Ontario hands over land to create 'Canada’s first national urban park'
Deal transfers 6.5 square km of land from the province to Parks Canada— a 'significant milestone' for groups who’ve spent decades fighting to protect the area.
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A classic green and white Parks Canada sign now welcomes visitors to Rouge National Urban Park at a Markham entrance after the provincial government signed over its portion of the parklands to the federal government and paved the way for other public bodies to do the same.
“This has been a priority for our government since the very beginning,” said federal Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott, who represents the riding of Markham-Stouffville.
“We’re celebrating a very significant milestone in the completion of Canada’s first national urban park,” she added.
The agreement announced this weekend transfers 6.5 square kilometres of land from the province to Parks Canada. Ontario has also relinquished its interest in 15.2 square km managed by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority and 1.1 square km of land managed by the City of Markham, paving the way for those bodies to also transfer management to Parks Canada.
Once that happens, the federal government will manage 80 per cent of the 79.1 square kms identified for the Rouge National Urban Park. The remaining 20 per cent of land is expected to be transferred to Parks Canada by other municipal governments in the coming months.
Ontario’s Economic Development Minister Brad Duguid thanked the various groups and people who’ve spent decades fighting to protect the area, offering a special thanks to Lois James, 94, who is often called the “mother of the Rouge,” and Jim Robb, whom he jokingly called a “pain in the butt.”
Though the provincial government endured some “political shrapnel” for delaying the transfer of provincially managed lands to Parks Canada until the ecological protections in the federal Rouge National Urban Park Act were strengthened this summer, Duguid said, “we truly believe that we’ve got it right and that makes me very proud.”
Rouge National Urban Park covers the traditional territories of a number of First Nations, including the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, which never surrendered their rights to the lands.
“It’s good to have this park so that they can renew themselves with the creator’s beauty,” said Mississaugas of the New Credit elder Garry Sault.
While decades ago the establishment of parks excluded First Nations, Louis Lesage, who spoke on behalf of Huron-Wendat Nation Grand Chief Konrad H. Sioui, said things are different today thanks to examples like Rouge National Urban Park.
He encouraged parents to bring their children to the park and to teach them the history of the lands, which were once home to the largest First Nations villages in Canada.
Some, though, are still concerned about the level of environmental protections in the park.
Jim Robb, general manager of the Friends of the Rouge Watershed, expressed concern that Parks Canada is looking at extending private leases to farmers before the park management plan is completed.
“We want them to complete the management plan in a public open forum before they extend the leases,” he said. He’s concerned that some farming in the park, which he described as “industrial” and pesticide dependent, may not be consistent with their goals of environmental protection.
There is room for other farmers in the park who take a more ecological approach though, he said.
Rouge National Urban Park Superintendent Pam Veinotte said Parks Canada hasn’t extended any of the private leases yet. Instead, they are working concurrently to finalize the management plan and examine the leases at the same time.
“Part of the character of this national urban park is that you have this mix of urban and forest,” said Anna Baggio, director of conservation planning for CPAWS Wildlands League.
“Obviously there needs to be restoration but I think we can work with the farmers to get there, they want to see this land well-managed and so do we,” she said.