By Barrie Kent MacKay, Director
Oh, the irony. The Ontario government, under Premier Doug Ford, provides it in abundance.
Consider Bill 229, a recent omnibus Act passed by the same Ontario government that calls cormorants “gamebirds”. In keeping with calling things they are not, the Act is bizarrely called the Protect, Support and Recover from COVID-19 Act. It contains a provision that would gut the ability of various regions and regional Conservation Authorities to protect the environment. The language is ambiguous, but in the words of the Toronto Region Conservation Authority (TRCA), risk lies in “…the creation of a new process to bypass conservation authorities’ science-based decision making and force us to issue permits where Ministers’ Zoning Orders have been issued by the Province in support of development. Conservation authorities use science to fulfill our mandate of protecting our communities and conserving natural resources.”
Ford puts Developers first
All this may sound tediously dull but it means the provincial government is giving itself dictatorial powers to benefit “developers” without regard to damage done to the environment and without consideration for the right of local taxpayers to have a say about what happens in their own community.
One element of the irony is that COVID-19 is given as the excuse – to put the benefit of “developers”, the creators of urban sprawl, ahead of the long-term benefit of a healthy environment for all of us, for generations to come. Surely if this pandemic has taught us anything, it is the importance of science-based policy and action.
While Schedule 6 is the most egregious part of the bill, Schedules 8 and 40 are also concerning to conservationists. The Act repeals the Crown Forest Sustainability Act of 1994 addressing forest management that overlaps regulations under the Endangered Species Act, 2007 (ESA) and related matters, leaving tree cutters potentially exempt from certain provisions of the ESA in Crown forests. What this will mean is that trees and other natural environments will be compromised or lost even if it is to the detriment of threatened or endangered species.
Local Conservation under Threat
By gutting the province’s locally responsible Conservation Authorities, we revert back to the risks such Authorities mitigate, one of which caused me a childhood trauma. I was eleven when Hurricane Hazel, a category four hurricane that had dropped to tropical storm status, hit Toronto in 1954. It had already killed hundreds of people and caused immense property damage in Hispaniola and through the eastern US, but it stalled when reaching Toronto, leading to massive flooding and loss of life and property. Eighty one people died. Most loss of life derived from placement of homes and infrastructure in ravines and on floodplains and removal of soil-holding vegetation on sloped land. It was an early lesson to me in the power of nature, the risk we take when we don’t act without considering consequences. There had been warnings and concerns leading to the Conservation Authorities Act being passed eight years earlier. It allowed municipalities within a given watershed the ability to create a Conservation Authority and, in conjunction with other agencies, to manage the land to the benefit of society by taking into account the expertise of all stakeholders and making science-based zoning decisions. While risk avoidance is their primary mandate, they have served, often admirably, to protect locally-determined environmental interests. Hurricane Hazel taught us why it all mattered, as COVID-19 should be teaching us, now, the dangers inherent in keeping animals in close-confinement and unnatural, unsanitary, conditions.
The Greenbelt in Danger
Pushback to Schedule 6, the most dangerous part of Bill 299, has been enormous, but to no avail as the Bill was passed. David Crombie, chair of the Greenbelt Council, and six other Council members have resigned in protest. Crombie is a former Member of Parliament for the federal branch of the same party, the Conservatives, now governing Ontario, and he is a former Mayor of Toronto.
The Greenbelt Council seeks to protect an area north of Canada’s most populated region, the Greater Toronto Area, that provides the origins of the watershed that services millions of people, homes and businesses. Protection from what? Badly planned development in the absence of the very kind of environmental review process the Ontario government now seeks to sideline, the lesson of not just Hurricane Hazel, but COVID-19, increases in bush fires, depletion of biodiversity, increase in death from heat and air pollution and so much else, ignored. In his own words Crombie states, “Ontarians can successfully realize the great values and benefits of the Greenbelt (also at risk from this legislation) through the effectiveness of watershed planning, the strength and resilience of the Conservation Authorities and the power of public participation and open debate. It is now clear that the government’s direction … disastrously assaults all three of these primary conditions. “This is not policy and institutional reform. This is high-level bombing and needs to be resisted.”
In a similarly stupid decision that ignored science-based advice from top experts, as well as government biologists, the government of Ontario declared the double-crested cormorant a “gamebird”.
The cormorant, an obligate fish-eating relative of pelicans and gannets, is about the opposite of a gamebird, first and foremost having flesh so rank as to render it almost inedible. It is absurdly easy to shoot, taking away the “sportiness” that hunters sometimes claim to value. And while most “gamebirds” are prolific, often laying up to a dozen eggs, the cormorant is lucky to lay about half that number, and experience has taught us it is highly vulnerable to endangerment. Long established tradition and law has decreed that legal hunting be based on conservation principles and usage. Ethical hunters eat what they kill, and refer to the birds they take as a “harvest”. They also forever assure us that they hunt within limits established to prevent endangering the species.
That all got thrown out the window, and only under intense pressure did the government relent a small amount by reducing the hunting season so it would not include the breeding period when there are young dependent upon their parents’ care. And in defiance of the guiding principles of gamebird management for over a century throughout the world, the Ford government, through some tricky legislative hijinks of dubious validity, declared it okay to kill, but not eat the birds, so long as their corpses were properly disposed and not left to rot, although, predictably, that is exactly what has happened, as some hunters, themselves, predicted. Gone, now, is any pretense that hunting is an ethical exercise, carefully managed to put food on the table, which is not to say there are not hunters who do restrict themselves to such practice, and won’t shoot what they can’t eat. What Ford, and the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters who so strongly lobbied for this move, are appealing to are the “slob hunters”, the ones who shoot for the sake of killing.
Actually, the slob hunters are being catered to not to provide sport or meat, but to reduce cormorant numbers. While cormorants are among a large number of birds and other wildlife species that eat fish, the evidence that, in balance, they don’t seriously deplete numbers of the fish species coveted by both commercial and recreational anglers is overwhelmingly demonstrated by numerous studies and research conducted for more than a century. Politicians seem increasingly to regard the dismissal of science amongst the electorate as a trend worth exploiting in search of votes.
Still, the science does show that cormorants, like all apex predators within naturally evolved ecosystems, are not a threat to prey population size, and so a second concern is evoked. Cormorant excrement is so rich in nutriments that if concentrated, specifically on the ground under nesting colonies, it may kill off vegetation, including trees. Never mind that the number of trees lost to cormorants in Ontario any given year would be miniscule, barely counted in the dozens, if even that many. Without being able to say what number would be the “right” number of cormorants to kill, and with no means of determining how many were killed anyway, a provision was made by the Ontario government that allowed hunters to kill, and waste, the birds, with an absurdly high bag limit of fifteen per day during the hunting season.
The wrong moves
But this is not about cormorants. It’s about irony, hypocrisy, stupidity, and I would add mendacity to that odious list.
This is not the first bone-headed move by this party, a party which, it may be worth noting, most people who voted in the last provincial election, did not support! It does not matter. They can do what they want and if anything goes wrong, hey, they can always blame the cormorants.