02/08/2013 05:35 EST | Updated 04/10/2013 05:12 EDT

Why Gord Downie Is Worried About Oshawa


The story of the Oshawa Harbour sings like rock 'n roll to me. It's all grit and raw vulnerability.

There's a beauty to the Oshawa Harbour region that is sweet and cool. Lakeview Park is a massive waterfront public space that attracts thousands of families on warm summer days. Nearby Second Marsh is one of the largest wetlands on Lake Ontario, offering refuge to migrating birds, 57 species of fish, and nearly 500 species of plant life.

There's a shadow over the Oshawa Harbour as well, a darkness and a rot. Oshawa is the only city on the Great Lakes with no boat access to the water. Think about that: 150,000 people living within spitting distance of one of the largest lakes on the planet, and they have to get in their cars and drive somewhere else if they want to fish, sail, or paddle.

Eviction notices were delivered by the Oshawa Port Authority, the body installed by the federal government to oversee the Harbour. The Port Authority doesn't answer to local government or residents and is pursuing a slew of projects that residents and city council oppose: expanding the railway, permitting a new ethanol plant, and extending the port area nearly 1-kilometre into Lake Ontario. Local officials, residents, and community associations have repeatedly, consistently, and passionately said "no!" to these projects. Yet the federal Port Authority pushes on.

Imagine what this does to a community. Imagine what it's like to be part of a generation of kids who grow up believing that the lake is for "other" people, that the wishes and concerns of people directly affected by government decisions don't matter. That's the darkness.

I'm coming back to Oshawa on Saturday to see The Tragically Hip at GM Place. The last time I was there with the band's frontman, Gord Downie, we were on our Heart of a Lake Tour trying to raise awareness about the issues facing Lake Ontario.

Then and now, Gord says the same thing: "Oshawa Harbour is a weathervane. If you are a person who cares about Lake Ontario, water, or democracy, then you should have one eye on this place. Here you have good people fighting for what should be a basic right -- a clean, accessible harbour -- and no one at the top seems to care. As Oshawa goes, so goes the rest of Canada."

In the last year, virtually every environmental law in Canada has been gutted. If you want to know what that means for Canadians, look no further than Oshawa.

Industry folk want to build a new ethanol refinery in Oshawa. Residents generally support the idea, with one exception: they don't want it built on the last greenspace on their waterfront, a buffer area that protects Second Marsh and was home to a trading post in the 1700s. Disputes of this kind would once have been addressed during a study process known as an "environmental assessment." Because the Government of Canada gutted environmental assessment legislation, that won't be happening.

Port folk want more space for ships. There's a new plan afoot to fill in part of Lake Ontario to create a new wharf. It would interfere with fish habitat and navigation, but rollbacks to fisheries and navigable water protection legislation ensure there won't be any consequences for port developers.

The City of Oshawa has gone out on a limb to oppose this industrialization of community space and filling-in of our Great Lake. It's been calling on the federal government to pay more attention to residents' wishes for years. The federal government has never listened, unfortunately. Residents called for a better marina, but they got booted out. They called for a mixed-use port but they got a rail spur and a bigger wharf instead. This is the kind of tin-ear "consultation" Canadians can expect to see more and more often in the coming years.

Saturday, on our way to the show, the Waterkeeper crew will be swinging by the Harbour to snap some winter photos. If you're in the area, you should swing by the Harbour, too. Visit Second Marsh or Lakeview Park. Catch a glimpse of Gifford Hill while it is still undeveloped. Be a good citizen. It's time well-spent.