Third reading of Bill C-18, An Act to amend the Rouge National Urban Park Act, the Parks Canada Agency Act and the Canada National Parks Act.

Hon. Art Eggleton:

Honourable senators, I rise at third reading as the sponsor of Bill C-18, an Act to amend the Rouge National Urban Park Act, the Parks Canada Agency Act and the Canada National Parks Act.

Colleagues, I think of this as a happy bill. I congratulate the previous government — are you listening over there — for giving the Rouge a national focus, and the current government for filling in a few missing pieces.

The Rouge is the first of its kind in Canada: a national urban park. Don’t let that designation fool you. The Rouge boasts an incredible array of natural riches, an estimated 1,700 species of plants and animals, including 27 at-risk species. There are large swaths of rare Carolinian forest habitat to be found in the park and it also features some of the largest marshes and wetlands in the Greater Toronto Area.

Rouge National Urban Park is also rich in human history. The Rouge River was a major travel route for thousands of years. Indigenous people lived, farmed and traded on these lands. The agricultural history of the Rouge is a significant feature of the park. Some parts of the Rouge National Urban Park have been farmed continuously for centuries and feature large tracts of Class 1 farmland, the richest, rarest and most fertile in Canada.

On a recent tour I was able to see the great work Parks Canada is doing in conjunction with those who live and work in the park. Since 2015, they have completed 31 conservation and agricultural enhancement projects. It is my understanding that about 10 more projects will have begun by the end of this year.

It is for these reasons that I refer to Bill C-18 as a “happy bill.” Through this passage, this bill will facilitate the growth of the Rouge by the transfer of provincial lands that nearly double the size of the 79.1 square kilometres. That’s 19 times larger than Stanley Park in Vancouver, 22 times larger than Central Park in New York and 50 times larger than High Park in Toronto. It is across this huge area that Parks Canada will be able to showcase Canada’s rich cultural and natural heritage: all this within one hour’s drive of 20 per cent of the Canadian population and within one hour’s drive of the busy streets of downtown Toronto.

Honourable senators, before I continue with the Rouge, there are two amendments in the bill that deal with other areas, and neither one of them through the committee hearings proved to be contentious. One amendment involves the Parks Canada Agency Act and the funding mechanism known as the New Parks and Historic Sites Account.

The Parks Canada Agency uses money from the account to purchase land or real property needed to establish, enlarge or designate a protected heritage area. Under the current rules, funds can only be used for areas that are not yet fully operational. This amendment would change this. It would allow the agency to use the account for protected heritage areas that are already operating, allowing Parks Canada to respond quickly when opportunities rise to buy additional properties to expand existing protected heritage areas. It’s worth noting the proposed changes would also enable individual Canadians to contribute, if they so wish, to projects to complete or expand existing protected heritage areas.

The other amendment proposes to remove a small parcel of land, roughly 37 square kilometres, from the boundaries of Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Alberta. Several years ago, the Government of Canada made a commitment to establish a new reserve for the Little Red River Cree Nation. The removal of this land from Wood Buffalo — it’s only 1 per cent of a park that, believe it or not, is roughly the size of Switzerland — would support the establishment a Garden River Indian Reserve. This would also represent another small but important step in the journey toward reconciliation with indigenous people.

The rest of this bill concerns the Rouge. The key amendment in this bill concerns the inclusion — and it got some discussion at committee — of ecological integrity in the Rouge National Urban Park Act and would prioritize ecological integrity in the management of the Rouge.

That phrase “ecological integrity” is defined as follows in the act:

. . . a condition that is determined to be characteristic of its natural region and likely to persist, including abiotic components and the composition and abundance of native species and biological communities, rates of change and supporting processes.

In plain language, this means managing the Rouge in a way that preserves all its native components, from rocks and waterways to flora and fauna. In essence, the legislation will require that Parks Canada follow a comprehensive approach to management, one that carefully considers the past, present and future of Rouge National Urban Park and ensures that the agency strives to make the Rouge accessible to all Canadians while preserving both its ecological integrity and its vibrant farming community.

In previous legislation, Bill C-40, the term “ecological integrity” was not used. It instead stated that the minister must “take into consideration” the “ecological health” of the area.

This change of wording is an important distinction. Although Parks Canada is already doing great work in the parts of the Rouge that have been established, there is no guarantee in the existing act that subsequent governments will adhere to this standard. This uncertainty is what led the Government of Ontario to withhold transferring its land — about 40 square kilometres of land, I might add — and it is the heart of the public areas in this national park.

The Ontario government, though, is now satisfied with the language of this bill, specifically the inclusion of ecological integrity. With this change, the Ontario government is set to transfer the remaining land to Parks Canada.

Honourable senators, I have heard concerns that ecological integrity will not work in an urban park like the Rouge. There were suggestions at committee that respecting ecological integrity would mean that disasters such as forest fires would be allowed to run their course, endangering the lives and property of those who live in and around the Rouge. When questioned by the committee, Daniel Watson, CEO of Parks Canada, assured us that this would not be the case.

Using the example of Point Pelee National Park next to Lake Erie, he said:

For example, in Point Pelee, we had a fire very recently. Almost the same if not identical language applies there, and we were out fighting it the moment that we found it, as we do with the vast majority of fires, certainly all of them that would cause danger to any significant property or to people. So in those conditions, if they arose, we’d fight the fire.

During the committee proceedings, I also heard some concerns over how ecological integrity would affect the tradition of farming in the Rouge. It must be noted that Bill C-18 takes these farms into account for the first time. This is stated in 6(2) of the bill which says:

For greater certainty, subsection (1) does not prevent the carrying out of agricultural activities as provided for in this Act.

The government will also offer farm leases for up to 30 years to provide long-term stability to the park, farmers and their families. They have only been getting very short leases up to this point. With these 30-year leases, farmers will have the confidence to make long-term infrastructure investments on their land moving forward, and the farmer representatives who spoke at committee were quite supportive.

In addition to these safeguards, we also heard from witnesses that respecting ecological integrity actually benefits those who work and live in the Rouge. I noted earlier that 31 conservation and agricultural enhancement projects have been completed in the Rouge since 2015. One such project involved the replacement of old culverts, which are the large pipes you see under roads or other crossings that cut through streams or a river. Undersized farm-crossing culverts in the headwaters of the Little Rouge River have been replaced by much longer and wider culverts to allow for the safe movement of modern farm equipment while also reducing damage and erosion of the stream bank. These changes have improved water quality and connectivity of aquatic habitat while also improving the functioning of farmland.

The Energy and Environment Committee did an excellent job in getting a diverse range of witnesses to respond to these issues, and I trust that senators on the committee were satisfied with the responses they heard, and I believe that’s why this bill was passed by the committee without any amendment or dissent.

Honourable senators, this bill is before us at an opportune time. This year’s celebrations of the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of Confederation present numerous opportunities to examine Canada’s past and to contemplate our future. Bill C-18 would build on this country’s proud and defining tradition of protecting and celebrating our natural and cultural heritage. This proposed legislation would enable Parks Canada to make the most of the Rouge National Urban Park in strengthening Canada’s ability to expand and protect one of our treasured places.

I encourage all honourable senators to join me in supporting Bill C-18 and coming out some time this summer to see the Rouge.

Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!