Since the start of the current term of the Ontario Legislature there’s been a lot of back and forth about the fate of Ontario’s Greenbelt, a tract of protected land that runs through much of the Golden Horseshoe. Sometimes it’s under threat of development, and sometimes the government is talking about expanding it, but now a collective of community groups are pushing for expansion as a matter of urgency.
“This region is expected to accommodate one-third more residents by 2041. This represents close to half a million more people in the next 20 years,” explained Kevin Thompson, the vice-chair for the the Grand River Environmental Network, and spokesperson for the Greenbelt West Coalition.
“We’re here today with the message that the Province needs to recognize that the residents of Guelph, Waterloo Region, Wellington, the County of Brant, and elsewhere in our watershed both deserve and require protection of the important natural assets that sustain us,” Thomason explained. “This environmental protection needs to happen before more population growth is imposed on our communities, and we cannot depend on only a small group of altruistic landowners.”
Thomason specifically cited the Marcolongo family, who own a massive property in the Clair-Maltby secondary plan area, as forward thinkers working to protect the environment generally and sensitive land on the Paris Galt Moraine specifically.
“The story of the Marcolongo Farm is a story of the individual’s fighting for what was right and protecting the land, they point the way to a better future,” Thomason said. “But in the face of the growing climate crisis, individual action is not enough. We need governments to lead with comprehensive plans and actions that safeguard the future.”
The vision of the group is to protect all essential ecological and hydrological features in the Greenbelt, to work in solidarity with Indigenous communities, to repair and restore natural spaces, to preserve farmland, and to enshrine connections between the current Greenbelt, the Niagara Escarpment, the Haldimand Tract, the Grand River watershed and the Paris Galt Moraine.
Local groups like Protect Our Moraine and Wellington Water Watchers are among the stakeholders in the new group along with Better Brant, the Brant Land Trust, the Credit Valley Heritage Society, and the Langford Conservancy.
Advocates were joined members from all the provincial opposition parties including Guelph MPP and Green Party of Ontario leader Mike Schreiner. Schreiner explained that there are a lot of threats to the Greenbelt between Highway #413, and the use of Ministerial Zoning Orders (MZOs) to speed development. He added that any expansion of the Greenbelt should be with an eye to protecting farmland and water first.
“There is a systematic attack on environmental protections, and we need systematic and policy responses to restore those protections,” Schreiner said. “We’re losing 175 acres of farmland a day. That’s the equivalent of five family farms a week, and we simply can’t feed ourselves if we’re going to lose farmland at that rate. We’ve also lost 75 per cent of our wetlands in southern Ontario, which are vital to protecting drinking water and protecting us from climate-fueled extreme weather events causing flooding.”
“No one, absolutely no one, trusts this government when it comes to our environment or natural heritage,” said NDP environmental critic Sandy Shaw, who represents Hamilton West-Ancaster-Dundas.
“In Hamilton, we have one of the last remaining natural wetlands in Ancaster, and there’s a developer that wants to pave over it. They tried to get permission from the conservation authority, but people organized and fought back,” Shaw explained. “This developer said, ‘We’re going to build a holding pond,’ essentially replacing the wetlands, but these are natural features, they’re all interconnected, and we get that developers just want to slide it over and build a cement pond, but that’s not a wetland.”
Stephen Blais, the Liberal MPP for Orléans, noted that its a tenant of his party’s 2022 election platform to expand environment protections in many areas, including the Greenbelt, and that the Liberals are dedicated to taking action to expand the Greenbelt area.
“We need to continually be looking at how we can protect these lands, and expanding the Greenbelt ensures that our prime agricultural land continues to be protected because we have to be cognizant that we need to feed ourselves,” Blais said. “We need freshwater to survive. It’s beautiful to look at, and it feeds the spirit, but it needs to also feed our bodies, and we need to ensure that freshwater and agricultural lands are protected.”
Greenbelt West revealed their proposed Greenbelt map, which you can see below. The dark green portions are the establish Greenbelt area and the light green areas are other protected areas and the Paris Galt Moraine. The diagonal lines represent agricultural lands, which the coalition would also like to see protected in their proposed expansion.
“We need to protect entire ecosystems and complete watersheds, not just some limited portions or random pieces,” Thomason explained.
“We’re advocating for protection of our essential rivers, creeks and streams that run all the way down to Lake Erie,” Thomason added. “This proposal will add almost one million acres to the two million acres of the existing provincial Greenbelt, helping to balance the rapid growth of the Grand River watershed that will soon be home to more than one million people.”
Thomason calls the plan “ambitious but necessary”, and notes that the map they presented today is a draft that will change with further feedback from partner organizations and the general public. The point is to literally make a picture for the Provincial government about the desire on the part of Ontarians to not only protect the current Greenbelt, but protect as much environmentally sensitive land in the province as possible.
“We’re open for Greenbelt expansion and the time is now, we’re building a movement for this to happen and we encourage you to join us,” Thomason said. “After years of talk, it is time for our provincial government to move forward with this Greenbelt expansion.”
To learn more about the Greenbelt West Coalition, visit their website here.