“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” – Isaac Asimov, Newsweek, 1980
In many ways, everything that is wrong with Niagara’s politics was summed up in a single letter.
The January letter from Niagara’s regional chairman Alan Caslin to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne was not inflammatory or offensive. It was not unethical. But it does reflect a general political tone-deafness to the importance of facts.
In his letter, Caslin told Wynne if the designation of some wetlands in Niagara Falls is not changed to allow development at Thundering Waters, the planned $1.5 billion housing project by the Chinese firm GR Investments could collapse. Queen’s Park needs to allow development of those wetlands, he wrote, or “the substantial initial investment, subsequent job creation and local growth opportunities will be lost.”
Caslin’s letter is not out of the ordinary. Municipal politicians regularly lobby higher tiers of government on behalf of local economic interests. But that letter and its call for a change of the Ministry of Natural Resources designation for the wetlands is the last gasp, hail Mary pass to save an process that started with the Niagara Penninsula Conservation Authority.
As per the Feb. 13 statement by new NPCA chair Sandy Annunziata, the NPCA seems to have learned its lesson. The regional government has not.
Now, don’t get me wrong. This isn’t Donald Trump-level, Orwellian Newspeak stuff going on. But the history of political involvement with the Thundering Waters project, which eventually led to Caslin writing that letter, has at least one thing in common with the political climate of the United States – when politicians are unmoored from facts, bad policy decisions are bound to follow.
There’s been a lot controversy swirling about the NPCA, with a push for audits of its operations, labour troubles, and now calls for changes in its governance. But it’s an element of that last point that is relevant here. (I have to dip into some political governance stuff here which can make some eyes glaze over, but hang in there. It’s information you need to know.)
Under provincial regulations, the board of directors for conservation authorities are selected by the municipalities that fall under the conservation authority’s jurisdiction.
The NPCA represents the City of Hamilton, Halidmand County, and Niagara. But Niagara regional council effectively controls the NPCA. It invests $6 million into the authority’s $10 million annual budget and selects 12 of its 15 members. Regional council appoints councillors to the board from the member communities. If no regional councillors want an NPCA seat, the municipalities are asked to put someone forward to sit on the board.
What should jump out at you here is that the members are all purely political appointees. What expertise they bring to the table isn’t a primary concern.
Welland NDP MPP Cindy Forster wants to change that. She has put forward a bill at Queen’s Park that would require 50% of the boards of Ontario conservation authorities to have an appropriate (and as yes undefined) level of expertise in conservation and the environment. That expertise can come from politicians sitting on the board, or from citizen appointees. But at least half the board under Forster’s bill would need that expertise.
It is a scheme that balances the need to have elected representatives on the board with the need to deepen the knowledge base around that table.
I just dragged you through a dry explanation of how the NPCA board works because it speaks directly to the idea that started Niagara on the road that eventually led to the letter that Caslin wrote – namely a concept called “biodiversity offsetting.”
Last year, a white paper was kicked around Queen’s Park that offered up biodiversity offsetting as a way to balance conservation and economic development goals. It suggested that if you paved over an existing wetland you must replace it with an artificially constructed one elsewhere.
The NPCA, anxious to clear the way for the Thundering Waters project, jumped at the idea. The wetlands in the area are classified as significant by MNR, meaning they cannot be developed. Offsetting might be a way around that pesky classification.
The NPCA then took its show on the road, seeking support from Niagara Region and Niagara Falls city council to ask the province for permission for a “pilot project” to offset the Thundering Waters wetlands.
There was just one teeny, tiny problem – there is no reason to think the offsetting would work.
The NPCA dog and pony show at the Region and Niagara Falls council did not present evidence that the wetlands could be moved. What it did have was a pitch worthy of a snake-oil salesman.
The NPCA was claiming it wouldn’t just offset the Thundering Waters wetlands on a one-to-one basis, as the provincial white paper suggested. It would do it on a three to one basis, effectively tripling the size of the wetlands.
It wasn’t as good a deal as it might sound. As I wrote in the St. Catharine Standard at the time:
In effect, the NPCA is asking for support for a massive development that would destroy 13 acres of existing wetlands without any evidence that replacement wetlands would be viable.
The entire issue of wetlands offsetting is complicated.
The term “wetlands” is an umbrella word that catches a whole series of environments from simple marshes and swamps — which are relatively easier to restore or build — to peats, bogs and fens which are thousands of years old and cannot be transplanted or built from scratch.
I spoke to the Ontario office of Ducks Unlimited Canada and they told me offsetting may be possible in some cases, but given the variety of wetlands, each one must be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
Like the NPCA, DUC recommends a three-to-one ratio for offsetting. However, that ratio is meaningless if these particular wetlands are of the type that shouldn’t be developed.
No matter how you cut it, three times zero is still zero.
In short, the NPCA needed to present scientific evidence the current wetlands at Thundering Waters could be transplanted. They offered none. Yet in this vacuum of data, the authority made its grand promise in the service of the Chinese development.
That was in spring. Since then, the MNR has reevaluated the area, identifying another 45 acres of protected wetlands. The provincial white paper wasn’t adopted as policy and there still isn’t any good evidence that offsetting would work.
In a statement posted on the NPCA website Monday, NPCA chairman Sandy Annunziata affirmed the authority’s commitment to provincial regulations:
The language is very clear and will be respected. The Provincial Policy Statement is unequivocal in its interpretation, ‘development and site alteration shall not be permitted in significant wetlands.’ On behalf of our mandate to further conservation, restoration, development, and management of the watershed, we will not compromise our efforts to comply with current policies and legislation.
While not a repudiation of Caslin’s request to the province, it certainly indicates the NPCA is no longer interested in going down this particular blind alley without regulatory direction. Caslin will have to find allies elsewhere.
Still, one has to ask if Caslin would have had to write that letter if the NPCA board had more expertise to being with? Would a board with more experts have appeared before local councils to sell magic beans instead of presenting verifiable, scientific data? Couldn’t a board with a more robust scientific background have helped the developer work out a plan that incorporated conservation into the project, rather than risk losing it entirely by offering up a scheme that ignored reality?
Annunziata has said he isn’t in favour of citizen appointments to the NPCA board if they replace elected officials. The public is better served, he argues, with board members who are directly responsible to voters. He has a point.
Certainly, elected officials must remain as a significant voice on the NPCA board. But if the tale of Thundering Waters can teach us anything, it is that it is unreasonable to expect elected officials alone to manage policy where they don’t have the required knowledge base.
That’s why, instead of moving in the direction Caslin suggests, the province takes a hard look at Forster’s bill.