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18th May 2023
Ontario town seeks allies in Quebec and U.S. to protect Great Lakes from Bill 23

A tiny Georgian Bay township hopes 200 Great Lakes leaders will jointly urge Ontario to consider how development threatens watersheds

By Fatima Syed
May 12, 2023

One Ontario town is seeking U.S. and Quebec support to persuade the Doug Ford government to restore key environmental protections, even as the Progressive Conservatives continue ushering through sweeping development policies.

The Township of Archipelago is a municipality of 979 people located 200 kilometres north of Toronto, on the eastern shoreline of Georgian Bay, part of the Lake Huron watershed. Its residents are concerned about the impacts of Ford’s Bill 23 on the Great Lakes ecosystem, which holds 80 per cent of North America’s fresh water.

As a member of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative — a binational coalition of more than 200 U.S. and Canadian mayors and government officials that work to protect waterways — the Township of Archipelago has written a formal letter asking all members to express opposition to the bill. Known as a resolution, the letter will be presented at the initiative’s annual general meeting next month, The Narwhal has learned: it also urges the Ford government to reinstate many of the environmental controls that were removed or weakened, like conservation authority powers, and reconsider minister’s zoning orders (known as MZOs), which have been used to override environmental analysis of development projects.

“The changes in Bill 23 represent a significant erosion of local government decision-making and environmental controls in place today and will result in decisions that will have important adverse impacts on the watershed and freshwater resources of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River in Ontario, Quebec and the United States,” the resolution reads.

The initiative created an Ontario working group “because of Bill 23,” its Canada policy director, Phillipe Murphy-Rhéaume, told The Narwhal. As Ontario mayors began expressing concern about the environmental effects of rapid development, the initiative realized it did not have a dedicated forum for Ontario-specific concerns.

“The municipal sector agrees with the province that more housing needs to be built, but it’s a question of the approach,” Murphy-Rhéaume said. “We want a watershed perspective … how can we build housing in a way that will protect our freshwater resources and ensure communities have continued access to clean water as they grow in size?”

Ontario has the longest shoreline along the northern expanse of the Great Lakes. Bill 23 makes the future health of that shoreline — from the already eroding Lake Erie coastline in the Windsor region to the depleting ice cover of Lake Superior in northern Ontario — and the wetlands and watersheds that form it, “unclear and uncertain,” he said.

The resolution is expected to pass at the initiative’s June meeting in Chicago, adding to the long list of bodies concerned about the Ford government’s development plans, which includes the province’s auditor general and integrity commissioner.

Reeve Bert Liverance of the Township of Archipelago told The Narwhal the resolution will raise awareness of the impacts of the province’s development plans all along the Great Lakes, which are shared by seven U.S. states, Quebec and Ontario.

“This is bigger than our own municipality or our province,” he said. “It’s a chance, we believe, to influence the province with a larger body of voices, not just a small municipality.”

The provincial ministers of municipal affairs and housing and natural resources did not respond to The Narwhal’s request for comment by publication time.

Liverance has a long list of concerns about the bill, including its impact on endangered species, food security, infrastructure, flooding and erosion. His town gets water directly from Georgian Bay.

“If the lake water is damaged, our residents have no water,” he said. “As a province, do they think about that sort of thing? I don’t know.”

This isn’t the first time concerns have been expressed about Bill 23’s impacts on the Great Lakes. Last December, a group of three environmental organizations focused on Georgian Bay wrote to all the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence governors and premiers with a request to “urgently review” Bill 23. Of particular concern was a potential increase in wastewater moving from the Lake Huron region to Lake Ontario, a Ford government proposal that possibly breaches an international Great Lakes agreement that the province has long been a signatory to.

“We support the province and recognize the need for housing,” Liverance said, adding that the township has recently purchased 15 hectares of land where it intends to build housing after environmental assessments lay out how to do so with minimal risk of flooding or to species at risk. “Bill 23 obliterates that kind of thought process because it tells us to ignore all the protections in place to protect the environment and just build willy-nilly.”

In fact, the resolution calls on the Ford government to help support development by addressing the fiscal challenges of rapid growth. Bill 23 limits municipalities’ ability to collect development fees — some have been cut while others, like those that cover the costs of many environmental assessments, have been frozen.

Development fees are collected from developers when building permits are issued to help pay for the cost of infrastructure such as roads, transit, water and sewage, community centres and emergency services. The resolution asks the province to create a dedicated infrastructure fund to help service land slotted for development, to take the pressure off taxpayers. For his part, Liverance believes Bill 23 should only apply to urban areas in southern Ontario where land is serviced already — much of the farmland and green space the Ford government is opening doesn’t have wastewater or other essential infrastructure.

But Liverance’s biggest concern is that Bill 23 allows “egregious” construction on wetlands and floodplains. “It’s not a question of if it will flood people’s houses, it’s a matter of when,” he said. “It’s just a matter of time … because once you have a house in a wetland, once it’s filled, that’s what will happen.”

Liverance hopes the weight of the resolution will persuade the province to restore critical environmental controls in the planning process. He hopes it will increase understanding, if not prevention, of the impacts of construction on the Great Lakes. At the very least, Liverance said, Bill 23 shouldn’t apply to shoreline municipalities “because that’s where the ribbon of life is, where the watersheds are most vulnerable.”

The reeve has met with Minister of Natural Resources Graydon Smith, who is also MPP for the township’s riding, and sent the province these concerns. But there was little consultation before Bill 23 was released and not much more since it passed. Liverance hopes the resolution will bring the province to the table with municipalities, the public and all Great Lakes communities.

“Mother Nature doesn’t recognize political boundaries,” he said. “It may be an Ontario bill, but it could impact the lake waters of North America.”

May 12, 2023