THE BLOG

Paving Over Farmland for an Airport We Don't Need

10/10/2013 05:46 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Here we go again! Risen from the dead, an airport north of Pickering. Of course with the federal government hanging onto those expropriated lands north of Pickering, we knew to be vigilant, guard up and, more than that, ready for another fight.

Of course, I'm not just referring to the fight of 40 years ago over this very same land. I refer also to the Mega Quarry. It's been only months since concerned citizens led a successful battle against the building of a mega-quarry in Melancthon Township. That plan -- the brainchild of one of the world's largest hedgefunds -- would have converted 2,300 acres of fertile and extraordinarily rare Class 1 farmland into a giant hole in the ground. That land, it should be noted, produces half the potatoes consumed in the GTA.

The Mega Quarry was a fight that brought farmers and city folk under the same tent. Tens of thousands of people banded together in protest, with many from my riding of Beaches-East York joining the cause, understanding that we in the city need to ensure that our own urban development is done sustainably so as to protect the rural lands that surround and define us.

Twenty-eight thousand city folk travelled to Melancthon Township to Foodstock -- to taste the bounty of that fertile land as an act of protest over the sheer stupidity of digging such a giant hole where that which sustains us now grows. Over 40,000 came to a park in my riding for Soupstock for the same purpose. Protesting never tasted so good! Perhaps that was, part at least, of the explanation for the unlikely and magnificent victory of citizens over one of the world's largest hedge funds.

But here we are again, redrawing old battle lines and defining new ones, to protect that which is increasingly rare and yet increasingly necessary -- fertile land on the edge of our city.

The federal government has been tossing about the idea of building an airport at Pickering for more than 40 years. Back in 1972, the government acquired 18,600 acres in Pickering with the intention of building a new airport. The citizen group People or Planes emerged immediately in response to what, even decades ago, appeared to be a ludicrous idea.

In 1975, sanity seemed to prevail in response to overwhelming public opposition. The project was halted. Sanity held firm and stood guard for a long while -- until 2001. Then, under the Liberal Government of the day, Transport Canada revived the old project. In 2007, the Conservatives commissioned the Greater Toronto Airports Authority to conduct the "Needs Assessment Study - Pickering Lands," and on June 11 of this year, Minister Flaherty announced that an airport would be built.

From Trudeau to Chrétien and now to Harper. In these hands, the mad project has been kept alive and the conversation and the controversy re-ignited again and again. Yet over these past 40 years or so, no evidence has emerged to justify an airport and the consequent destruction of farmland. Rather, we risk building a Toronto equivalent of Montreal's Mirabel -- a white elephant, a project that stands for ill-conceived transportation planning.

According to the Greater Toronto Airport Authority Master Plan, Pearson International has not nearly reached capacity. With the construction of a sixth runway, Pearson could handle 46 to 54 million passengers per year -- up from the 34 million that passed through in 2012. And with a current debt load of $7.1 billion, it seems like Pearson could benefit from a few more passengers. The Needs Assessment Study itself fails to make a clear case for an airport, concluding that "it is prudent planning to retain and protect the site, thereby preserving the option of building an airport, if and when required." Hardly a clarion call for action -- certainly no justification for Minister Flaherty's June announcement.

We haven't needed an airport north of Pickering in the last 40 years; we don't need one now. But the issue is bigger than that. The GTA will continue to grow. But it must do so sustainably. To our inevitable demise do we go if we destroy that which sustains us. Our farmlands -- and particularly Class 1 farmlands such as those that would become an airport if left to the devices of successive Federal governments -- sustain us. These lands were intended to feed us and that should forever be the purpose to which they are put.

So much of politics and political decision-making is short-sighted. This must change as a matter, ultimately, of our survival. On Wednesday, a bright, colourful fall day, I toured the Pickering Lands with fellow NDP MPs Malcolm Allen and Dan Harris, escorted and narrated by members of Land over Landings. Their fight for the future of the Pickering Lands is our fight. Together, we hope to draw attention to this issue and the importance of our farmlands to the future of our city. More than that, we want to remind this Conservative government that we have a future that is not theirs to destroy.