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The last remaining untouched parcel of natural land in Windsor, Ont., is intimidatingly surrounded by the gargantuan industrial structures that loom along the Detroit River that naturally divides Canada and the United States.
The invasion of human activity on the small stretch of sandy, tree-lined beach that makes up Ojibway Shores is somehow both gorgeous and grim. To the left, near the city’s salt mine, an enormous wheat-carrying ship stands silently docked in the shimmering water — one of more than 600 that cross through Ontario’s third-largest port every year. To the right, a power plant spews smoke in the air above another pitch-black ship, a grey aggregate factory, a forgettable Canadian Border Services Agency processing plant and the half-built skeleton of the Gordie Howe Bridge, soon-to-be the longest cable-stayed bridge in North America. Across the river is the black automotive and steel jungle Henry Ford helped build.
On this beach, the hums of industry harmonize confusingly with the chirps, rattles, whistles, trills and croaks of 252 species of animals, half of which are migratory birds. But as you walk away from the beach into one of the very few old-growth forests left in the province, the buzz of manufacturing — an excavator backing up, a jackhammer drilling, generators vibrating — fades away. Among 261 different types of plants, the silence that can only be found in intact nature fills your senses.
“This land means everything,” says Mary Duckworth, Chief of Caldwell First Nation, one of two nations that claim these shores as their once-stolen homes.
This clear, sunny March afternoon was the second time Duckworth had been back on the beach to perform ceremony since January. She gestures to all the industry the light touches. Centuries ago, before the Detroit River became the busiest border crossing in North America, multiple communities of Anishinaabe lived here freely. Her people were concentrated to the south at Point Pelee before they were brutally forced out, first unofficially by settlers and then officially by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Until 2020, Caldwell First Nation was one of the few First Nations in Canada without a reserve.
Up the river and around the bend is Walpole Island — or Bkejwanong, meaning “where the waters divide” — the name of another First Nation, which has the distinction of living on entirely unceded territory, never legislated, established or set apart as a reserve.
People might not remember how her community used to live, roam, hunt and fish across and all around the river, but water and land have memory, Duckworth says, as she crouches on the sand and cups her hand into the river, swirling it around to create ripples that fade away. That memory has remained even as the land’s original stewards were forced to abandon it. It has remained as the auto industry rose in the 1960s, U.S.-Canada environmental law emerged in the 1970s and Windsor expanded all along the riverbanks in the 1980s. It remained as shipping across the river increased after the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in the 1990s and development intensified in the 2000s.
“Just look around. Listen closely,” Duckworth says. “This land, this water, it’ll tell you everything.”
Today, the water and land are telling us its future. Soon, this plot of land will become the latest addition to Canada’s national parks system, marked by the iconic beaver logo, Ojibway National Urban Park. It will be the first national park in Ontario to be officially co-managed by First Nations, and only the country’s second national urban park — a protected green space that exists in a densely developed city.
The creation of Ojibway National Urban Park has been more than 50 years in the making. It’s an ambitious exercise to connect and protect nearly 365 hectares (900 acres), the scattered remnants of old-growth forests, wetlands, tallgrass prairies, oak savannah and riverbank in one of the country’s most developed centres, which also happens to be one of its largest endangered-species hotspots.
Creating a national park in the 21st century is not easy: the sheer number of people and institutions involved and land needed makes it an enormous task every single time. Canada has successfully created 10 parks since 2000, but perhaps none as complex as this one. Each parcel of land that will make up Ojibway National Urban Park is currently in different hands — three levels of government, a handful of private landowners, a port authority and two First Nations. There are multiple visions from vastly different political processes about how best to bring them together.
Parks Canada is working on a new program to build more urban parks across the country, to preserve biodiversity and nature in the face of the climate emergency. This program is the federal agency’s preferred route to making Ojibway happen because it offers them greater flexibility to build a green space in the confines of a city environment. But even as that process plays out, an NDP MP has introduced a private member’s bill to get Windsor a park sooner, an attempt to accelerate the tried-and-tested national parks process that created 48 iconic natural preserves across the country, including the world-renowned Banff and Jasper national parks in Alberta.
Then there are two First Nations — Caldwell and Walpole Island — that will retain and reinstate their rights to co-manage the stewardship of the park alongside government institutions. All that, plus an extremely invested community of academics, environmentalists, urban planners and youth that are trying to help, while relearning how to embrace nature in a way that centres Indigenous Knowledge and inclusive practices.
A lot is happening in Windsor right now. The potential for electric vehicles to reincarnate the city’s auto industry is stoking excitement and nervousness, as it also spurs urban sprawl into the last vestiges of open farmland in order to house an anticipated influx of workers.
But Windsor also has limited access to nature: some estimate less than one per cent of the city is green space, one of the smallest amounts for an Ontario city. You can see it jarringly on any map — small blobs of green at the westernmost point of an otherwise grey, structure-filled, man-made city.
That’s the backdrop to the formation of Ojibway National Urban Park. These disconnected spaces are already the only guarantee of nature for the city’s residents, the best place to find trees in an otherwise leafless urban core. So everyone supports the creation of the national urban park, even if the many roadmaps to creating it are slightly different.
“Ojibway started with an idea, and it’s ending with people,” Duckworth says. “There’s a lot of good intentions. There’s a lot of people that want to see this park. I don’t know who is going to … I don’t know how Parks Canada will … ,” she says, trailing off and pausing as she tries to vocalize how messy and political the park’s creation has been. “Well, I don’t know how exactly it’ll happen.”
“But I know this park will be here forever, because we’re here to take care of it again.”
If the story of Ojibway National Urban Park is about reconnection, relearning and reconciliation, then what happens next will have ripple effects across the country. This could be a springboard for Indigenous-led conservation and the poster park for sustainable development against all odds. It’s almost a reality, perhaps even opening to the public next year, minus the ironing-out of a few hundred details.
Ojibway Shores is a 14-hectare chunk of shoreline at the western edge of what will be Ojibway National Urban Park. Just before World War One, it was poised to become the anchor site of a great steel town. That didn’t happen; the failure to transform the land for industry — because of war and the depressions that followed — allowed the woodlands and prairie lands to survive. The city bought the shoreline in 1957 from the Canadian Salt Company and declared it a protected natural area four years later. Since then, the people of Windsor have been embroiled in a debate about what to do with land as the city encroached all around it, even as they’ve largely been kept out.
For the last 14 years, the only human being officially allowed to walk through the sandy beach and the trees that hide it has been Peter Berry, a harbour master with the Windsor Port Authority, which has owned a significant portion of Ojibway Shores since 1997. Members of Caldwell First Nation call Berry the keeper of the land until it comes back to them. It’s not been an easy task. Berry has had to safeguard the land from smugglers, party-goers, drug dealers, members of the motorcycle gang Hell’s Angels and others he says showed “a total disregard for nature.”
Despite all that, Berry says “this is the most peaceful spot in the whole city.” He knows every physical and historical corner of the shores, the place where he comes to “get things out of my mind.” He points to the east of the beach: there, he says, was the short-lived site of one of Canada’s first wooden roller-coasters in the late 19th century. Further down from that, he recalls, beautiful mosaic tiles were discovered, souvenirs of beautiful New Age 1920s hotels that once hosted Great Gatsby-level parties on the riverbanks of the two countries.
Inside the forest, Berry remembers every animal he’s seen: the deer that ran out in front of him with a coyote on its tail and, his “favourite,” the red fox. On the outskirts is the ditch that was once a dumping ground for old computers, refrigerators and tires, which he helped clean up with his kids and thousands of volunteers.
Berry placed concrete blocks all along the roadway to the shoreline, wide enough so bicycles and wildlife could pass through but narrow enough to stop vehicles from wrecking the land. As construction of the Gordie Howe bridge began in full force, Berry helped install a protection fence that ran from the Detroit River to the highway a couple of blocks away to prevent animals from going on the road. He bought a padlock and placed it on the only gate to keep the beach safe from, well, humans. He hated it, but it’s been there — keeping people out, ever since.
“I think I’ve done a good job protecting all this,” he says. “What’s important about this land is that it’s still here. It hasn’t been destroyed yet.”
“But I’m tired. I’m getting old fast. And I can’t do it alone.”
No one knows who exactly came up with the idea of protecting the shores as part of a national urban park. Berry empathetically says it wasn’t him, although he knew they needed to be protected the minute he walked onto the sand. “It’s just special, it feels special, I don’t know how else to describe it,” he says. The consensus is that the whole community dreamt of it over decades — the thought occurred to every single resident that knows Ojibway, who had seen the beach on a map, spotted it from the bridge, accidentally ran up to it.
Logistically, however, the vision started becoming a reality in 2013, when the Windsor Port Authority faced major blowback for announcing plans to bulldoze Ojibway Shores to make room for big-box stores. It backed down, and made a public commitment to protect the land. Last May, after years of discussion with the federal government, the port authority relinquished control of the shores to Parks Canada for $4 million. As part of the agreement, the port authority agreed to boost and protect fish habitat on the waterfront.
As Parks Canada inked the land transfer, it also began speaking to Caldwell and Walpole Island First Nations and hundreds of people in various neighbourhoods, schools and community centres across Windsor. It wanted to hear their thoughts about turning the shores into not just a national park, but a national urban park: a green space that can, in theory, be accessed by transit from across a sprawling city. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted an urgent need for access to nature by city dwellers and in 2020, then-environment minister Johnathan Wilkinson canvassed Canadians for their advice on the work of Parks Canada. The number one ask was more urban parks. Eighty-two per cent of Canadians live in cities and, they said in their letters to Wilkinson, getting “a slice of nature in the hubbub of urban life” would be “so important to our mental health during these unprecedented times”
Wilkinson instructed Parks Canada to come up with a policy to increase green spaces in the country’s most developed centres. The government agency successfully created one just eight years ago to mark the 100th anniversary of Canada’s national parks system — Rouge National Urban Park on the eastern edge of Toronto, made real by former Prime Minister Stephen Harper in his 2011 speech from the throne. Twenty per cent of Canada’s population lives across the Greater Toronto Area, and Rouge Park allows them to escape to a world of bluebirds and salmon. Fifty-plus years after it was first imagined, the largest urban park in North America now protects ancient forests, creeks, farms, beaches and marshes, even as highways, suburban dwellings and industry encroach all around it.
“Doesn’t that sound like exactly what we need here?” asks Catherine Febria, Canada Research Chair and assistant professor at the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research at the University of Windsor.
When Febria moved to Windsor from New Zealand in 2019, she immediately looked for water and trees, and found Ojibway Park. “This is our second home,” she says, away from her actual home 10 minutes away.
As a researcher, Febria soon discovered the redirected and built-over streams hidden all across the park lands, both above and below ground. She doesn’t know yet how many there are, just that along its edges, the thin, meandering, babbling waterways collide with ever-growing suburban and industrial development, disappearing into the concrete. Some of the streams have been bulldozed entirely, but some, she believes, can be saved, maybe even restored. Febria wants everyone to imagine water running through Windsor again, connecting the park to the city, the natural to the built environment.
“Here, there’s been a systematic removal of rivers from their landscape, a systematic removal of people from its land,” Febria says. “The scientist in me knows it’s not going to be science that is going to solve the problem. It’s going to be the local communities, the people that are going to protect this forever. The story of this park is the story of reconnection.”
Just as she says that, five grazing deer appear behind her, cautiously watching the humans walking by. Two bright red cardinals fly onto branches near them and fill the air with chirps. “See what I mean?” Febria says.
Febria has been among those who have been advocating for the idea of a national urban park here for years. But it wasn’t until after the 2021 federal election that the idea transformed into a plan. Wilkinson’s successor, Steven Guilbeault, was allocated $130 million to create 15 national urban parks: one step towards the goal of preserving a quarter of Canada’s lands and waters by 2025, a promise Guilbeault made last December at the global biodiversity conference COP15 in Montreal.
After Guilbeault’s pledge, Parks Canada began creating a new policy to create such parks. Simultaneously, the agency also began talks with six other cities with the goal of giving each a park by 2025: Edmonton, Halifax, Saskatoon, Victoria, Winnipeg and Montreal.
The creation of both policy and parks is happening in tandem because the goal is to “actually create” parks in Canada’s biggest cities, Caroline Macintosh, executive director of protected areas establishment at Parks Canada, told The Narwhal. She believes this way Canadians avoid a tradeoff: the agency could either spend years developing the perfect policy to build parks in complicated city environments or give residents much-needed access to nature now.
“Policy is faster to develop, and it’s more flexible, which is really helpful in an urban environment where you have a lot of different lands, a lot of different landowners and just a very complicated situation,” Macintosh said. The agency is collecting feedback nation-wide to ensure the policy is modern, effective, balanced and nuanced enough to deliver parks across Canada, she says. “This way, our work can remain really relevant.”
Ojibway National Urban Park in Windsor could theoretically be the first one created under this new policy. It has the impossible job of connecting six parcels of land, maybe more, each with its own unique biologically significant ecosystem and owner. But political processes are never simple or tidy, even though everyone agrees about protecting these lands.
Ojibway National Urban Park will be in Windsor — but it will be created 750 kilometres away, by elected officials in Canada’s capital region. And for the last year, the House of Commons has been in a bureaucratic and political debate about whether a park is first created on paper or by people.
As bureaucratic and boring as it sounds, all but one of Canada’s national parks have been created through legislative amendment and an act of parliament. Theoretically, the process should be simple: find a beautiful green space full of magical biodiversity, insert its geographic coordinates into the century-plus-old National Parks Act and protect it forever. But the creation of Rouge National Urban Park proved creating green spaces in urban centres didn’t work that way. Simple geographic coordinates couldn’t capture the complexities of the various parcels of land and sheer number of groups that had to be connected.
And Parks Canada increasingly understood the need to contend with the history of national park creation as an act of colonization: doing things the old way would contradict government promises of truth and reconciliation. Even though the National Parks Act mandates the agency to make agreements with Indigenous Nations, many of Canada’s national parks have been formed by shutting Indigenous people out of the process, perhaps even the land itself, without consulting them properly or respecting them as the stewards of the lands they have always been.
Parks Canada didn’t plan to completely upend the traditional national parks process but it did aim to make it more modern and less colonial. That’s why, in the spring of 2021, one of the first consultations the agency did about Ojibway was with members of Caldwell and Walpole Island First Nations. The idea was to create a collaborative governance model that integrated both First Nations, as well as the provincial and local governments.
Holding such consultations before legislating exact coordinates hadn’t been done before and long-time NDP MP Brian Masse for Windsor West was concerned about its effectiveness. Objecting to what he described to The Narwhal as “some weird draft process that is nothing more than a patchwork of pieces of paper,” Masse introduced a private member’s bill, C-248, in February 2022, aiming to amend the National Parks Act to include the geographic coordinates of the future Ojibway National Urban Park. “We need to do it the right way, and the right way is to keep it consistent with every other national park,” Masse reasons, noting the traditional process has ensured the “highest standards of environmental protection and stewardship.”
A lifelong Windsorite, Masse spent one of his first jobs after university offering employment support to people with physical disabilities near the Spring Garden Natural Area, an area he describes as “a beautiful piece of nature that I had never been exposed to in that way in my city before.” In 2002, he became MP for Windsor West, encountering the idea of protecting Spring Garden about 10 years ago when an endangered rattlesnake was discovered at a nearby development site: the community rallied to ensure it wasn’t harmed and relocate it safely. Masse has been pushing for the creation of a park ever since.
Still, Masse’s bill is not without its challenges. It doesn’t specifically note that the First Nations will co-govern the park. Caldwell First Nation, as the primary holders of Aboriginal title to the land, has been deeply embedded in Masse’s consultations since 2013. But Walpole Island First Nation, which is the secondary holder of Aboriginal title, was only informed of the Masse’s intentions properly a year ago and says the bill doesn’t include all the natural spaces they’d like to see protected.
Chief Dan Miskokomon says his people are still “understanding the process.”
Walpole has just started consulting its nearly-2,000 person community about the park, its design and their role. Miskokomon is certain they want to be co-managers of the lands, with half of the jobs — everything from operational management to restoration, stewardship and public engagement — to be filled from their communities.
“I’m excited. This park is right in here,” Miskokomon says, pointing at his heart. “But this cannot be an isolated or private attempt. It has to be a collective approach and our members are key to the knowledge of how to do it.” Next month, Walpole is planning to welcome Indigenous leaders that have created Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas or helped steward other parks across Canada to the island to share knowledge. It takes time, but the work has started, the Chief says.
In April, Guilbeault spoke to Miskokomon over Zoom to discuss next steps, including opportunities to address Walpole Island First Nation’s concerns with the bill. For his part, Masse says that he deferred all consultation with Walpole Island to Caldwell, as the two nations have a relationship.
But that’s not how it should work, says Irek Kusmierczyk, a second-term Liberal MP for Windsor-Tecumseh. He defended Parks Canada’s goals and the time it is taking to envision a new, modern policy that will set “the gold standard for consultation.”
Kusmierczyk, too, has been thinking about how to protect this land for a long time. He’s spent every weekend in Windsor’s parks since his family moved here as refugees from Poland in 1983. During the height of the 2007 recession, he spent five months walking through the five city-owned parks that make up what’s known as the Ojibway Prairie Complex, identifying species at risk and meeting biologists to learn the history of every blade of grass. Protecting the lands was his first request in his first meeting with the Prime Minister’s Office when he was elected in 2019.
Kusmierczyk insists Masse’s bill and the Parks Canada process are not in competition with each other, but he believes the park will be actualized by the agency in the end. That’s evident in what the agency has already accomplished, he says: the public consultations and completed land transfers are “real, tangible milestones.”
“There’s value in [Masse’s] bill, but the Parks Canada process will deliver this park,” Kusmierczyk says. “You can either create a park superficially on paper, or you can work with everyone on the ground to legitimately make a park that lasts forever.”
Masse’s bill would unilaterally enshrine Ojibway park lands in legislation before important details are hashed out. In House of Commons committee meetings about his bill, Parks Canada officials said their biggest concern is that if the bill passes, any provincial or city infrastructure — sewer lines, power grids, streets and roadways — within the legislated geographic region will become subject to Parks Canada’s regulations.
This has the potential to create a headache of jurisdictional, liability and legal issues: Rouge National Urban Park posed a similar challenge, which is why it was given its own act within the broader parks legislation. Having learned lessons from Rouge, Parks Canada said some of these issues could be avoided if Ojibway was established with the more consultative and flexible national urban parks process under development.
“This bill will essentially create an instant park by short-cutting around some important steps, leaving details to be worked out after the fact,” Darlene Upton, vice-president of protected areas establishment and conservation at Parks Canada, told the committee last fall.
Upton further explained Parks Canada’s forthcoming urban parks policy could create a model where the agency doesn’t need to own all park land. The goal is to create a stewardship plan that guides different owners and stakeholders to work together, including various levels of government and First Nations. She said the agency “would like more time” to understand how to best create parks in urban settings in a way that centres reconciliation, conservation and access to nature.
“The private member’s bill is a new and unknown territory,” Upton said last October. “No national park or national urban park today has been created this way.” She explained there are a series of steps that have to be completed before a park becomes a park: land transfers are usually negotiated in advance, complete and meaningful consultations with Indigenous Peoples, stakeholders and the public are conducted and funding is secured.
“The process for creating protected areas takes time. It calls for creating relationships and waiting. Although it takes time, it is worth it. At the end of the process, we have a place that will be co‑managed, which is good for everyone,” Upton said.
“Our process will take a little bit longer than this bill but will achieve the same result in the end.”
Parks Canada’s Macintosh also told The Narwhal the agency is continuing its consultations about Ojibway. “Whatever way this gets done, the goal is to have a national urban park in Windsor,” she says. Officially, the timeline is 2025 but, as things are progressing quickly, she says the park could open by next year.
Despite the various concerns, many in Windsor support Masse’s bill, saying it has accelerated the creation of Ojibway. Without the bill, some believe they’d be still dreaming of a park, instead of on the verge of watching it be created.
Others say the politics around this park has made the process endlessly and unnecessarily complicated and confusing. Just this week, Parks Canada announced the finalization of significant land transfers — including Ojibway Shores from Port Windsor to Transport Canada to Parks Canada, and a one-acre (0.4-hectare) private property adjacent to the park lands that was bought by the City of Windsor so it too can be included in the national urban park. At the press conference, Kusmierczyk thanked Masse for “advocating tirelessly for the protection of Ojibway Shores and the creation of a national urban park.”
It was a warm, conciliatory public acknowledgment that attendees hadn’t heard before. One said that that’s the effect of a national park: “The beaver shows up, and everyone gets on their best behavior.”
But Masse wasn’t present to hear it: he was the only official missing in a room where politicians from the city, the province and the federal government were standing in support of the park with Parks Canada officials and members of Walpole Island First Nation. Even as the park was declared ready for its next steps, politicians were bickering over who was invited and with how much notice.
Politics as usual — getting a park, fast — seems, at this point, to be winning out over the more complex goal of decolonizing the parks process, at least a little. Masse expects the bill will pass on April 26 with unanimous support across party lines. That would make Ojibway the first national park to be created by a private member’s bill. It also gives the NDP MP a political win, despite his failure to consult Walpole First Nation, and despite the federal government’s stated intent to make sure the creation of Canada’s next 15 parks is significantly different from the first 48.
As people across Canada push for a different, better kind of park, the federal government’s rumoured support of Masse’s bill — instead of allowing Parks Canada time to figure out how to build relationships with both First Nations and a more inclusive process — wouldn’t seem to indicate things are changing drastically, yet.
For his part, Masse says he’s leaving the rest of the park process “in [Parks Canada’s] hands now.”
“Yes, of course, politics and legislation is messy, but creating anything is messy,” Masse says. “And we’re all trying to create something that will last forever.”
Karen Cedar was eight when she first visited Ojibway Park on a school trip. “I remember the trees, I remember the deer,” she recalls, laughing. “From my eight-year-old brain, it feels the same: a place that’s old and not urban. It doesn’t feel created.”
For 33 years, Cedar has worked at the City of Windsor, most recently as its naturalist. Even though she officially retired a few months ago, she is still representing the city in conversations about the national urban park with Parks Canada. She is a fountain of institutional knowledge, recounting how the city started buying park lands outside its boundaries in the 1950s when residential development ramped up because these lands just felt “special.” The province bought a property as well, and through the years the federal government gave the city money to buy and protect more.
“Everything was growing, but everyone hesitated when they came to this area,” she says. “It feels like we’ve continually been moving towards this moment. The city has never wavered in their desire to protect this.”
The challenge, then and now, was perfecting a balancing act that allowed people to come and fall in love with these lands while also leaving animals and plants to go through their life cycles uninterrupted. There are many levers, Cedar says, but if everyone presses all of them something amazing will happen.
The results of that are starting to show: a complex, intricate, extremely large ecosystem of people trying to protect an equally complex, intricate, extremely large ecosystem of nature.
Six areas totaling 365 hectares, some held by private owners, others by various levels of government, will be pulled together to make Ojibway National Urban Park. Now officially owned by Parks Canada, Ojibway Shores is the smallest parcel of land in the network, on the westernmost edge.
South of the shores are five parks owned by the City of Windsor, known as the Ojibway Prairie Complex. These were once filled with corn fields, the efforts of the first major European settler farming community in southern Ontario. They contain one of the most endangered ecosystems in Canada — tallgrass prairie, which once covered large sections of the province, but now can’t be found anywhere else in Ontario, and is a crucial sponge during Windsor’s annual floods.
There’s Black Oak Heritage Park, home to old-growth trees around 200 years old, as well as extremely rare native plants and butterflies. It also hosts many nesting birds that are hard-to-find near an urban area: scarlet tanagers, rose-breasted grosbeaks, eastern bluebirds and Cooper’s hawks.
Ojibway Park is where most Windsor residents spend their outdoor time, sharing several nature trails through the meandering forest with deer and foxes. Tallgrass Prairie Heritage Park has the largest pond system in the Ojibway complex. It is home to rare prairie wildflowers like tall green milkweed and the slender bush clover that haven’t been found anywhere else in Canada.
The last two city-owned parks are Spring Garden Natural Area — a mixed landscape of prairie, swamp and a really old lagoon, where trees hide a rich site for butterflies and an endangered, and declining, population of eastern massasauga rattlesnakes — and Oakwood Natural Area, a 14-hectare provincially significant wetland that serves as an important stopover for migrating birds in the spring and fall.
Windsor has agreed to give the federal government all its green spaces. Mayor Drew Dilkens says since the park predates his birth, it’s only right it lasts long after him, too. “For many years, we were never able to find the perfect deal that made everyone happy,” Dilkens says. Now that it’s happening, the city will be able to host a pathway to move humans and animals from the Detroit River to the centre of the urban core. Dilkens wants to build a $23-million bridge, or a six-lane wide wildlife overpass, that connects Ojibway Park and Black Oak Heritage Park as the first attempt to stitch two parcels together.
“Having that national beaver logo on a park and everything that comes with it, well that’s going to be special,” he says. “And yes, a private member’s bill to protect land is a very blunt instrument. It makes everyone nervous. But it got us here. It got the federal government acting. It actually served its purpose.”
“All of this takes time,” Dilkens says. “We’ve been talking about it so long, we’re excited to see some positive momentum. … Everyone is acting in good faith.”
There are a few spaces that aren’t locked down yet, like South Cameron Woodlot, which has large natural sections that are privately held. Chappus Natural Area is partially privately owned and partially owned by the provincial Ministry of Transportation. And the southernmost part of Ojibway National Urban Park could be formed from parks in the neighbouring Town of LaSalle.
And up until this week, the major holdout was the provincial Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, which owns Ojibway Prairie Provincial Nature Reserve. This potential park parcel contains more rare plants than any other park in Ontario: in the fall, eight- to 13-foot tall wildflowers, like the big bluestem and Indian grass, line its trails.
Ontario only joined the Ojibway National Urban Park discussion in February 2023, when Ontario Environment Minister David Piccini sent a letter to Caldwell’s Chief Duckworth. In it, Piccini said he understood why the First Nation wanted a national park instead of a provincial one: “As you mentioned in our last meeting, First Nation communities are the ‘child’ of the federal government,” Piccini wrote. “I respect your feelings on this and understand the value of incorporating this into the national discussion we are having on urban parks.”
The provincial minister promised to “work collaboratively” to achieve shared stewardship but expressed “grave concerns” about selling Ojibway Prairie Provincial Nature Reserve to Parks Canada as well as the “political nature” of Masse’s bill.
“Bottom line for Ontario is that we remain committed to building meaningful relationships; to shared stewardship; and protection of the land — regardless of whose banner this new park would ultimately fall under,” Piccini concluded, promising to stay at the Parks Canada table.
Piccini and his office did not respond to multiple interview requests from The Narwhal. At the announcement held by Parks Canada and Kusmierczyk this week, he made a surprise public commitment — or “intent” — to transfer the Ojibway Prairie Provincial Nature Reserve lands to Parks Canada. Details of how the province would do this have not yet been released.
While the lands are coming together, both Caldwell and Walpole Island First Nations also need to define co-governance with Parks Canada, and that will take some time.
“We understand Parks Canada has its own laws. So do we. But our laws aren’t written down,” says Clint Jacobs, Walpole Island’s natural heritage coordinator, who has been at his job for 25 years. “Our Elders tell us our laws are written on our heart and we’re meant to practise them on a regular basis and a lot of us do. But at the same time, a lot of us need to re-learn what those laws are just because of residential schools and the genocidal impacts on us. We need to unlearn, in some cases, and relearn, and then together co-learn a lot of this.”
He gives an example: language. He explains generations called grasslands “weeds,” noting “it wasn’t a drug term, just the closest English word we had. To us, it didn’t mean something to get rid of.”
But his grandparents called the grasslands “mskhoden,” or “the place where fires go through,” in Anishinaabemowin, harkening back to a time when controlled burns on the Prairies helped maintain their health and abundance.
“The park will be representative of what used to be there and we could have it back,” Jacobs says.
Meanwhile, local environmentalists, advocates and academics are trying to stay out of the political back-and-forth to focus on reframing the city’s relationship with nature so it’s Indigenous-led and inclusive. The behind-the-scenes work has been endless as Febria and her colleagues — a group of municipal leaders, biologists, naturalists, Indigenous stewards and mothers she’s dubbed “a staunchness of aunties” — work to finalize and honour “a decolonized process.” To help it take shape, these women are building a stewardship program with Walpole Island and Caldwell that will train Indigenous youth to be the guides and protectors of the lands, as they also take up other aspects of the park’s governance. Meanwhile, local city-builders have started thinking about how to connect future development to the soon-to-be-created park. These lands can’t be sacrificed, they all say, staunchly.
“This feels like our last chance,” Febria says. “We’re all unlearning and relearning. And we’re filling this gap with Indigenous Knowledge first and foremost.”
“Of course, it’s complicated,” Cedar says. “But for all the complexity and nuance, there’s not a single person who knows about this park who says this is a bad idea.”
Ojibway National Urban Park will exist, if only by the sheer will of the community, and it starts with Ojibway Shores. Berry’s solo watch over the still-untouched land began to end last January when Caldwell First Nation was able to come back to their land for the very first time in centuries. This moment is the beginning of everything for them: this year, a long-landless nation will also break ground on its permanent home, a new reserve a mere 50 kilometres from the shores.
In January, the process started with a ceremony on Ojibway Shores to pay homage to the water and the land that had witnessed what they had only been told, as Parks Canada officials watched. “If they’re going to take over, we wanted to make sure that they understood how significant this all was,” Chief Duckworth says.
On April 18, Berry went to Ojibway Shores as its official caretaker for the last time to remove the padlock he bought and put on its gate to protect the shoreline and trees that hid it.
Now, the gate has a Parks Canada padlock. “It was bittersweet,” he says. “I’ll go back all the time. I just won’t have the key.”
Canada’s newest national urban park is being created at warp speed. That’s good, but it’s also complicated. If Masse’s bill pans out and the park opens in 2025 or sooner, everyone has a few months before the opening of the Gordie Howe bridge the same year and the increase in human invasion it will bring: the light pollution, the never-ending noise, the gas-guzzling traffic, the sheer number of people that will use the planned bike lanes and transit. There’s a need to educate people so they understand the natural gem they’re passing through everyday and their duty to preserve it in perpetuity.
The sheer amount of considerations, present and future, means that creating urban parks is “no small feat,” Environment Minister Guilbeault said in a message to The Narwhal. It requires “engaging with Canadians on what their park should look like,” wherever they are. But Windsor is “leading the way,” setting an example of how quickly various groups across a community can come together for the other six proposed national urban parks across the country. Because in the end, the park depends on the people.
“The most valuable lesson is that of communication and collaboration,” Guilbeault wrote. “When everyone works together, comes to the table with ideas and solutions, we can accomplish great things like this!”
Many urban parks have been created as an escape from urban sprawl, but Ojibway National Urban Park could be “so much more” — the three words everyone who talks about the park exhales with a smile. It could connect a city that has forgotten nature back to the spirits of the species desperately trying to survive there. As Jacobs of Walpole says, “This park is Mother Nature’s medicine chest. It could heal all of us from everything we’ve created.”
Back on Ojibway shores, Duckworth has the same thought. “Reconciliation is just a word. You have to put an action behind that,” she says. “This park, it’s an action. Just watch. It’s going to be awesome.”
Berry quietly nods, as he stands on the rocks stoically looking over Ojibway Shores. “I’m not the guy who protects it anymore. Now I get to be the tour guide and a visitor,” he says. “My job is done. I can retire thinking we accomplished something. Because, look …” He gestures at members of Caldwell, sitting on the sand, talking to each other as the water laps against them.
“Here’s a people. Here’s the original caretakers.”
Updated on April 20, 2023, at 9:45 a.m. PST to correct Parks Canada’s promise to create 15 new national urban parks by 2030, not 2025, in two places.
Updated on April 25, 2023 at 5:31 p.m. ET: This story was updated with additional information about how Parks Canada is mandated by the National Parks Act to reach agreements with First Nations during the process of establishing a park.
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