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Feds opt not to conduct impact assessment of Ontario Place

The federal environment minister's decision cleared another potential hurdle for the province's redevelopment plans
Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault speaks at a news conference, in Ottawa, Monday, June 5, 2023.

This article originally appeared on The Trillium, a Village Media website devoted exclusively to covering provincial politics at Queen’s Park.

By choosing not to conduct an environmental impact assessment of Ontario Place, the federal government cleared another potential hurdle for the Ford government’s and Therme’s plans to redevelop the provincially controlled site.

The provincial government, Therme, and the activist group that requested the impact assessment were notified by Steven Guilbeault, Canada’s environment minister, of his decision on Friday.

It followed the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada’s conclusion that the adverse effects to wildlife and habitats that Therme’s west island spa project “is likely to cause” could be mitigated, and that the parking garage the government plans to build “is not likely to cause adverse effects” on the environment.

Ontario’s Infrastructure Minister Kinga Surma said on Monday that the provincial government is “very happy with that outcome.”

“We’re happy to hear that the federal government is staying in its jurisdiction,” Surma added.

Therme Canada said in a statement that it’s “pleased with the federal government’s decision and their balanced analysis.”

Some opponents of the redevelopment plan said Guilbeault’s decision “disappointed” them.

“We are disappointed with the response from Minister Guilbeault, but appreciate that they (the federal government) looked into our request with what looks like a good level of detail,” Norm Di Pasquale of Ontario Place for All, the group that requested the assessment, told The Trillium on Monday.

Ontario Place for All opposes the government’s plan to allow Therme to build a spa and waterpark at the site, advocating instead for more of the area on Toronto’s waterfront to remain publicly accessible.

“I am deeply, deeply disappointed in the federal Liberal environment minister,” NDP Leader Marit Stiles said at Queen’s Park on Monday. 

Guilbeault’s decision came at the end of a hugely significant week for the Ford government’s and Therme’s plans, which Ontario’s opposition New Democrat, Liberal and Green parties all oppose.

Last Monday, Premier Doug Ford and Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow announced their “new deal” for Toronto, which would give the provincial government full control over the Ontario Place redevelopment.

Chow, a longtime New Democrat, had promised to fight Therme’s plans while she was running for mayor earlier this year.

The provincial government will assume control over the Don Valley Parkway and Gardiner Expressway and give Toronto $1.2 billion over three years for transit and shelter programs as part of the agreement with the city. Chow did eke out one significant Ontario Place-related concession from the province, with Ford’s government agreeing to relocate its proposed underground parking lot to Exhibition Place, across from the manmade waterfront site.

The Ford government also introduced Bill 154, the New Deal for Toronto Act, last Monday. It would make law changes to bring to fruition the agreement between the premier and mayor of Toronto.

Bill 154 also includes a new “Rebuilding Ontario Place Act,” excluding the site from provincial environmental assessment requirements and giving Infrastructure Minister Kinga Surma special authority over the redevelopment project, including the power to issue minister’s zoning orders that could speed up its construction.

The Ford government has moved to expedite the passage process of Bill 154, something opposition parties were adamantly against as well. If its fast-track motion passes, the New Deal for Toronto Act would skip the committee study stage and have its leftover debate time eliminated.

This Monday, Toronto-area Liberal MPP Stephanie Bowman said the city of Toronto’s concessions in its new deal with the province is “the main disappointment” to her.

“The mayor could have fought this in court (and) drawn out the time,” Bowman told reporters at the Ontario legislature.

Bowman's riding of Don Valley West is next door to the riding containing the long-serving facility that’s home to the Ontario Science Centre, which the Ford government also intends to relocate to Ontario Place as part of its redevelopment. 

Last Wednesday, a couple of days after the new deal for Toronto was announced, Infrastructure Ontario released its long-promised business case to justify moving the science centre. The analysis done by the agency that reports to Surma determined the government would save $250 million over 50 years by relocating the science centre to Ontario Place from the Don Mills building that’s housed it since the late 1960s.

Stiles, however, characterized the business case as “a shell game to justify the Conservatives’ scheme for a private luxury spa at Ontario Place,” pointing out funding requirements for the government’s plans for a new science centre and its existing facility, which weren’t accounted for in the business case Infrastructure Ontario released.

Ontario Place for All formally asked Guilbeault to conduct a federal environmental impact assessment on Sept. 18. Di Pasquale co-signed a letter arguing in favour of a study of effects the planned spa and parking garage would have on fish, Lake Ontario’s aquatic habitat, migratory birds, and at-risk species, along with the greenhouse gas emissions they could contribute.

Provincial laws “provide a framework to address potential adverse effects” on many of the species, the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada wrote in its analysis. Therme also indicated to the federal agency that it has plans to mitigate various of these potential effects, some of which it’s developed with input from Indigenous communities, and that it’s looking into ways to minimize its spa project’s emissions.

Green Leader Mike Schreiner added on Monday that he thinks “it’s a mistake on the case of the federal government.”

“There are endangered species at Ontario Place on the west island and the fact that the current provincial government has refused to do a full environmental assessment of the west island is a shirking of their responsibility,” Schreiner added.

Although certain environmental studies have been done, a comprehensive assessment taking Therme’s and the government’s other redevelopment partners’ current plans into consideration hasn’t been completed.

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Charlie Pinkerton

About the Author: Charlie Pinkerton

Charlie has covered politics since 2018, covering Queen's Park since 2021. Instead of running for mayor of Toronto, he helped launch the Trillium in 2023.
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