodland caribou. That agreement was roundly criticized by environmental groups and First Nations, who said it failed to address the ways logging, road building and other industrial activity hurt the iconic but endangered species.
Less than a year later, the federal government has already expressed concern about whether Ontario is making good on its part of the deal. Though Ontario Environment Minister David Piccini announced plans in March 2023 to invest $29 million over four years in woodland caribou conservation — a move he said was the largest single investment in caribou in the province’s history — federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault sent Piccini a letter to warn him it wasn’t enough.
“It is my opinion, based on the information available, that some of the critical habitat for the boreal population of woodland caribou (boreal caribou) located on non-federal lands in Ontario is not effectively protected,” Guilbeault wrote in the letter, as reported by the Canadian Press.
Guilbeault also said he was recommending the federal government issue a protection order for woodland caribou in Ontario, a power that he has through Canada’s Species At Risk Act. If Guilbeault follows through, it would allow him to impose stricter federal endangered species rules on land that’s normally provincial jurisdiction.
This power hasn’t been used before — though the federal government has in rare cases used a similar mechanism to issue emergency orders to protect endangered species. But Guilbeault has also told Quebec he’s willing to use a protection order to intervene in that province’s management of woodland caribou.
In June 2023, the federal and provincial governments mutually agreed to set an April 2024 deadline to give Ontario time to “demonstrate equivalency” between provincial protections for caribou and federal ones. If Ontario can do so, Guilbeault would agree not to issue a protection order, Environment and Climate Change Canada said in a press release.
Despite the looming threat from Ottawa, the Ontario government’s 2023 budget touted its efforts to protect caribou, which it said would “consider the economic prosperity of Ontario businesses and economic activities.”
The Ford government continued its dramatic rewrite of urban development rules in April with a massive overhaul of the provincial policy statement that has long provided principles for making land use decisions.
The government said its goal was to simplify and streamline its systems to encourage the construction of more homes. But the changes were also contradictory in many ways. Some were aimed at high-density development near transit and in downtown cores, which discourages emissions-intensive car travel. Others, however, made it easier to build sprawling, single-family homes pretty much everywhere else, which can have the opposite effect.
The rewrite also made it easier for residential development to happen on prime agricultural land — a move critics took issue with because farmland naturally mitigates floods and sequesters carbon.
The province later promised to drop some aspects of the changes, but so far has not done enough to allay concerns of farmers and experts.
In urban planning, municipal zoning rules lay out how different pieces of land can be used. Anyone who wants to change the zoning of their land — from agricultural to residential, for example, which would enable housing development — usually has to go through a lengthy process with their local government. But the Ontario government has a way to override that with minister’s zoning orders, or MZOs, which give the province the ability to instantly rezone a piece of land.
The orders don’t instantly make construction happen, but they do speed up the process. They also cannot be appealed. Previous governments used them about once a year on average, mostly in special or emergency situations, but Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives have used them at least 100 times since 2018. Though Ford has touted them as a way to rapidly greenlight housing construction, his government has also come under fire for using them to override environmental protections and fast-track projects proposed by Tory donors.
The Progressive Conservatives already made the power stronger during their first mandate. Then they did so again in April. This time, the changes mean the government can hand down minister’s zoning orders even if they clash with other provincial rules, like those that protect wetlands and farmland.
Critics at the time said the move would concentrate power in the hands of Clark, the minister of municipal affairs, and likely allow him to ignore a raft of environmental protections.
Ontario overhauled its blue box recycling program in June 2021, during the Progressive Conservatives’ first mandate. The new rules, aimed at standardizing more than 200 local programs — and shifting responsibility to the companies that produce materials like plastics, metal, glass and paper — were meant to be phased in from 2023 to 2025.
But that rollout has had hiccups, with environmental groups and industry alike saying the program is complicated and difficult to understand. The province quietly rewrote the plan last spring to remove some of the most controversial sections. And now one component of it, a program that would have seen producers of non-alcoholic beverages like pop and juice pay recycling fees, has been paused.
The program, which was meant to be operated by the Canadian Beverage Container Recycling Association, was originally supposed to launch on April 1. But the industry group pushed that back to June 1 after Piccini said they wouldn’t be able to download costs to consumers, then the association suspended the program entirely.
The Ontario government has since assembled a working group and given it six months to explore how a different kind of recycling program could work, according to a letter obtained by CTV News Toronto. The new plan, according to the letter, is to explore what’s called a “deposit-return program,” where consumers pay a recycling fee at the cash register but get money back if they bring cans or bottles back, similar to the program Ontario already has for cans and bottles for alcoholic beverages.
The Ontario government oversees 400 privately owned dams that hold back mine waste, or tailings. Those tailings are often a slurry of water, leftover metals and chemicals that can be toxic and destructive if they spill. Last year, public servants warned Ontario Minister of Mines George Pirie that the province has a “high-risk” loophole in its tailings dam rules, according to an internal government document obtained by The Narwhal through freedom of information.
The document, which The Narwhal reported on in July 2023, showed senior bureaucrats raised concerns that Ontario’s rules for the majority of tailings dams gave the province “little to no legislative authority” to prevent the dams from leaking or spilling.
The government has known about the problem since 2017, when the Ontario Liberals were in power. But the Progressive Conservatives have formed government since 2018 and not addressed it. Pirie’s office did not respond to questions from The Narwhal about the document.
The Ford government has made a mission out of redeveloping Ontario Place, a provincially operated waterfront venue and green space in Toronto that was a theme park until a previous government decommissioned it in 2012. But the province’s plan, which involves the construction of a large indoor waterpark and spa, is under fire from people concerned about its environmental impact and how it could affect public use of the large, publicly owned space on Lake Ontario.
The province has said the redevelopment will be a net benefit for the environment and will include more green space, a new public beach and wetlands. Although plenty of people still use Ontario Place as a park, Progressive Conservatives have also pointed out that the site is in need of major repairs.
Critics, however, have argued the government’s environmental assessment for the project didn’t account for the planned 65,000-square-metre, seven-storey private spa building, and have raised concerns about the process.
The Ontario Place site is currently home to several species at risk, including birds, and some people have said the construction work will disrupt their habitat. The province’s environmental assessment concluded those species would likely find “alternative habitat” in other nearby parks.
A report from City of Toronto staff found a majority of people who gave feedback on the Ontario Place plan were concerned about the environmental impact, public land being given to a private spa and the potential loss of green space.
Updated Dec. 19, 2022, at 1:45 p.m. ET: This article was updated to reflect that the Ford government has finalized changes to the boundaries of the Greenbelt.
Updated March 29, 2023, at 10:46 a.m.: This article was updated to add items 11 to 19, as well as update some older items.
Updated Aug. 2, 2023 at 2:21 p.m.: This article was updated to update some older items and add five new ones.
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