[00:00:00] Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Today’s story is a simple one. You’ve probably heard it before. Drivers stuck in traffic in a city want more roads, government proposes a new road that goes through a forest, people who love the forest fight to protect it, and eventually, the battle reaches a climax in either the forest or the highway wins. But this being Canada, where there is always more than one level of government to deal with, this time, it’s not that simple.
The highway in question is number 413. The forest in question is known as the Greenbelt. If you live in or around Toronto, you likely already know about it. To say it’s made headlines recently as a bit of an understatement. But you probably still don’t know the whole story about the decades old plan a provincial government revived, about the developers who lobbied for it, the journalists who exposed them, [00:01:00] and the environmental assessment that wasn’t, until this past week, when all of a sudden, it was.
And now, yes, the federal government is involved and the project and the Greenbelt are both hanging in the balance. And if this sounds like a Toronto story to you, I want you to remember there are always highways and forests and people who want one to go through the other. And the next time that happens near you, what happens to the Greenbelt is going to play a huge role in determining whether the forest or the highway wins.
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, this is The Big Story. Emma McIntosh is a reporter with the National Observer, one of the outlets that has been doing investigative work on this project. Hey Emma.
Emma McIntosh: Hi. Good to be here.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Thank you for joining us. And maybe before we get into the details of this story, [00:02:00] uh, for listeners outside of Ontario, can you just situate us, uh, where does this story take place? What is the Greenbelt?
Emma McIntosh:: So this story really takes place in the outer suburbs of Toronto. Um, the Greenbelt is kind of one of my favourite things about this region, because I think people from other provinces, like, often don’t realize that there is nature in the Toronto area, but there is. It’s in the Greenbelt.
The previous Liberals, uh, protected the Greenbelt in the 2000s. The idea was that development in the Greater Toronto Area was happening very, very quickly. Um, that agricultural land was getting kind of snatched up and eaten up and that, you know, nature was suffering as a result. We were losing wetlands that help protect us from floods. We were losing carbon sinks. We were losing our ability to grow our own food. So it’s kind of this, this, um, this ring of land around Toronto that, um, that is [00:03:00] protected in some form in these different areas.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So the Liberal government moved to protect it, and then the Progressive Conservatives won the past election, and without judging what they’ve done, can you explain some of the Greenbelt projects, um, that we’re about to talk about? Like Highway 413, which is the subject today. What’s that plan?
Emma McIntosh: Right, so Highway 413, or the 413, um, that’s something that is a very, very old idea. The general gist of it is that we know that Toronto is growing very fast as the suburbs spread outward. We know that more people are probably going to be living there. And successive governments have been trying to figure out how to deal with, like, the gridlock that comes with that. I mean, so many of us in this region have sat on a crowded highway for hours, not going anywhere fast. And the idea with the 413 was that it would connect some of the outer suburbs and ideally relieve some of those [00:04:00] traffic issues. So it would run from like Milton to the West to Vaughan to the North.
The problem is this was conceived like two decades ago, you know, depending on who you ask and which document you reference, it’s actually older than me.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Huh.
Emma McIntosh: Like, and I’m 25, so. It’s, it’s been kicking around a long time. And if you think about all the other things that have changed in the last two decades, like our concern for the climate, um, our understanding of induced demand, which is this idea that if you build a new road, it actually attracts more drivers and doesn’t relieve congestion. All these things have come to be. And our perspective on how to deal with congestion has changed. And that’s kind of what brings us here.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So can you explain then exactly what the Conservatives are trying to do and how it would impact the Greenbelt?
Emma McIntosh: So what the Conservatives in Ontario want to do is they want to build this highway, which is about 60 kilometers. Um, the idea is that it would, [00:05:00] uh, kickstart some jobs, which they say we need given the economic fallout of COVID-19. And that it would also, like, help with those congestion issues we’re talking about.
The problem is the route runs through the Greenbelt and it runs through a lot of other protected areas as well. We’re talking like wetlands, endangered species habitat, and, you know, in the light of 2021, I think people, people have questions about whether that’s the best thing to do.
The other reason this is controversial is because this project was actually shelved by the previous Liberal government. They studied this thing for years and years and years. What they found is that it would probably save drivers on average, like less than a minute.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Oh wow!
Emma McIntosh: It would also cost at least $6 billion, that’s like a low estimate. And that it could have a really, really difficult impact on the environment. So when the Progressive Conservatives revived this idea, which they did in 2018, [00:06:00] there was, there was, you know, a bit of pushback to it, I think.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Tell me about that pushback. I mean, for people outside of Ontario, um, and maybe even outside of Toronto and the Greenbelt area, maybe they don’t understand how bitter this fight has been.
Emma McIntosh: Bitter is a really good word for it. So at first, the Conservatives revived this idea in 2018, uh, soon after they were elected. They also kind of say that they want to review the environmental assessment for the highway, which is like a boring word, but the environmental assessment is really important because that lets the government see what the impact on the environment is going to be. And it will also help them mitigate any issues.
So they announced that they want to streamline that and possibly start working on some early things like new bridges before that assessment is even done. There was a bit of immediate pushback from environmentalists. Uh, but it’s also quiet. You know, I wrote about it a little bit um, last year in the summer, when [00:07:00] the government finally announced like the final route, but even then it was really just environmentalists who were upset about it. I think, um, the communities along the route were broadly supportive of it. There wasn’t really a broad public pushback.
And then in early 2021, something just clicked and it’s hard to put a finger on exactly what it was. Some people that I’ve talked to say that it’s because they were spending so much time at home and they had more time than they’d ever had before to read about it and read about the impact and to organize. But whatever it was, all of a sudden these communities along the route started organizing and they started going at their public officials, like intensely. Like local groups started coordinating at all of the municipalities along the route to go to their councils and complain.
And a tide kind of started to turn. One by one, the municipalities along the route [00:08:00] either, um, completely withdrew their support for the project, or they watered it down a little bit. Instead of being gung-ho all in favour, they had kind of stepped back a bit and said, well, we think that this project should actually receive like a full environmental assessment instead of the faster one.
And then in the backdrop of all of this, uh, these environmental groups had asked the federal government to step in, um, which is like a new mechanism under the new federal environmental assessment regime. So there’s all these things kind of started happening at once after two years of like very quiet, quiet, simmering tension.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: And it all kind of culminated, um, this week. And I’m going to ask you to talk about that, but first, uh, when you mentioned kind of how, uh, the perception of this project changed, you modestly left out an investigation, uh, that the National Observer did with the Toronto Star. Can you tell me about what you guys found out, uh, about what was behind [00:09:00] the push for the 413?
Emma McIntosh: Uh, yes, we did, we did do a story. Um, so one of the common narratives around the 413 was that, um, that it was meant to benefit Doug Ford’s developer buddies. It’s, it’s a frequent line that like the opposition will use, even the environmentalists will use, because, you know, um, the practice of, of buying up land and waiting for it to go up in value is pretty common in Toronto.
But we thought that if that was like such an easy thing for people to just kind of throw out there, we should verify it. So, um, the National Observer worked with Torstar and we examined the money, power, and influence behind the highway. We looked at who owned land right near the proposed route, um, how much they could stand to benefit if the highway was built and that land went up in value because access to transit can drive up value significantly. And we looked at other connections [00:10:00] between Doug Ford’s, Progressive Conservatives, and with these developers.
And we found a lot, we found that many of them employ a very, very like Tory insider politicians who are now actually acting as registered lobbyists. Uh, we found that most of them are prolific party donors. In particular, we zeroed in on eight developers who owned thousands of acres of real estate and they stand to make millions if the highway is built.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: How did the government respond to that? What is its position on both, uh, why this needs to happen and why so many people with such close ties to the government stand to profit from it?
Emma McIntosh: That’s an interesting one. Um, the government has said over and over that they believe that there is a strong case for the 413. But, in the last couple of months as municipalities withdrew their support, that rhetoric changed a little bit. All of a sudden they started to say, well, we’re still [00:11:00] looking at it. We’re still deciding if it’s a good idea. When we put out the story, it seemed like it almost gave them a chance to renew their support for it a couple of days before we published. You know, when we’d already reached out to them so they knew it was coming.
They published this, um, this long blog post on the project’s website, explaining that it like. They contend that the highway would actually save people half an hour instead of like under a minute. So they were, they were saying, you know, that’s half an hour, you could spend with your children. That’s half an hour that you could have with your family. And they kind of took it as an opportunity to rebuild their case. It’s actually like, kind of become a signature project for the transportation minister, Caroline Mulroney.
But when we asked them, you know, did the influence of these developers play a role? Did their donations, did their lobbying play a role in your decision to restart this project, which was by all accounts dead when you got into power, they didn’t answer. So it’s hard to know where their minds are at.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So this is the [00:12:00] climate then with, you know, municipalities, uh, pulling their support. Obviously the environmentalists, um, are still furious about it. And the provincial government is, you know, renewing its support and it’s done an environmental assessment. What happened, uh, this week to change all that?
Emma McIntosh: So you remember a few minutes ago, I talked about how environmentalists had asked the federal government to step in. So they can do that, and there’s a certain timeline by which the government has to respond. And so this week was the deadline and the federal environment minister, Jonathan Wilkinson announced that yes, he would like to use his authority, and he would like to step in on the 413.
What this actually means is kind of up in the air right now. They haven’t actually said whether this is going to mean that the federal government is going to do a full, detailed environmental assessment. They might be able to figure out their issues beforehand.
But what Wilkinson said is [00:13:00] that their problem centers on endangered species impacts. There are some endangered species living along the route that are protected under federal law, but not Ontario law. So they’re concerned that, um, that those species wouldn’t actually be protected in this case.
What happens next will define the fate of the highway. A lot of people feel like if the government really does like make the provincial government go through a full environmental assessment, that it will effectively kill the project. The federal regime is so much more rigorous than the provincial one. It is so much more detailed, especially than- more, more so than the one that the province had been trying to do with its streamlined plan. And a lot of people feel like it just wouldn’t withstand that level of scrutiny. So what we might be watching is the very slow demise of the project.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So, what is the practical difference then between the previous assessment done by the provincial [00:14:00] government and, uh, one that the federal government would do?
Emma McIntosh: The practical difference here partly centers on time and partly centers on the rigour.
The federal assessment will take a lot longer. Um, we’re looking at a matter of months before the federal government even decides whether it is going to do that in-depth assessment. The Ontario system, first of all, was already watered down in the last year. So the, uh, the Ontario government passed a law that would make that regime a lot lighter than it was before.
It would also not require the government to go as in-depth on issues, like, um, like endangered species. And on that front, it’s a whole different ball game because the Ontario government’s endangered species regime has also been watered down under the Ford government.
So. I think like that the broad conclusion is that it would go a lot faster and be a lot more surface level. And you can even see that in terms of the timelines, the [00:15:00] Ford government had been planning to get shovels in the ground on this by next year, which is really, really fast in the scheme of a big project like this.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: You mentioned that, uh, we still don’t know whether this project will end up going through or not, but the reaction that I’ve seen to the news that the federal government wants to do an assessment is that this project is dead. Is that kind of wishful thinking by environmentalists or is it, you know, safe to say that the Liberals, at the very least, might run out the clock on the PCs’ time before the next election?
Emma McIntosh: I think you make a really good point bringing up the election. We are scheduled to have one next year. No one really has any idea what’s going to happen. But it is, it is clear that no matter what happens with this project, there are probably not going to be shovels in the ground on it until after that election is over. I think it’s a
bit premature to say that the 413 is dead. We don’t really know, right. I mean, it could go through the assessment. [00:16:00] The provincial government could sort out all the issues with the federal government and they could be on their way after winning the next election, right. It’s kind of too soon to be sure. But I do agree with the environmentalists in the sense that it does seem like it’s trending that way.
Um, the longer that something like this takes, the more costly it gets, right. And it could just be that all the trouble of bolstering their environmental assessment on the provincial level with more reports and more studies, it might just be that all of that isn’t worth it anymore. And that’s, I think the thing that we’re going to see play out over the next year.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Well that was kind of the last thing I wanted to talk about is, you know, what options, uh, does the Ford government have at this point? Can they fight this or do they just kind of have to work with the feds and hope they can come to an agreement? Like, can they go to court on this one?
Emma McIntosh: They likely could. The Alberta government [00:17:00] is challenging, like, the same mechanism, essentially that the federal government used here. Um, they’re arguing that it’s a massive overreach, so Ontario could potentially pursue something like that. So far the government hasn’t given any indication that they plan to do that, their early remarks were that they’re going to work with the federal government to resolve their concerns.
Um, I think the other problem is a court challenge, again, like, costs a lot of money and it takes a long time. Is that gonna resolve the issue here? Like who knows, um, the same issues would come up with cost and with time. And I’d be really curious to see if that approach would actually accomplish anything, but we’ll see, right.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I do want to sneak one more in now, before I let you go. Cause that was interesting what you said about Alberta and the provincial government’s options. Um, this is a relatively new thing that the federal government can do. Is there some sort of precedent at stake [00:18:00] here for, you know, other provinces looking at Alberta and Ontario and looking at these kinds of new federal powers and trying to figure out if it’s worth fighting, if it’s possible to fight?
Emma McIntosh: I think that’s a really interesting question. Yeah. This new federal environmental assessment regime has really not been tested very much. It’s a fairly new process. And that kind of adds to the uncertainty with the 413 too, because no one really knows what’s going to happen next. There isn’t, there just isn’t a lot of precedent.
But I should like throw in that the precedent for like the federal government, um, tinkering with a provincial highway project is, uh, is definitely there. You know, a while ago in my lifetime, the federal government would have had involvement with most highway projects. And it’s just kind of in the last few decades that things have changed. So it’s not completely without precedent, but in terms of this framework, yes, like I think other provinces will be watching this closely [00:19:00] to see what happens because it could define how well this new federal system works.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Emma, thank you so much for this explanation. I feel like I really finally understand this fight.
Emma McIntosh: Thanks for having me. It was a lot of fun.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Emma McIntosh of the National Observer. That was The Big Story, for more from us, head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. Find us on Twitter at @TheBigStoryFPN. Email us anytime, we check it every day, thebigstorypodcast, all one word, all lowercase, @rci.rogers.com [click here!]. And as always, feel free to find us in your favourite podcast player, click favourite, click follow, click subscribe, click whatever they ask you to do in order to leave us a rating and a review.
Stefanie Phillips, Ryan Clarke, and Claire Brassard produce The Big Story, and I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. Thanks for listening, have a safe weekend, and we’ll talk Monday. [00:20:00] .
Back to top of page