I wrote this story last winter after having been introduced to Pauline Browes at the Sustainability Forum in February at the Toronto Botanical Gardens. (Which, incidentally, is beautiful in the winter and totally worth a visit.) It ran in Phil Goodwin’s E-Don, a newsletter for the East Don Parkland Partners, a group I volunteer with and have written about before. If you’re interested in Don River issues you can find and friend the group on FaceBook.
I do a bit of volunteer writing that will probably find a home here from time to time. Volunteer writing is fun, but I’ve been trying to find this story a home with a wider readership for a while now. Alas, no luck so far. So here it is for you, Dear Readers; and if an editor wants to bite, send me a note!
The Rouge Park, Canada’s largest urban wilderness park at over 11,500 acres, with its well-preserved Carolinian forest, native Heritage Sites and agricultural communities, is a historic and environmental treasure within Canada. But because of its many-layered ownership (portions are owned by the Town of Markham, City of Toronto, Ontario and the federal government through Transport Canada) and idiosyncratic management under the Rouge Park Alliance rather than a single government body, it has not always been well-protected or promoted. The Rouge Park Alliance commissioned a consultant study in 2009 to outline and recommend the best option for protecting and promoting this resource; received early in 2010, it recommended that the Rouge be made into Canada’s first and North America’s largest urban wilderness National Park. Andrea McDowell sat down with Hon. Pauline Browes, a member of the Rouge Park Alliance and Director of the Waterfront Regeneration Trust Corporation, to talk about the Park, the report’s recommendations and next steps.
Andrea: Let’s start with the history of the Rouge Park and the Rouge Park Alliance.
Pauline: It goes back to the early 80s when Save the Rouge Valley System, an organization of volunteers, formed to have the Rouge from Steeles to the Lake saved as a park. I stepped into this at the time, I was an elected member and they asked, what can the federal government do to help? I said, the province owns the land, I’m not sure, but leave it with me, I’m very keen about this being saved as a park. I was parliamentary secretary at the time to the Minister of Environment. The province was not happy about the federal government stepping in because they owned the land so the provincial government said it’s nice that the federal government says this should be saved but what about some money. Well, I got the minister to announce $10m for the Rouge and so that was in the late 80s that we got that.
David Crombie in 1995 announced the structure of what we call the Rouge Park Alliance, which is representatives of the municipalities within the watershed as well as the provincial and federal government, representatives from the NGO Save the Rouge Valley System. The present current park goes from Lake Ontario to Steeles, which is the Toronto part, and then from Steeles up to 16th Ave which is part of Markham.
When David Crombie set this up in 95, he said this would be an interim basis, and that in 3 or 4 or 5 years the structure would be reviewed to see how it should be. And we’ve had a lot of meetings over the years, but never been able to come up with anything that actually took hold. Just this past year, it was very evident that we needed to have a different governance model, and we needed more financing. And we needed to have a legal entity for this, because right now there’s no legal entity. Toronto does some stuff, Markham does some stuff, the Conservation Authority—I mean, it’s amazing that we’ve been able to accomplish as much as we have. So in the spring we engaged a consultant to review governance, come up with a model, and come up with the financing. And though we have done this in the past over 15 years, what we put forth to the consultant, we needed to have something that we thought would actually be able to work. Our consultant has been in contact with both the provincial and the federal government as well as the municipalities to review the prospective models. They have come up with the model of the national park.
A: What is the authority and the mandate of the current Rouge Park Alliance?
P: Well, that’s the crux of this problem. The mandate is to protect and preserve the watershed. We’ve had a major study of the Rouge watershed, we have a Rouge management plan for south of Steeles, we have a Rouge North Management Plan, but there is no legal entity for this. And this is why we need to have one level of government to step forward to be the lead on this. This report has said the best model would be the federal government. But we know that it doesn’t fit perfectly into the National Parks Act. So it’s going to be a hybrid of a national park, just like the marine parks.
A: The report mentioned that there some competing visions for how the park could look. What are some of the other options?
P: The park itself is one that needs to be discussed in terms of what are the uses here, are there some recreational uses that need to come in here …. This is such a treasure because it’s a wilderness area surrounded by 7 million people, and we want to keep it in this natural state. We also want to be able to preserve the agricultural lands. And agricultural lands that particularly are in the federal lands, the expropriated lands from the [Pickering] airport. This is excess expropriated lands that will not be needed for an airport even if it did go ahead. Also, there are some very interesting heritage homes buildings within the area. There are two national historic sites already established in the Rouge. One is an aboriginal burial ground, which is called Bead Hill, and the other is Carrying Place Trail. The aboriginal aspect of the Rouge is significant to celebrate, and so all that needs to be taken into consideration.
The other thing that’s really important to do is to have an interpretive centre. Right now, if I have friends come to visit me, and I say you should go and see the Rouge when you’re in the GTA, it’s absolutely magnificent. And they say, well where do I go? Every national park has an interpretive centre, even Bruce’s Mills and Conservation Areas have interpretive centres. So people can go to the interpretive centre, find out about this, where the trails are, look at the pictures, have interactive kind of stuff there, and then go from there.
A: What are some of the other main advantages of the national park model?
P: The Carolinian forest is one of Canada’s most endangered ecozones, and the Carolinian forest in the Rouge is one of the last and this is of national significance. It’s been stated that there are 15 nationally rare and endangered species in the Rouge. This area would be a tremendous ecotourism destination for the GTA and for Ontario. It would be a huge win all the way around in the public interest.
To be in the GTA and in to and take one transit ticket and you’re in a national park—I mean, I don’t know how many people are able to get to a national park so easily. If this can go ahead, this will be the largest wilderness park in an urban area in North America.
A: How do you see that process going forward?
P: We’ve had this report for 30 days, so in the next 30 days we’re going to be hearing back from our partners, all the municipal folks who are sitting as members of the Rouge Park Alliance, asking them to comment on the report. And we’ve been urging the federal government and the provincial government to begin negotiations. They have said they want to wait until this report is out. So now the report is out, now we’re going to hear back from the partners, and so we would hope that the players, the federal and the provincial government would then sit down and discuss this.
For more information on the Rouge Park, to volunteer or to read the consultant report, visit http://RougePark.com . A companion website to promote the National Park concept has been set up at http://rougenationalpark.ca .