By: Isaac Callan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Pointer
“We’ve been subject to these gravel guerrillas now for at least 50 years, trying to build more highways, more urban sprawl.”
Those were the words this week of Mississauga Ward 11 Councillor, George Carlson, who brought them down like a blunt hammer on the heads of builders determined to continue profiteering from the land.
“I can almost hear the old scotch and soda tinkling as the decision was made to add another highway and let the developers build more stuff north of Toronto. They haven’t even finished doing infill in Toronto.”
As the planet continues to reel from the catastrophic impacts of climate change, some Peel politicians have finally picked their heads from the sand, while others remain largely oblivious.
On Wednesday, after more than a year of silence, the City of Mississauga finally threw its considerable weight behind calls to cancel the proposed GTA West Corridor, also known as Highway 413.
Carlson’s comments underscored the frustration felt around the virtual council chamber.
It was better late than never in the eyes of environmentalists.
Meanwhile, many municipal leaders in Brampton and Caledon continue to claim support for environmentally friendly policies, as they walk the fence on a project that will devastate local watersheds, ecosystems and wildlife, while adding hundreds of thousands of tons of carbon emissions into the air above Peel.
Since the Progressive Conservatives, led by Premier Doug Ford, restarted the GTA West Highway’s Environmental Assessment (EA) in the first half of 2019, Mississauga has been largely silent. Presentations by the Province to Region of Peel councillors outlining the highway’s debatable benefits have been received unanimously. The City’s lobbying power at Queen’s Park has been used on other priorities but not to fight the planned 400-series transportation corridor.
A recent swell of opposition to the highway forced the issue back to the top of the agenda. After a request by Environmental Defence and Ecojustice to have the federal government complete a study of the environmental impacts of the proposed route, and even wrestle control of the project from Queen’s Park, opposition groups have received a new round of support.
Unlike their previous requests, which have fallen on deaf ears in Peel Region and only seen success in Halton and Orangeville, this recent campaign has bigger supporters with more clout at the provincial and federal level.
At a special council meeting on Wednesday, called to pass Mississauga’s 2021 budget, the City adopted a new and aggressive stance. Councillors voted unanimously to approve a lengthy motion, brought forward by Ward 5 Councillor Carolyn Parrish and seconded by Ward 8’s Matt Mahoney, explicitly opposing any construction activity relating to the GTA West Corridor.
“I find it interesting that the buzzword in today’s day and age is climate change action, environment and all of these things and then we kind of fly in the face of it,” Mahoney said, welcoming the strong position detailed in the lengthy motion. “With projects like this, [we] almost talk out of both sides. I am very pleased to second this motion.”
The GTA West Highway was scrapped by the Liberal government in 2018. The decision came after an expert panel came to the conclusion it would do almost nothing to solve the GTA’s congestion problems. The report was completely ignored by the PC government, which quickly restarted the environmental assessment process and began touting benefits of the corridor, including unsupported claims it will reduce traffic congestion.
Mississauga’s new stance — directly opposing the highway — is the clearest in the Region of Peel. To the north, Brampton and Caledon have both recently voiced concerns, but stopped well short of opposition.
In Brampton, Mayor Patrick Brown and Wards 2 and 6 Councillor Michael Palleschi have been pushing for a boulevard in place of the highway through Brampton. The concept, brought to life by a consultant, has come with few technical details, with no one able to explain how a highway would morph into a walkable, urban corridor and back again.
Brampton’s mayor has refused to condemn the highway, and, despite his claims to recognize a climate emergency, he’s bragged about being the one who put the GTA West Highway back on the table when he added it to the PC campaign platform ahead of the 2018 election, before his dramatic fall from provincial politics.
In its requests to the Provincial government, Brampton has asked for its boulevard design to be considered for a portion of the route without stating opposition to the highway. On Wednesday, Brampton also backed calls for the federal government to take over the route’s EA.
Bowing to growing pressure, the Town of Caledon has also backed the same calls. The move is a 180-degree turn from previous calls by Caledon council members who pushed for an expedited environmental assessment – currently being conducted by the provincial government – to get the project started even faster. A federal EA would have the power to override the provincial government and cancel the project should the environmental impact be deemed too great.
On Thursday, Mississauga brought its motion to the Region of Peel. Parrish and Brampton Wards 3 and 4 Councillor Martin Medeiros put the proposal on the floor, offering Brampton and Caledon councillors a chance to make a clear statement against the highway and in support of their own climate emergency declarations.
But they shied away. Spearheaded by Caledon Wards 3 and 4 Councillor Jennifer Innis and Mayor Allan Thompson, the issue was deferred to a later date. Stating concerns about rushing to a decision and the need to hear from more residents, a referral was proposed to revisit the idea of opposing the highway in a fortnight, once a staff report has been completed detailing the implications cancelling the highway would have on the Region’s long-term planning strategy.
“I do believe that a referral to start to bring back a fulsome report, simply with the history and the impacts, what impact would a decision to oppose have on the planning process [would be prudent],” Peel CAO Janice Baker said. “There has been extensive work done, some of which may very well have to be looked at or re-examined as a consequence of this.”
The vote resulted in a tie, with Chair Nando Iannicca voting in favour of the referral to break the deadlock. Iannicca said it may have been the first tie-breaking vote he has cast since being elected chair.
The delay means official positions in Peel are divergent.
Mississauga stands alone opposing the highway, while all three municipalities have recently passed motions expressing support for a federal EA. The Region itself does not have a current position, but the clerk noted Thursday that a 2012 motion “indicates a level of support for the GTA West Transportation Corridor.”
Mississauga’s vote on Wednesday was far less complex and more emphatic. Where several regional councillors, including Brown, Thompson and Innis, raised concerns about rushing the process on Thursday, Wednesday simply saw Mississauga representatives congratulating one another on their newly adopted stance, in support of the environment.
The wholehearted support for Mississauga’s new stance raises questions about timing. In October 2019, Mississauga’s 12 regional representatives unanimously accepted a presentation from the Province outlining the GTA West Corridor and its unfounded benefits, while there was no concerted outcry over the Province’s decision this summer to approve a route and speed up the environmental assessment.
As recently as January, Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie told The Pointer she did not think she could convince the Province to change its course. “I think they’re committed to the GTA West Corridor,” she said.
Asked this week what precipitated the change of heart and the unambiguous stance, Crombie admitted she and her councillors had been asleep at the wheel.
“I think there’s been a groundswell of momentum opposing the building of the highway,” she said at a Wednesday press conference. “I have to say I think we as a council have been a bit complacent, I think we thought it was a done deal; a fait accompli. But now there are so many questions arising from the building of this highway… I think that we saw that there were other voices who opposed it and we agreed we would join them, at least to undertake the full federal environmental assessment.”
Parrish shook her colleagues out of their slumber.
Mississauga’s new stance sits in harmony with its internal policies and publicly declared goals. Just over a year-and-a-half after declaring a climate emergency, the move is tangible evidence of council’s resolve to make good on a popular promise to help stop the degradation of the planet.
Parrish, who has made a career of taking on the establishment, led the way with her detailed motion.
“You can just see the vultures waiting to build completely along that belt rather than compact developments, which is what we should be looking for — complete communities.”
By: Isaac Callan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Pointer