Huh? Why are the feds stepping in to review a provincial highway?

OPINION: Ottawa has announced that the planned Highway 413 will be subjected to federal review — and that sends a message about Liberal political priorities
By John Michael McGrath - Published on May 04, 2021
Minister of Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson (left) with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Ottawa on December 11, 2020. (Justin Tang/CP)

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Once upon a time in Ontario, there was a local controversy about a large quarry — the “mega-quarry,” its critics called it — proposed for Melancthon, about 25 kilometres north of Orangeville. Quarries are things that regularly generate a lot of local opposition in Ontario, but they’re also vital to the construction industry, so provincial policy mostly doesn’t let municipalities stand in their way — unless they become controversial enough that a government perceives some real political risk to its re-election.

So in the run-up to the 2011 election, the Liberal government (under Premier Dalton McGuinty) announced that the mega-quarry would not go forward and issued a ministerial zoning order to freeze the land’s legal use as farmland. This paused the project, but it didn’t actually stop it altogether: in 2017, the Liberal government, this time under Kathleen Wynne, put forward a similar proposal. But the political imperative of preserving Liberal seats in the 2011 election had passed, and the Melancthon quarry was no longer a lightning-rod issue for the government.

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The Melancthon mega-quarry came to mind immediately when I read the news that the federal environment minister, Jonathan Wilkinson, was going to subject the GTA West Highway — a planned 400-series expressway through York and Peel regions — to a federal impact assessment. The announcement tells us very little about whether the route, also known as Highway 413, will actually ever be built, and it tells us very little about what the actual environmental harms of the highway might be. But it tells us a great deal about how the federal Liberals may be calculating potential political gains with a national general election very likely sometime this summer or fall.

Before we get into the politics, though, let’s go over the policy merits of this choice, because it’s nearly unprecedented for the federal government to subject a provincial highway — something entirely within provincial jurisdiction — to a federal environmental assessment. (“Nearly,” because there was an attempt to subject an Ontario highway to federal review back in the 1990s that failed in court.) In Canada, it’s not unusual for a project to fall under both provincial and federal environmental laws, since the real world doesn’t adhere to the neat jurisdictional boundaries of the Canadian Constitution. In practice, that means needing to meet the standards of whatever government has the most strenuous regulations at the time.

And it’s not remotely controversial to say that the GTA West highway will have substantial environmental impacts, as all highways do. Concerns related to the destruction of farmland and wetlands, the disruption of the habitats of species at risk, the effects on fisheries and migratory birds could all come into play, and some of these are areas of federal jurisdiction. So even though it’s a provincial project, there’s an argument for applying the federal law.

But, as Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney’s office was eager to point out to reporters yesterday, a staff review of the GTA West highway by the federal agency that conducts environmental assessments looked at these issues and concluded that most, if not all, of them will be subject to other provincial or federal laws and that a full-blown federal environmental assessment might not be strictly necessary.

Obviously, the federal minister came to his own conclusion, and that’s why we have elected officials at the top of government ministries. It’s not a scandal when this happens. What’s interesting to me is that this is a fight with Queen’s Park that Ottawa could easily have avoided if it’d wanted to — by pointing to that same staff advice and to the robust set of provincial and federal laws that will apply even if there isn’t a formal environmental assessment.

The easiest explanation for why the feds would pick a fight with Ontario on this issue right now is that they think it will be politically profitable to do so. It’s no secret that Premier Doug Ford probably helped former Conservative leader Andrew Scheer lose the last federal election, as Ontario voters flocked to hand their ballots to the Liberals when Ford was at his lowest political ebb. The GTA West highway has become something that lots of GTA voters, local municipal councils, and all the opposition MPPs at Queen’s Park oppose, so there’s clearly a constituency for the federal Liberals to tap into.

On its own, it’s a relatively small matter in the scope of a national election. But it’s a way for the federal Liberals to put the spotlight back on the least-popular parts of Ford’s policy agenda at Queen’s Park, has nothing to do with pandemic response at either level of government, and shows progressive voters that the Liberal party is willing to flex its muscle on their priorities.

All in all, Monday’s announcement tells us something interesting about how the Liberal party sees the next election unfolding. What it can’t tell us is how serious the Liberals are about obstructing a provincial highway after the next federal election — or the next provincial one.

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