We can’t say 2021 was a good year for Ontario’s environment. At times, 2021 felt like an unending stream of losses – but there were also many big wins which helped hold back the flood!  

The current provincial government rolled back or circumvented environmental protections wherever possible. But a few well-earned wins for concerned residents truly demonstrated that people power works! 

Our Year in Review includes lots of links to news articles, blogs and webinars so you can dive in deeper on the issues that matter to you!

Evasions, Rollbacks and Back-Sliding

The Big Sprawl Oozes Across Southern Ontario

While the provincial government’s changes to the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe took place in August of 2020, the potential impacts of the Big Sprawl came into focus in 2021 as municipalities moved through their Municipal Comprehensive Reviews. 

Municipalities are being pressured to open up farmland and green space outside their urban boundaries to sprawl developers by a process which sets unrealistically low growth targets for Toronto, transparently exaggerates demand for low-density car-dependent housing in suburbs, and squanders land by reducing important minimum density requirements for development on the vast tracts that are have already been marked for development.

To learn more about this potentially devastating process read our introductory Blog or check out our webinar.

To see a map of the land at risk visit thebigsprawl.ca.

York Region Puts the Greenbelt at Risk

Not content with merely expanding their urban boundaries during their Municipal Comprehensive Review, York Region has included some dangerous changes to Greenbelt Policy in their latest official plan. 

The Regional Official Plan Amendment 7 (ROPA 7) will redesignate Greenbelt areas from agricultural to rural, opening them up to new uses including serviced playing fields, golf courses, and rural residential, commercial, or industrial uses. This shift in classification could put the entire Greenbelt at risk if other municipalities follow suit! The changes are so egregious that the Greenbelt Foundation issued a rare public statement on municipal policy

Sprawl MZOs

2021 also saw the COVID-19 pandemic used as cover for the continued unprecedented flood of Minister’s Zoning Orders (MZOs).  

While a few of these MZOs were arguably legitimate (such as fast-tracking supportive housing), many were used to override environmental and public safety protections and establish beachheads for environmentally damaging sprawl.  

More than 20 additional MZOs were proposed or issued – from Renfrew County to the controversial mega-warehouse in Cambridge Ontario. A recent MZO in Brampton happened so fast that even corporate property owners within its boundaries were caught unaware! Worse still, in Bill 257, the government made MZOs even more powerful – allowing them to ignore even the basic rules of good planning contained in the Provincial Policy Statement

Check the Yours to Protect MZO Map to see if your favourite forest or wetland was MZO’ed.  

Continued Attacks on Endangered Species

The Red-Headed Woodpecker is endangered in Ontario. Photo by James Diedrick via Flickr Creative Commons

While the current government has never been a friend to endangered species, 2021 was particularly bleak. The new ‘Pay-to-Slay’ fund announced which species could be stripped of protection and be killed or have their habitat destroyed in exchange for a fee from developers. Ugh. When an independent panel of experts added new species to the species-at-risk list, the government delayed protections for 20 threatened and endangered species – including the Red-headed Woodpecker!  

Read about the delays in protecting newly identified at-risk species here.  

Read about the six species designated for Pay-to-Slay here.

Bradford Bypass (the Holland Marsh Highway) Exempted from Environmental Assessment

The provincial government is planning to push a sprawl-driving highway straight through the Holland Marsh. Worse still, they recently passed a law exempting the project from any need for new environmental studies or assessments – even though the existing environmental assessment is from 1997 when Beavis and Butthead was still releasing new episodes.

Read the Environmental Registry of Ontario notice here.

Learn more about the Stop the Bradford Bypass Movement here.

Foot -Dragging on Lake Simcoe

Lake SimcoeDespite strong public support for protecting Lake Simcoe, the provincial government has been reviewing the protection plan since at least 2019, with no significant progress. Rescue Lake Simcoe is urging the Minister of Environment Conservation and Parks to pay the balance to build the Holland Marsh Phosphorus Reclamation Centre (which already has federal funding in place)  

Because governments have not been able to identify any environmentally-sound way to treat and dispose of sewage within the Lake Simcoe watershed, local Environmental NGOs – and Environmental Defence – called on municipalities and the province to reject any further settlement area boundary expansion in Upper York Region, Municipal Comprehensive review.  There are also significant concerns about the proposed Upper York Sewage Solutions plan.  

Follow Rescue Lake Simcoe and the Simcoe Country Greenbelt Coalition for updates.

Why Burn Less Fossil Gas when you can Burn More?

Despite the talk about considering a fossil gas phase-out, the provincial government continues to move forward with plans to ramp up our reliance on fossil gas power plants. This may be of particular concern to people living near the Halton Hills Generating Station, the Goreway Power Station in Brampton and the Portlands Energy Centre in East Toronto all of which are likely to ramp up production in coming years.

 Read more here.

Shadiest Move of 2021? 

One of the shadier moves of a very shady 2021 was the creation of the parks4burlington.com website. Nelson Aggregates is looking to expand their quarry.  If they get an expansion, they are proposing to donate an empty pit to the city of Burlington AFTER they tear up the countryside. In support of their proposal, they launched a website asking visitors to “Ask Council for More Park Space” – when in fact council was voting on expanding the quarry. 

Check out CORE Burlington if you want to help fight back.

Auditor General’s Reports

In November 2021, the Auditor General of Ontario released 5 reports evaluating the current government on environmental issues. We weren’t quite sure whether to call this a win or a loss.  While the contents of the reports record many losses for Ontario’s environment – it’s a big win to see all these failures documented by the government itself!

The reports cover Hazardous Spills, Waste Reduction, Species-at-Risk, Reporting on Environmental Issues and the government’s failure to uphold the Environmental Bill of Rights.  The Auditor General also released a separate report on Minister’s Zoning Orders and Land-Use Planning.

Read the AG’s Summary.

Read a blogpost on the Environmental Audits.

Read a blogpost on the Auditor’s comments on our climate progress.

Read a blogpost on the Land-Use Planning Audit.

And now for the good news….

Local Organizing Delivers Big Wins!

2021 wasn’t all doom and gloom for Ontario’s environment; there were also several big wins and almost all of them came thanks to local organizing by people like you!

MZOs Revoked!

Lower Duffins Creek Wetland in Pickering. Photo by Philip Jessup
Lower Duffins Creek Wetland in Pickering. Photo by Philip Jessup

In Durham Region, local youth activists and environmental group EANAP teamed up with Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation to build public opposition to an MZO for an Amazon warehouse in the Lower Duffins Creek Wetlands. Amazon quickly pulled out of the project and with legal support from Environmental Defence, Ontario Nature and Ecojustice the main developer also withdrew their request for a permit a few months later. WETLAND SAVED!

MZOs for a huge glass factory in both Guelph and Stratford were revoked even after being issued by the province thanks to local organizing by GETConcerned, GETConcerned Stratford and Wise Communities Stratford.

Federal Environmental Assessment for Highway 413!

While the provincial government’s decision to resurrect the 413 zombie highway was distressing, the loud and ongoing public opposition has been inspiring! After dozens of public deputations and hundreds of letters to councillors, many municipal councils along the route called on the Federal Government for a proper Environmental Assessment – and the Feds decided to intervene in May. That brought planning and construction to a halt, but this slow and shambling highway could still lurch back to life!  

In July and November local organizers held rallies and activists also organized a bike ride along the proposed route!  More than 100 groups signed on to a full page ad in the Toronto Star opposing both the 413 and the Bradford Bypass.

New Protected Places!

It’s important to remember that natural areas can be protected in many different ways – it doesn’t always have to be a federal or provincial park. In May, environmental groups like Environmental Defence, Ontario Nature and the Wilderness Committee came together to introduce the general public to Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCA), FSC Candidate Protected Areas, Provincially-Significant Wetlands and other forms of protection with a webinar and online Story Map called Your Protected Places.  

Just a few weeks ago, it was announced that the Nature Conservancy of Canada had purchased an 18,000 acre property on Manitoulin Island in order to protect it in perpetuity.  That’s one of the largest purchases of private land for conservation purposes in decades!

Big Sprawl Stymied in Hamilton!

Hamilton Skyline. Photo By Nadine Shaabana via Unsplash

From an organizing perspective, Hamilton’s fight against the big sprawl was one of the most impressive wins of the year!  After months of relentless local organizing, with lawn signs, letters to councillors and savvy use of social media – Hamilton City Council voted for a new growth plan with ZERO urban boundary expansion

Many municipalities are still working their way through the Municipal Comprehensive Review process, which the Ontario government is using to railroad municipalities and regions to approve future low-density sprawl on farmland and green spaces. If you want to stop sprawl in your region check out Stop Sprawl Hamilton’s organizing tips.

Net-Zero 2030?! Wow!

Early in December, Halton Hills became the first Canadian municipality to set a 2030 Net-Zero target decades ahead of the 2050 targets we’re getting so used to hearing about.  

Looking Ahead to 2022

We learned two things in 2021:

  1. The current provincial government thinks that Ontarians prefer highways, sprawl and fossil gas power plants to green space, endangered species and a stable climate.
  2. Local organizing works! And it can even pressure governments and big companies to step back from projects that threaten the environment!

With both provincial and municipal elections coming up next year, 2022 is going to be a make-or-break year for Ontario’s environment. Luckily, the Yours to Protect program has big plans to draw our local fights together into a single loud call for better environmental protections!

Mark your calendars for a province wide Yours to Protect Day of Action on April 23 and 24th. If those go well, we also want to hold a giant Yours to Protect Rally at Queen’s Park – right on the government’s doorstep – in May.  

If you want to help us protect Ontario’s environment in 2022, please sign-up for monthly updates on local developments here.