A farmer asks his landlord to put up a No Trespassing sign and remove an unwanted structure. Not usually a news event heard across the country. But this time the flash point was as Canadian as it gets, a pond being used as a natural skating ring by local children in the middle of a pandemic. The structure a small change shack.
Around the north-eastern Toronto area, farmers and their neighbouring communities are sometimes at odds. The region’s booming population growth means that every year more children are playing next to, and on, the farmland next door. Parents worry about safety as well as environmental factors such as fertilizer or pesticide use next to their homes. The farmer worries about damage to his crops from trespassers, the safety of children playing on a farm, and liability if something goes wrong. This time there was also a twist.
As first reported by CTV news, on Wednesday Feb 3, 2021, a natural skating pond on the Pickering Airport lands was salted to stop local children from skating on it. Hockey nets were removed and destroyed, and a change shack built for the skaters that has been on the site for over a decade was torn down. This small pond is located next to the community of Claremont, and according to locals has been used by children for skating and playing hockey for over 40 years. This year it appears that the tenant leasing the land (a large commercial farm) complained to the landlord, Transport Canada, and asked them to remove the unauthorized change shack and to post no trespassing signs. A property management company used by Transport Canada did so, and it should be noted would have been equally liable in the event of a mishap at the pond if they did not act. In itself, this is not really unexpected but then someone allegedly salted the pond ice.
The story quickly went viral, getting picked up by several dozen news organizations around Canada including Global, CP24, and CBC radio 99.1 as well local online media such as BlogTo.com.
The twist is that the landlord is Transport Canada, and the pond is on land set aside for a new airport, being temporarily leased out to a commercial farm. If the suggestions of a recently released government report is followed, the airport will start construction in 2026. Ironically, one of the “local residents” mentioned in the Blogto.com post, Mary Delaney, who called the actions “criminal”, is actually the chairwoman of the anti-airport lobby group Land Over Landings. They have been taking donations from local farmers for years and Mary is herself a leaseholder living on the airport lands who would benefit by a delay in the airport’s construction.
The pond at the center of the controversy appears to be on lot 21 concession 8. Thanks to a freedom of Information request on who is leasing the Federal Pickering Airport Lands, it appears that this 177 acre parcel is leased out to Stouffville Farms Inc. This is a well known local commercial farm that, in total, appears to lease 1,259 acres ( or 14.5 %) of the federal land set aside for a new airport.
A statement given to CTV news by a transport Canada spokesman states in part:
“under their lease agreement, the current tenant has the right to allow the space to remain open to only authorized users due to liability concerns”
Only the owner of Stouffville Farms and Transport knows if and why he prodded Transport Canada (the landlord) to act now. Certainly, he is within his rights and should be encouraged to continue to show an abundance of caution in operating a commercial farm next to a community with children.
Then it is alleged that someone salted the pond ice.
Transport has stated that they did not and would never do such a thing. Salting the pond would weaken the ice and endanger anyone standing on it as well as create an environmental issue in the spring.
If not Transport, then who salted the Pond? It is doubtful that it is the current lease holder. Such an action is detrimental to their interests as well. It doesn’t make sense that in an effort to eliminate a potential liability, they would take action to increase their environmental and community endangerment liabilities.
Transport Canada and the leaseholder taking action to eliminate a potential liability is reasonable. Posting No Trespassing signs was appropriate. It would, however, have been nice if Transport Canada had informed the community before taking its action. Tearing down the structures comes across as excessive unless there was a health threat. Did COVID-19 play a role? Transport outsources some management tasks on the Pickering Lands to a BGIS, a major property management company. It is reasonable to assume that they took down the shack, and if so, did they follow the appropriate guidelines ?
Salting the pond was dangerous and mean-spirited. But who did it? Right on que, anti-airport spokeswoman and Pickering land leaseholder Mary Delaney jumped in and called the action criminal. She is quoted by blogTO.com as stating on Facebook:
“ the pouring of salt on a natural waterway is a crime in law and against nature. I am appalled”
Appropriating this incident to rub some salt into a Transport Canada wound, and seeking to use it to their advantage should be expected. No doubt this will be added to a list of “criminal” wrong doings by Transport and woven into an anti-airport narrative of grievances by her and others enjoying a billion dollars of public land at a yearly rate of $120 dollars an acre in the hottest real estate market in Canada. The idea that the aerotropolis she is trying to delay will create 150,000 jobs, housing for 120,000, improve safety and help Canadian aviation achieve its net carbon neutral emission goals is not her concern.
The local MP’s (Jennifer O’Connell), promise to raise the skating pond issue with the newly-minted Minister of Transport, the Honourable Omar Alghabra, has ominous undertones. To what end? What could she possibly achieve anti-airport-wise? After all, Transport Canada took the responsible action.
The MP is firmly against the airport’s construction. So much so that she recently misrepresented the findings of a government report (the ASA report) on the need for an airport in both a press release and in a petition she sponsored in parliament to cancel the airport. The MP’s misinformation is now the subject of a Freedom Of Information (FOI) request that has been taking an unusually long time to be answered (months).
Based on Transport Canada’s 3 runway configuration, this stream and pond are expected to stay untouched once the new airport is built. In the Durham Gateway airport design the field 20 meters or so from the pond that is currently being farmed could be turned into a noise buffer, including an earth berm planted with trees.
The recently released million-dollar KPMG ASA report suggests breaking ground on a new industrial/utility airport on the Pickering site in 2026. The report showed a positive business case that will enable private funding of the new airport. Although passenger aviation is struggling, the demand for utility aviation is now soaring, so why wait any longer? In September 2020, traffic at Oshawa airport was above 2019 levels and currently the city, which operates the airport, is in the process of culling a flight school to reduce congestion.
For Claremont, there could be an opportunity here. In the future airport master plan, with the agriculture lease cancelled, an earth berm constructed, and the area planted with trees, consider the possibility that the skating pond and new forest might become a permanent fixture for all to enjoy.
As of Sunday February 7th, according to Claremont resident Gordon Roberts, “the No Trespassing sign is gone and the ice is now covered in a fresh layer of snow that has not been cleared for several days”. Winter has covered the pond, but a storm continues to brew beneath a layer of white snow.