By Mark Brooks
There are two completely different interpretations of a government report meant to clarify the future development of Pickering Airport.
The first was from government back-bencher MP Jennifer O’Connell whose press release was published by a lobby group only 101 minutes after the report was made public. The MP’s press release stated that no airport is needed.
The second is from aviation experts and civic planners who have now had time to read and understand the report. Their conclusion is that the airport is needed soon. Who is right?
On the morning of March 5th, 2020, local Liberal MP Jennifer O’Connell made a statement that was hotly promoted by the lobby group which refers to itself as “Land Over Landings” in the press and local civic politics. Her statement was released in response to the 492-page multi- million-dollar ASA (Aviation Sector Analysis) report made public by Transport Canada that same morning. The MP’s statement was quoted in the press, continues to be promoted by lobby groups, and is providing convenient cover for land developers looking to build inside the area impacted by the Pickering Airport Site Zoning Regulation (PASZR). In her press release, the MP made an authoritative reference to the contents of the ASA report to state that no airport was needed before 2038. The problem was that anyone who actually read the contents of the report will discover that the ASA suggests breaking ground on the airport in 2026 multiple times and the date 2038 never once appears in the report in reference to the airport.
A recent response to a Freedom of Information Request clears up the confusion by asking for the following information.
The list of all communications between the MP and Transport Canada can be found here:
Now, if a response from Transport Canada to FOI (Freedom of Information) Request A-2020-00344 is to be believed, we have a shocking new insight that answers that question. The MP did not appear to have prior access to the report and was not briefed by Transport Canada experts on its contents before or after its release. There were no written communications of any sort, no data exchange, written requests or meeting minutes. In summary, there was no evidence whatsoever of any correspondence advising the MP on the contents of a highly technical 492-page report comprising 4 sections, written over 3 years.
The MP is clearly not an aviation expert.
Even if she were, it stretches credibility to its very limits to think that less than two hours would be enough for anyone (expert or not) to read and competently analyze an almost 500-page report, with sufficient understanding to assemble an authoritative press release.
If the FOI paper trail is correct, it is logical to conclude that the MP’s statement lacks integrity. The MP’s analysis of the report is not credible. Her statement posted by the lobby group can be found here.
The timeline of the report’s release, at 9 a.m. on March 5th, and the release of O’Connell’s statement by a lobby group at 10:41 am, even before it appears to be posted by her on social media, also raised eyebrows. Her statement on Twitter and Facebook appears to have been sent out at 2:30 p.m. on March 5th. How closely was the MP coordinating with this lobby group?
At best, this was a boilerplate statement prepared in advance, with what the MP hoped would be in the report. The statement itself seems carefully worded, such as stating that, “No decision had been made”. In fact, the report’s purpose was not to make a decision but to provide information and development scenarios to the federal cabinet so that they could make a decision on the role of the new airport and when to begin construction.
A more thoughtful reading by experts and the civic governments charged with integrating the airport into the region’s development plans is that an airport is needed soon. They point out the fact that the ASA report states that:
- An airport will be needed in the future and suggests breaking ground on the new airport in 2026 multiple time including on pages 372/374.
- The last 100 pages of the ASA report shows a positive business case for building in stages from a small industrial airport opening in 2028, with specialty passenger service as early as 2029, finally growing to a significant passenger airport by 2036.
- The report states that currently unplanned expansions of passenger capacity at other airports could delay the need for new passenger capacity in Pickering. Did the MP confuse the ability to delay the need for passenger capacity with the need for the airport? Is this the source of the MPs confusion or was her press release dis-information?
For detailed information it is best to read the conclusions in the report itself on page 334. (just before the business case showing a positive 8% IRR and related annexes) The report can be found here.
So, why the misinformation over the need for the airport in Pickering? Is this a case of an MP following the advice of former environment minister Catherine Mckenna, who on May 27, 2019 stated:
“If you repeat it, if you say it louder, if that’s your talking point, people will totally believe it!”.
Jennifer O’Connell should take note. The damage done by that single statement, said apparently in jest in a bar, may be part of the reason Catherine Mckenna has now withdrawn from politics.
It is no secret that local Liberal MP, Jennifer O’Connell, her campaign volunteers and donors, want to stop the airport now zoned for Pickering in Durham region just east of Toronto. Since 2016, the MP has presented numerous (eight?) small petitions in the House of Parliament calling for the cancelling of the airport zoning, and for the extension of the government land leases to a small (and mysterious) group of leaseholders. Land developers looking to build housing inside the PASZR area want the airport zoning cancelled so they can build housing in areas now restricted by zoning for the airport’s approach paths over the greenbelt.
Each attempt to cancel the PASZR has received a firm answer from the Minister of Transport, NO! A thousand times No! This includes a recent presentation of a petition on February 25th 2021, and a response in April from the new Minister of Transport, the Honourable Omar Alghabra.
His response to an error filled petition sums up the Liberal government’s current position on the Pickering Airport and the role of the ASA report.
- No timing has been announced but planning will continue, and,
- No, the zoning will not be cancelled.
The billion-dollar federal land reserve will remain set aside for the new airport. It will not be leased out in perpetuity to an anointed few.
The good news is that it looks like Jennifer O’Connell, Member of Parliament for Pickering—Uxbridge and her staff did not give lobbyists and other interested parties a sneak peek at a then-confidential Transport Canada report in preparation for its release. They couldn’t have, as they did not have a copy of it themselves. Nor did the MP politicize the integrity of the analysis process, as she did not have any communications with Transport Canada on the report before or after the ASA report’s release.
The bad news is that, in her haste to please her supporters and get an anti-aviation narrative out in front of the 24-hour news cycle, the MP misled both the press and the public at a critical moment. The timing of her actions, trying to squeeze through an ideological action/parochial agenda at the moment when the focus of the Minister of Transport was elsewhere, on the building pandemic crisis, hurt the government’s credibility and the greater good.
It would take time before it became clear that the MPs statement was factually incorrect. And even this knowledge has limited exposure and certainly none by major media outlets.
Her statement has brought her integrity into question and, as well, as casting and unfavourable and unwarranted light on Transport Canada and the Minister.
Transport Canada’s integrity has now been restored by the release of all the correspondence it had with the MP about the ASA report in full. Transport Canada is hiding nothing. The current Minister of Transport, Omar Alghabra’s thoughts on the subject are made clear in his April 12th, 2021 response to Jennifer O’Connell’s petition (with 30 valid signatures) calling to cancel the airport zoning and release the lands.
This is part of the text extracted from the ministers response which can be found in full on the house of commons website here.
“The timing of any decision concerning the development of a potential airport on the Pickering Lands will be influenced by many market and non-market factors beyond the exclusive consideration of passenger capacities at other airports within the Southern Ontario airports system. Such factors may include, but are not limited to: shifting airline business models, regional population growth and evolving demographics, infrastructure needs and investments, as well as the interests and needs of regional stakeholders.
There are no predetermined decisions based on results from the Aviation Sector Analysis, and no decisions or plans have been made to develop an airport on the Pickering Lands. The Aviation Sector Analysis would be one of many inputs into the development of a future recommendation for the Pickering Lands. Any decision on the development of the Pickering Lands will be made based on a sound business case and updated data on aviation demand and capacity.”
Further information about the ASA reports role is also available on Transport Canadas website here.
The raison d’être of Parliament is to debate issues that impact peoples’ lives. All MPs are equal, but without integrity and credibility how can they represent their constituents, oversee the executive, and contribute to the legislative process for the greater good of all Canadians?
The Member of Parliament for Pickering—Uxbridge needs to start down the long road to restoring her integrity by correcting the misinformation she published. If not, it will continue to be used by a lobby groups to squeeze donations out of people, by the lease holders lobbying to extend their land leases and to attack other political leaders.
The ASA report shows that a local accessible utility airport in Pickering, as a starting point, will be a positive economic engine for the region. It can be built in part or in whole with private investment. It will support job creation, innovation and enable aviation industries and contribute to the region’s net zero carbon goals by reducing commute times congestion and by providing the space needed to host innovation in aviation technology.
Now is the time to move forward with its construction.
Response to Petition – (ourcommons.ca)