By Mark Brooks
How deep are the lobbyist hooks into the Pickering Airport Lands? The 9000 acres set aside for the new Pickering Airport and economic development near Toronto is an opportunity to create tens of thousands of jobs, hundreds of million in tax revenue and billions in economic activity. The new airport is expected to show the way to net-zero carbon Aviation in Canada’s fight against climate change.
Unfortunately, this amazing opportunity appears under attack by lobbyist trying to redirect a billion dollars’ worth of publicly owned land into their own pockets.
Cheryl Gallant, Member of Parliament for Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke, asked a question in the House of Commons Order Paper about to whom and how the Pickering Airport lands are currently leased. Once asked, the federal department to which the inquiry was directed has 45 days to respond. The answer received was stunning.
The important Question:
This was one part of the question submitted on the House of Commons Order Paper on May 3rd 2021 to Transport Canada which manages the publicly owned Pickering lands:
(h) what are the details of all meetings or consultations, including those with lobbyists or politicians, related to the formulation of the Pickering Agricultural Renewal Lease Strategy, including, for each meeting, the (i) date, (ii) list of attendees?
The Answer on June 18th:
Part (h): Transport Canada undertook an extensive preliminary search in order to determine the amount of information that would fall within the scope of the question and the amount of time that would be required to prepare a comprehensive response. The information requested is not systematically tracked in a centralized database. The department concluded that producing and validating a comprehensive response to this question would require a manual collection of information that is not possible in the time allotted and could lead to the disclosure of incomplete and misleading information.
This answer is incredulous.
If the 45 days that Transport Canadas was given to answer that question was not enough time, what would it take? How much lobbying activity is going on and why is it not transparently tracked and reported as expected with every other federal government department and the federal laws governing lobbying activity?
Could no one at Transport Canada feel secure enough in their jobs to fulfill their obligation to the Canadian people and their Parliament? Could they not find the meeting minutes for the committee charged with managing this critical piece of land worth billions in Toronto’s over heated real estate market?
The Order Paper response stated that there were 175 agriculture leases covering 8,108 total acres / 5,660 workable acres. However, we know from a previously successful FOI (Freedom Of Information request ) that control of these rests with and benefits accrue to just a few entities.
Just 24 leaseholders control 87% of the agriculture lands (7,019 total acres / 4,924 workable acres). A handful of large commercial farms (Nicknamed the big five) are leasing the majority of the land. The major leaseholders are Tapscott, Reesor/Burkholder, Stouffville Farms, L&J Farms, and 1018105 Ontario Inc. (confirmed to be Hunter Farms). The Big Five hold 110 leases controlling 4,475 acres, or 55% of all lands leased.
For more information see:
Who is Leasing the Pickering Airport Lands? – Friends of Pickering Airport
Even 8 months does not appear to be enough time as a related FOI (freedom of information request A-2020-00344 / DM ) was made to Transport Canada on October 21st 2020 for correspondence between Liberal MP Jennifer O’Connell and Transport Canada regarding the Pickering Airport lands. Despite a legislated timeframe for responding to an access to information request of 30 calendar days, the request is still pending 8 months later.
What is this government hiding and why is it delaying the economic development of Pickering Airport and the Eastern Toronto region? Who is lobbying behind the scenes to delay or divert this badly needed new aviation infrastructure that will take a decade to build?
It is time to re-ask these important questions and to hold the local MP Jennifer O’Connell, the lobbyists and the Minister of Transport accountable. Specifically, Transport Canada needs to release all material that should be easily accessible including the minutes of every meeting held between 2015 and today on the leasing of the Pickering lands.
At the very least a list of meetings and attendees should be easily attainable. If not it would appear that the cabinet minister in charge of Transport Canada has some explaining to do about who has intimidated its usually able civil servants into silence.
How involved was the local MP, Jennifer O’Connell, in promoting the interests of a leaseholders lobby group in extending their leases on a billion dollars of public land? Who did she bring to the table and what type of pressure did they place on Transport Canada employees?
The MPs question and Transport Canadas response can be found here:
Q-731 – Final (order) Pickering Airport Order Paper Question (1)