What happens when a young reporter from the City meets a slick well-practiced “Rural” lobby group hunting for cheap leases on a Billion dollars of government land? It’s a classic scene with all the right virtue signalling of farming, the environment, and food security. A warm fuzzy setup covering the warts of a Big Money ask. The result is a story that misses the real story.
The location is Pickering Ontario, a short drive from downtown Toronto. The land being lobbied for is 9600 acres expropriated in the 1970s for a new airport. Painstakingly assembled with great foresight, the land is set aside for the day when Toronto needs more aviation capacity. With the Toronto Region growing by 127,000 residents in 2019, that day is fast approaching.
Who is leasing this land today is mostly a mystery. Thanks to cheap land leases, many of the original farmers stayed on, but over time all but two have been replaced by newcomers. Today there are 172 agricultural, 64 residential (mostly in the Hamlet of Brougham) and 48 commercial leases.
“Personal leaseholder information, including tenant names and details of the leases cannot be disclosed to third parties without the individual’s (or, business’) consent, for privacy reasons,” according to a Transport Canada official. Transport Canada is the federal government department managing the land.
Some businesses are well known, including a hang-gliding sightseeing business called High Perspective. Others value their privacy. Most support the lobby group Land Over Landings featured in the CBC story. Founded in 2005, it is fighting to keep and extend the land leases. Nicknamed LOL by the locals, its highly visible Chair and Vice Chair are not original landowners but are media-savvy leaseholders. Both are well known for online attacks on local civic leaders including Pickering Mayor Dave Ryan who made building the airport an election issue in 2018. The mayor won by a landslide.
At a $120 dollars an acre per year who wouldn’t want to preserve this deal by any means possible? That is equal to the cost of three days of parking in Toronto. There is a waiting list of want-to-be lessees.
Fortunately for the taxpayer, five out of six local mayors want to develop the land, and they can demonstrate both need and opportunity. A recently released report commissioned by Transport Canada, states that new aviation capacity is needed, and suggests breaking ground on Pickering Airport in 2026. Called the Pickering Lands Aviation Sector Analysis (ASA for short), it provides a business case for efficiently building the airport in stages and spends hundreds of pages providing scenarios and options on how this capacity could be delivered. It states that Pickering Airport is needed and can only be delayed yet again with billions of dollars in expansion at other airports. This alternative would deprive the Eastern Toronto region of locally-accessible aviation capacity and burden its citizens with a two-hour drive to Hamilton or Waterloo. The ASA is the second report suggesting that the airport is needed and prudent.
Taking the offensive, the LOL is lobbying for 20 to 30-year leases with no cancellation clause to replace the current 10 year leases. Renewed in 2018, the current leases can be canceled with one years notice. While this may enable more efficient “farming development “, it could also turn the current leaseholders into instant millionaires (assuming they are not already) and enable efficient subleasing. It would block the airport’s development and stop the creation of 50,000 jobs and $13 billion in annual economic activity.
In 2018 the lobby group spent $85,000 on a report of it own. The CBC reporter dutifully repeated the LOL report’s claim that it would create 2,100 jobs and almost $240 million annually. It did not report that it would require more than doubling the size of the airport lands by clawing back parkland. It did not report that it would use the power of government to essentially expropriate private lands from successful private farmers in North Pickering. This land would then be leased back to a chosen few selected and supported by a new government agency, and of course publicly funded to the tune of millions of dollars a year by the taxpayer.
The LOL-commissioned agricultural study is silent on how it undermines private farmlands or is supposed to fit in with established agricultural support efforts. An example of a successful program is the University of Guelph’s existing 15 agriculture research stations located throughout Ontario, their agreement (10-years, $713 million) with OMFRA to expand research and innovation programs, and the University’s excellent farm incubator program for those people interested in becoming farmers. What possible motive could there be for duplicating any of this on the federal lands in Pickering?
The damage created by expanding the government-owned lands and using them to subsidize competition against Canada’s private farming sector is not known. Canada’s privately-owned and run farms are highly successful. Nationally they currently produce three times the food consumed by Canadians and create Billions in exports. Displacing private farmers with a “More Efficient“ government agency to select and nurture farmers has never worked. A good example of an epic failure of this approach is the famine created in the Ukraine in the 1930s.
The real story missed by the naive CBC reporter is the lack of transparency about who owns these leases and who will benefit from their renewal. Who will become the instant millionaires? What if these chosen few are current or former politicians, staffers or family members or even civil servants from Transport Canada itself? Who are the lobbyists? That possibility is distorting the integrity of the decision process over the future of a billion-dollar public asset. It is undermining the ability of elected officials to govern. In the age of misinformation and misdirection for profit, transparency is key to fighting corruption.
It is time to lift the fog by publishing the names of the corporations and individuals profiting from the Canadian taxpayer or to end the leases completely. Only then can Canadians appreciate the valiant efforts of local civic and business leaders calling on a distant and seemingly uncaring federal government to stop delaying the regions development. It is time for transparency, to end the leases and build Pickering airport.