Ottawa to scrap Ontario Highway 413 impact assessment

March 22, 2024
Barbara Steinhoff

Ontario, federal governments agreed to set aside project assessment after impugned Impact Assessment Act

The Canadian Press · Posted: Mar 21, 2024 5:05 PM EDT

Ontario has struck a tentative deal with Ottawa to drop an assessment of the province's Highway 413 project, oversight long advocated for by environmental groups but criticized by the province as federal overreach.

The provincial and federal governments filed a joint consent order with the Federal Court, asking the judge to set aside the project's designation under the impugned Impact Assessment Act.

Ontario initially wanted the Federal Court to clarify the act no longer applied to the highway project, accusing Ottawa of refusing to accept an October Supreme Court of Canada decision ruling parts of the federal law were unconstitutional.

"We have come to an agreement," Ontario Attorney General Doug Downey told reporters Thursday. He declined to comment further while the case is still before the court.

Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault also declined to comment, citing the ongoing case.

The joint consent order filed in Federal Court Wednesday says both levels of government remain "committed to collaborating" to assess the effects of the highway on areas of federal jurisdiction.

Decision to step in cited at-risk species, treaty rights

News of the tentative deal, however, upset environmental groups and opposition parties who had pushed for a federal environmental review of the project in light of what they have alleged was weak provincial oversight.

"Having the federal government signal a possible retreat from enforcing their own laws is a huge concern," said Tim Gray, executive director for Environmental Defence.

Last fall, the Supreme Court of Canada found parts of the Impact Assessment Act to be unconstitutional, ruling it was written in a way that could allow the federal government to make decisions about projects wholly within provincial jurisdiction.

Guilbeault has said the decision left the law standing, but the government would work to tighten the parts the court found were too broad. He said that included powers the law gives the environment minister to designate projects for review under the act.

Highway 413 was one of only five projects designated for review under that provision since 2019. The minister's 2021 decision to step in cited the project's possible effects on critical habitat of at-risk species as well as the treaty rights of Indigenous people.

Opposition parties disappointed with move

Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said he was deeply troubled by the federal government "abandoning their commitment to protecting Ontario's farms, wetlands and species at risk."

"I urge them to rethink this dangerous decision," he said in a statement.

NDP MPP Sandy Shaw, the official opposition critic for environment, conservation and parks, said the deal is "completely irresponsible."

"At a time when Ford has systematically stripped away countless meaningful environmental protections, a federal impact assessment may be the only way to find out the true cost of the Highway 413 proposal – including the impact to farms, floodplains, and vulnerable species," she wrote in a statement.

"Let's be clear — Ford's proposed Highway 413 is not about the public interest – just as with the Greenbelt scandal, it's more about boosting the profits of land speculators than connecting people and communities."

The highway, originally proposed in 2003, was revived by Premier Doug Ford's Progressive Conservatives in 2018. It would stretch across parts of Vaughan, Caledon, Brampton and Halton Hills.

The province says the highway is needed to help manage the area's growth and tackle gridlock.

Environmental groups say the highway would encourage sprawl into areas of the Greenbelt and pave over prime farmland, all while nearby Highway 407 goes underused. They say the proposed highway could also jeopardize the health of at-risk species such as the western chorus frog and the redside dace, a small fish.

The group, represented by counsel from Ecojustice, is an intervenor in this legal case, the release states. But the federal government's withdrawal during the Ontario government's ongoing case against the designation, means arguments about the legality and environmental impacts  "will likely not be heard."

Gray says the federal government needs to urgently pass its promised revisions to the Impact Assessment Act and re-designate the project.

"This is a situation where you have a provincial government that is completely abdicating responsibility for protecting the environment, and the federal government has both the tools and the responsibility to ensure that those impacts aren't experienced by the people of Ontario."

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