Let’s fight for the Greenbelt with all we have


A sign just off the York Durham line on Whitevale Road reads ‘Entrance to Red Duffins Agricultural Reserve’.

Farms are plentiful, newly harvested crops are in some fields, and languid cows munch grass in others. The region is a vision of rural life that is often celebrated and mythologized – when politically practical, that is. This sign also reads « Part of the Greenbelt » and is similar to the other « Entering the Greenbelt » signs that have become comforting and ubiquitous to anyone entering and exiting the Golden Horseshoe or along the Niagara Escarpment.

Comfort knowing that open space, whether wild or rural, is not that far away. The Red Duffins Reserve is about 30 kilometers from downtown Toronto and is part of North Pickering, although it would be easy to think that it is quite a distance from the GTA.

Wide open, wide skies, Keep-it-beautiful Ontario. But not for long, maybe.

As part of the Ford government’s sweeping changes, Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark recently tabled a bill that would partially repeal the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve Act 2005 to open it up for development under the guise to remove “barriers to housing construction in Pickering. The reserve is just one of many areas of the Greenbelt the Ford government wants to remove from protection, some that a joint Toronto Star and Narwal investigation found were recently purchased by various developers with ties apparent with the PC government.

According to the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, the Duffins Rouge Reserve is a vast expanse of some 1,902 hectares of « prime farmland ». Last weekend I walked 10 miles of it, partly on the Seaton Trail, starting in Whitevale, a pretty hamlet that dates back to the early 1800s. It also feels far from the GTA.

The Seaton Trail begins north of Whitevale on Highway 7 and stretches nearly eight miles, meandering south along Duffins Creek, eventually connecting with other trails leading to Lake Ontario. It’s like a mini Bruce Trail, varied in scenery and well maintained.

Further downstream from Highway 401 and closer to Lake Ontario is a wetland in the Duffins watershed. Contested as a development site for more than two years, it was recently bulldozed under questionable circumstances, another breaking link in the natural landscape that sustains the GTA’s urban ecosystem.

The Seaton Trail, from Whitevale south to Taunton Road, sometimes meanders close to the creek, other times it is above with scenic views from canyon-like cliffs. It’s spectacular topography that might surprise anyone who thinks the GTA and Ontario are flat and boring. There was also plenty of evidence of beavers busy at work, with gnawed tree stumps along the way.

While it’s likely the trail itself won’t be developed as part of it is in the creek floodplain – although I wouldn’t bet on what may or may not happen in Ontario at this point – it also passes through adjacent fields.

Corn has grown in many of them, but they really are goldmines if the Ford government takes them out of the Greenbelt. Real estate can be the creation of money from scratch or, in this case, from some of the best farmland in Canada. Agricultural land is a non-renewable resource: once there is none, there is none. As transportation costs rise and climate change brings our food closer to home, it’s unwise to cover it all up.

That the government is using the housing crisis as an excuse is blatant. There is ample room to achieve the GTA’s housing goals by adding density to the existing urban fabric. Each neighborhood will have to do its part, and housing advocates had hoped that the government’s Bill 23, the More Homes Built Faster Act 2022, would facilitate this by allowing different types of densities in all neighborhoods, but that has been watered down and instead the government targeted the Greenbelt.

Never mind that in 2018 Ford itself promised to maintain the entire Greenbelt, saying « the people have spoken ». So much for the man of the people and his word.

When the Seaton Trail reached Taunten Road, I returned to the Whitevale parking lot along highways and gravel roads as dusk turned night. Thousands of geese were in these recently harvested cornfields, feeding on the leftover cobs, presumably refueling for the flight south. Their horn was louder than the fast moving traffic and it was possibly the most geese I have seen in one place, awesome sight and sound. These feeding grounds would also disappear if agricultural land were lost.

There are currently conflicts on several fronts in Ontario. Health care. Schools. Ontario Square. Municipal governance. The Greenbelt may seem like an abstract thing that we have taken for granted for a long time. Just a sign on the freeway.

Going through it reveals that it is precious, beautiful and that we are very lucky to have it. It’s worth fighting for with everything you’ve got.

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