Earlier this year, parliament passed a law establishing Rouge National Urban Park, Canada's first urban national park, in the GTA. Sadly, this was no cause for celebration. The legislation fell well short of provincial, national and international standards for protected areas and does not even mandate nature conservation as the priority in park management.
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The Rouge is a Park in name only.
A private member's bill introduced this week, would fix many of the flaws in the legislation and establish a more acceptable precedent for development of urban national parks in other parts of the country. Importantly, Bill C-696, An Act to amend the Rouge National Urban Park Act, stipulates:
The [Environment] Minister must, when considering any aspect of the management of the Park, give priority to the restoration and maintenance of ecological integrity through the protection and restoration of natural resources and natural processes, while also giving consideration to cultural heritage, farming, and public infrastructure needs.
The originally proposed Rouge National Urban Park encompasses a 6,000-hectare (60 square kilometre) green swath of wetlands, fields, farms and forests straddling the border of Toronto, Scarborough and Markham, following the Rouge River watershed from the Ontario Greenbelt to Lake Ontario. The area has a rich cultural, agricultural and ecological history and is home to two National Historic Sites and more than 1,000 plant, animal and bird species.
However, out of concern for the sub-standard environmental protections in the Rouge legislation, Ontario has so far declined to transfer provincial lands to the federal government for the park. As a result, Rouge National Urban Park not only lacks the legal guarantees of environmental protection Canadians rightly expect in their national parks, the new park currently covers about two square kilometres.
When Scarborough MP, Rathika Sitsabaiesan (NDP), introduced Bill C-696 on June 17, 2015, she expressed her hope for, "a people's park [that] will continue to be the gem in everybody's backyard in the City of Toronto and the Greater Toronto Area."
With the House of Commons scheduled to adjourn for the summer in less than a week, Bill C-696 is unlikely to come to a vote. But when MPs return to Ottawa after the fall election, fixing the Rouge National Urban Park Act should be a priority, because the Rouge truly is an ecological treasure worth preserving for Canadians today and into the future.