The Diocese of Toronto extends far beyond the urban metropolis, encompassing 26,000 sq. km. of south-central Ontario. Nearly half of Ontario’s Greenbelt falls within the diocesan boundaries, including most of the proposed route of Highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass. This area includes the watersheds of major tributaries to Lake Ontario, critical wildlife habitat, and much of our province’s prime agricultural land – and it is under threat of development as never before.
“Once you pave it over, you never get it back,” says the Rev. Barbara Russell, deacon at St. George, Grafton, a member of the Diocesan Social Justice & Advocacy Committee, and a retired farmer. She sees the loss of prime agricultural land as a direct threat to rural communities and a weakening of Ontario’s ability to feed its people.
According to the 2016 Census of Agriculture, Ontario was losing 175 acres of farmland every day. By 2021, this figure had jumped to 319 acres a day. Peggy Brekveld, president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, calls this rate of farmland loss “simply not sustainable if we hope to have any kind of food sovereignty or independence in Ontario.” Meanwhile, Ontario has already lost over 70 per cent of its wetlands, 80 per cent of its forests, and 98 per cent of its grasslands. More than 200 plant and animal species are at risk in Ontario, largely due to loss of habitat. Yet the passage of Bill 23 and the provincial government’s highway building plans mean that the loss of farmland and wildlife habitat in southern Ontario is just ramping up.
Called to care
The call to care for the earth is one of the earliest commandments given by God to humanity in scripture. While for much of our history humankind has done a spectacularly bad job of honoring this command, more recently, Christians and others have been reawakened to the need to respect and sustain the life of the earth. It has been enshrined as the Fifth Mark of Mission of the Anglican Communion and, since 2013, incorporated into the baptismal vows of the Anglican Church of Canada. Our diocese has also recognized creation care as one of our leading justice priorities.
That’s why our diocese has been vocal in advocating for the preservation of the Greenbelt from development, including speaking out against the proposed Highway 413 and Bradford Bypass. We have incorporated our concerns into our provincial pre-budget submissions, official submissions on Bill 23, and advocacy letters. We were among 50 faith leaders and organizations who signed an open letter from the David Suzuki Foundation protesting the construction of Highway 413. At the local level, Anglicans across our diocese have joined protests against Greenbelt development, and written, called, and visited with their MPPs to express their concerns.
Another dimension of concern is that local First Nations have not been adequately consulted about the impacts of Greenbelt development. Days before Bill 23 became law, the Chiefs of Ontario released a statement calling it “unacceptable and an abuse of power” for the Ford government to change how development projects in Ontario are approved, without engaging First Nations. Individual chiefs, including Chief Kelly LaRocca of the Mississaugas of the Scugog First Nation and Chief Stacey LaForme of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, have also raised their concerns. “We are trying to build right relations with our neighbours, the Mississaugas of Scugog Island,” says the Rev. Ruthanne Ward, incumbent of Ascension, Port Perry. “If we as Anglicans are truly committed to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, that means recognizing their inherent, treaty, and legislative rights to be properly consulted about development within their territories. The actions of this government take us in the opposite direction.”
Stress on environment
The Greenbelt protects 721,000 acres of wildlife habitat (including habitat for 78 species at risk) and 750,000 acres of farmland. The health of its watersheds also affects the drinking water of over seven million Canadians. More than that, it helps mitigate the effects of climate change. Wetlands absorb rainwater, mitigate flooding during extreme weather events, and help to filter out pollutants. Trees and other vegetation lower ambient temperatures and absorb carbon dioxide. These “ecosystem services” have an estimated value of $3.2 billion per year and could become even more valuable as the effects of climate change continue to grow.
Paving over the Greenbelt to create mega-highways not only does away with those benefits but multiplies the environmental stressors. Highway 413 alone is estimated to add more than 17 tonnes of carbon emissions by 2050 – when Canada will already be hard-pressed to reach the goal of carbon neutrality by the same date. It is also estimated to add at least $1 billion in costs related to air pollution. Ontario members of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) have spoken out against the highway proposal, citing the greater risk of respiratory illness and mortality in communities along major highways due to air pollution. Paved surfaces, unlike those covered by vegetation, increase runoff, leading to increased flooding and water pollution. Moreover, the creation of a new highway is associated with increased urban sprawl along its route, creating yet another wave of pressure on the threatened Greenbelt.
Urban and transportation planners have found that the long-term impact of highway building on reducing traffic congestion is minimal. Indeed, studies have found the opposite is true: traffic numbers tend to increase as more lanes of highway are created, following a phenomenon called “induced demand.” Thus, while the positive impacts of creating new mega-highways are short-lived, the negative ones – reduced farmland and wildlife habitat, increased air and water pollution, increased carbon emissions and greater vulnerability to climate change impacts – will continue to be felt for generations to come.
Our welfare as the people of this province – our food, our water, our health and our resiliency in the face of climate change – is inextricably bound up with the health of the land on which we live and the creatures with whom we share it. As Romans 8:19 reminds us, “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” As children of God, charged to care for God’s creation, let us continue to make our voices heard.
To learn more about advocacy to protect the Greenbelt, visit the Creation Care webpage on the diocese’s website, www.toronto.anglican.ca.