Second 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

Honourable senators, I rise to support Bill C-18, of which I am the sponsor, at second reading. This is a happy bill, maybe the last government bill we will deal with today, so we might get out before too long.

This bill before us proposes three items: first, to transfer a portion of Wood Buffalo National Park to the Little Red River Cree Nation for the creation of the Garden River Indian Reserve; second, to provide greater flexibility to support the government in its efforts to expand or complete protected heritage areas; and, lastly, the area I’m most closely associated with, is to make ecological integrity the first priority in the management of the Rouge National Urban Park.

As it pertains to the creation of the Garden River Indian Reserve, Bill C-18 proposes to amend the Canada National Parks Act by withdrawing a small parcel of land from the Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Alberta. This action would facilitate the creation of the Garden River Indian Reserve. At 37 square kilometres, this designated land represents less than 1 per cent of the land in the Wood Buffalo National Park, a park which is roughly the size of Switzerland.

Since 1986, the Government of Canada and the Little Red River Cree Nation have undergone negotiations to achieve consensus on the terms and conditions to excise this land. By facilitating the creation of the Garden River Indian Reserve, Bill C-18 would enable the Government of Canada to honour its commitment to the Little Red River Cree Nation. This would be a small but important step toward reconciliation with indigenous peoples.

The second aspect of Bill C-18 aims to provide greater flexibility to the government in its efforts to expand and complete protected heritage areas. Specifically, it would amend section 21 of the Parks Canada Agency Act. This section provides for the New Parks and Historic Sites Account. This proposed amendment would allow the government to use this account to expand or complete parks or other protected heritage places that have already attained full operational status.

This is important because private lands for protected heritage areas are acquired on a willing seller and willing buyer basis. Funds must be readily accessible to allow the government to take advantage of opportunities to purchase these lands as they become available on the open market. The proposed amendment will help facilitate this. In addition, this amendment would also allow individual Canadians to contribute to completing or expanding operational heritage areas. It provides for more flexibility, in effect, on that account.

Finally, Bill C-18 aims to make amendments to the Rouge National Urban Park Act. At the core of these amendments is the concept of ecological integrity. In plain language, an ecosystem is considered to have ecological integrity when its native components such as wildlife, plants, waters and ecological processes are maintained.

The National Parks Act defines this term for parklands and requires Parks Canada to apply it in its management of these areas.

Bill C-18 would add the same terms and the same definition to the Rouge National Urban Park Act as it appears already in the National Parks Act.

As some of you may remember, this was a major point of contention when Bill C-40, which established that park, was introduced in the fall of 2014. While I commended the creation of the Rouge, Bill C-40 did not include the term “ecological integrity.” It instead stated that the minister must “take into consideration” the ecological health of the area.

During the debate, I rose to speak against Bill C-40 because it failed to provide for the kind of environmental protection afforded to other national parks in Canada, groups such as the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Nature Canada and the Friends of the Rouge Valley Watershed. I particularly want to single them out because they have for years, decades in fact, been working hard to have this national park brought about.

All of them at that time, in 2014, spoke against Bill C-40 as it was written. So, too, did the Ontario government, citing the potential lack of environmental protection. The province withheld donating a very substantial portion of the proposed park. This is important because the provincial lands contained almost all of the Rouge Valley system, which is the centrepiece of the park. It is where visitors can hike, explore nature and bask in the diversity of the ecosystem.

With these proposed amendments to the Rouge National Urban Park, Bill C-18 aims to ensure that ecological integrity must be the first priority of the minister when considering all aspects of management of the park. Furthermore, with the tabling of Bill C-18, the Ontario government resumed active work to transfer the necessary provincial lands to Parks Canada. The government expects to complete all of these transfers in 2017, with key and major elements of these transfers occurring in the first half of this year.

Once land assembly is fully complete, the Rouge will be 79.1 square kilometres in size, stretching from Lake Ontario to the Oak Ridges Moraine, and part of it is in the cities of Toronto, Markham and Pickering and the Township of Uxbridge. To put it in perspective, 79.1 square kilometres is 19 times bigger than Stanley Park in Vancouver, 22 times bigger than Central Park in New York, and 50 times bigger than High Park in Toronto.

The Rouge’s location places it within one hour’s drive of 20 per cent of Canada’s population. Millions of Canadians will be afforded the chance to learn firsthand about the remarkable natural diversity this area has to offer and still be home in time for dinner.

This is an area that is home to rare Carolinian forests, as well as sizable wetlands that support more than 1,700 species of plants and animals.

Under the proposed legislation, Parks Canada will be able to expand the important conservation projects they have undertaken in the Rouge since its establishment. Already more than 16 hectares of wetlands and 7 acres of forest have been added to the park. Parks Canada has also installed more than 175 habitat structures that make it easier for wildlife to find appropriate habitat and food.

While the Rouge offers an array of natural gifts, this area has also witnessed centuries of human history. This includes some of Canada’s oldest indigenous sites, villages and travel routes. In 2011, Parks Canada established a First Nations Advisory Circle with 10 First Nations groups that have historical ties to the park area. They have worked with the advisory circle on a number of initiatives, including archaeological fieldwork, cultural resource conservation, restoration, and visitor service.

Another aspect of Rouge Park that makes it unique is the conservation and promotion of agricultural land within the park boundaries. The Rouge includes large tracts of Class 1 farmland, the most rare and fertile type of farmland in Canada. Farming has been an integral feature of the Rouge for centuries. Its farms continue to provide an important source of locally grown food to the Greater Toronto Area.

It is for these reasons that Parks Canada will offer farm leases of up to 30 years to provide more stability to park farmers and their families. Many of them have just been going on year-to-year leases, so getting a lease of up to 30 years does provide much more stability. Some of the farms have been part of the Rouge Valley since 1999.

Bill C-18 would also strengthen Parks Canada’s ability to protect valuable farmland and ensure that farmers are able to continue to grow their crops in the park.

Honourable senators, more than a century ago, Canada became the first country in the world to create an agency to manage national parks. I didn’t realize that until now. We’re the first, apparently. Bill C-18 represents another step in this journey. From the outset, Parks Canada has worked closely with resident farmers, indigenous partners, school groups and environmental organizations to establish Rouge Park. The presence of all these elements in a single place links past with present in a unique way.

The challenge is to preserve these elements for future generations. Bill C-18 would equip Parks Canada to meet this challenge, and I look forward to the examination of this bill at committee and its report back to the Senate.