Two Court Battles Seek to Defend Southern Ontario’s Threatened Forests

From John Bacher:

In her last report before her office was shut down by the provincial government of Premier Doug Ford, Ontario’s Environment Commissioner, Dr. Diane Saxe, drew attention to what she termed “Southern Ontario’s Disappearing Forests.” She urged that, “Conserving forests must become a top priority in land use planning.” Since “each incremental loss has a big impact on the services the forests provide to society and the wildlife they support.”

This year, there are two cases with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice involving requests for a Leave to Appeal regarding decisions of the Ontario Lands Tribunal (OLT). They both seek to defend Saxe’s call for protecting forests to have priority in land use planning. One concerns a decision on the 208-acre Freele Tract of the Simcoe County Forest System. Another involves the Thundering Waters Forest in Niagara Falls, a 500-acre natural complex, involving both forest and savannah ecosystems. 

The Freele Tract case is being taken up by the Canadian Environmental Law Association on behalf of the Friends of Simcoe County Forests. The Thundering Waters litigation is being carried out by Ian Flett of Eric K. Gillespie Professional Corporation, on behalf of myself.  

Large tracts of contiguous natural areas in Southern Ontario are unfortunately quite rare. For this reason, the entire Thundering Waters natural area was to be protected in the Preliminary Proposals in 1977 of the Niagara Escarpment Plan. Sadly, lands along the Welland River, an important wildlife corridor, were removed from the plan based on landowner protests. The wooded Freele Tract is likewise connected to an important river corridor for wildlife movement.  

The Freele Tract and the Thundering Waters Forest contain rare and declining bird species that require large tracts of intact forests. Both provide habitat for the two such breeding birds, the Wood Thrush and the Eastern Wood-Pewee. The Freele Tract shelters the Red-Shouldered Hawk, while Thundering Waters is home to the Endangered Acadian Flycatcher. Both contain wetlands which later this month will musically explode with the symphonic breeding calls of the Spring Peeper, Wood Frog and Chorus Frog (unless the sounds at Thundering Waters are dimmed with those of chainsaws). Both forests have had sights of the Barred Owl, a raptor that requires large woodland tracts. 

The Freele Tract is now under assault, as it is being proposed by Simcoe County as the site for a Waste Transfer Station and Recycling Plant. Thundering Waters is vulnerable to a proposed urban development. While most of the Thundering Waters complex is a protected wetland, a zoning amendment to the Niagara Falls Official Plan would disrupt an eighty-acre component of this large, intact ecosystem. The zoning-by law would also permit a sewage pumping station to be built on the edge of the protected wetland. 

What makes the assault on the Freele Tract so egregious is that it was created in 1948 by Simcoe County Forests as part of its efforts to reverse desertification caused by ruthless deforestation. The original coniferous planting was successful. Through careful thinning, the mixed woodland in many areas is dominated by Sugar Maples. The Freele Tract and the Simcoe County system are one of the triumphs of the life of Edmund Zavitz, the second Chief Forester of Ontario (see my book Two Billion Trees and Counting: The Legacy of Edmund Zavitz, Dundurn Press, 2015). 

Tragically, Simcoe County has had a bad history of putting its facilities in the great forests it has created and otherwise protected. Its Victorian era Gothic revival courthouse and county administration building were demolished, and the county offices were placed in the middle of a county reforestation project. 

My friend Danny Beaton, a Mohawk environmentalist of the Turtle Clan, had a dramatic hearing in the ugly concrete block which is now the Simcoe County Courthouse. It was triggered by his role in a blockade to protect the aquifer of the world’s purest water from being turned into a garbage dump. 

Beaton’s role as an earth defender highlights the need to use litigation based on native treaty rights at this critical time when the basic principles of land use planning are ignored to ravage our last stands of significant woodlands. 
The precious remaining woodlands of Southern Ontario should be seen as protected by the 1702 Nanfan Treaty between the Crown and the Haudenosaunee, also known as the Albany Deed in Trust. Threatened intact forests, such as the Freele Tract and Thundering Waters, are the last stands for the wildlife habitats that were supposed to be protected through this sacred covenant. 

Zavitz, in taking up reforestation, used the basic techniques earlier applied by Mohawks in Oka, Quebec, to stop marching deserts. Today, as during the Oka Crisis, which erupted in a failed attempt to build a golf course and subdivision over Canada’s first reforestation project, our forest life support systems are threatened by stupidity and greed, upheld by the OLT. 

From Danny Beaton: 

In our way of life, the four legged are our brothers and sisters. We work with them in our ceremonies, calling them out for guidance. The moose, the deer, the wolf and cougar. The bear and the eagle. They have been a part of our culture and our way of life for thousands of years. Some of our Clans are even named after them. 

We all drink the same water as our relatives. We call them relatives because we think of them as family. We even eat the same food — fish, berries etc. We give thanksgiving to them in our sacred ceremonies, including everything that moves on Sacred Mother Earth. Turtles, frogs, snakes — all reptiles — these are relatives too. 

Everything natural is moving in a sacred way, even the air, the waters and constellations. We always give thanksgiving for the winds of the four directions, the north wind being one of the strongest. 

Today, we Mohawks and all other Nations and Tribes are recognized as Indigenous People. But we look at our relatives as Indigenous too. We are living together on our own homeland, Indigenous to Mother Earth. Both humans and the four legged. 

When we are young we are taught that all life is equal on this Sacred Mother Earth. Us humans are no better than other life. For these reasons alone, we have to consider our actions now because of the fragile state Sacred Mother Earth is in. And how all life will suffer from creating more concrete in our relatives’ homes.

We all have a right to have a good life and be happy in sacred harmony. All life needs clean water, fresh air and a place to bring up our children. Thank you for your consideration.

Photo Credit: Danny and John in Niagara.

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