Toronto, Canada: Landowners who fought Pickering airport plan mark 40 years
Recently hundreds gathered in the ghost town of Brougham, near Toronto, to celebrate their 40-year fight with the federal government. The group “Land Over Landings” is the latest iteration of the grassroots organization that captured the nation’s attention in 1972 with wild stunts and savvy backroom political dealings. Forty years ago, government announced plans for a new airport in north Pickering to relieve pressure on Malton airport, now known as Toronto Pearson International. That meant expropriating 7,530 hectares nd booting out 2,000 residents. A group of homeowners calling themselves “People or Planes” fought the plans, and though the land is now empty and unoccupied, the blocked the new airport. There are now plans again to perhaps build a runway, and opposition is building again.
On Friday, hundreds gathered in the ghost town of Brougham to celebrate their 40-year fight with the federal government. Land Over Landings is the latest iteration of the grassroots organization that captured the nation’s attention in 1972 with wild stunts and savvy backroom political dealings.
Forty years ago, prime minister Pierre Trudeau and Ontario premier Bill Davis announced plans for a new airport in north Pickering to relieve pressure on Malton airport, now known as Toronto Pearson International. That meant expropriating 7,530 hectares — an area twice the size of Whitby — and booting out 2,000 residents.
A group of homeowners who gathered that night, March 2, picked a name — People or Planes — and plotted a battle plan. To lead them, they picked Dr. Charles Godfrey, who would later win a seat in the Ontario Legislature, while Bill Lishman and Michael Robertson became the creative team, designated to figure out ways to capture media attention.
“We brought the hippie connection,” Robertson says now. Their stunts, such as hanging Trudeau and Davis in effigy, made nationwide news. While their antics garnered attention, the masterminds put together comprehensive and convincing arguments against the airport, even obtaining internal government documents that showed it would not be needed anytime soon.
The attention resonated not just with those living on the land, but with Toronto residents as well. Former mayors David Crombie and John Sewell were big supporters of the movement. In the fall of 1975, Davis announced that Ontario didn’t need or want the airport any longer and refused to provide roads, watermains or a sewage system for it even if Ottawa paid the cost.
An enraged Trudeau cancelled the airport a few days later, but the federal government held onto the expropriated land and rented out the remaining houses.
Forty years later, the area has become a ghost town. In the last decade, the government boarded up houses as tenants left. Eleven of those vacant homes have burned down since 2006 — all in suspicious fires — one of them with a “confinement room” discovered not long before the house’s destruction.
Transport Canada demolished 31 houses in 2011. Of the 700 original houses on the expropriated land, only about 150 remain; a further 100 are slated for demolition.
A study by the Greater Toronto Airports Authority last summer said the GTA might need an airport between 2027 and 2037, but Chris Alexander, the conservative MP for Ajax-Pickering, is “personally 100 per cent against the airport, because the study showed there just is no demand for it.”
The local group called Land over Landings says:
The 18,600 acres of land expropriated for an airport in 1972 stand today as an oasis in the midst of urban sprawl. Land Over Landings seeks to protect the land by focussing on the following issues, while recognizing the efforts of many other environmental and political groups in the area.*
Stopping an Airport / Monitoring Transport Canada
An airport of any size or type is neither needed nor wanted by the overwhelming number of citizens and politicians in the municipalities affected. No credible business case has ever been made, nor is it compatible with environmentally sustainable practices. Only by ensuring that no airport is ever built on these sensitive lands can we ensure their continued green use for generations to come. Read Land Over Landings’ Formal Response to the Needs Assessment Study: Pickering Lands, released July 11, 2011 after a lengthy delay.
Promoting the Creation of an Independent Land Trust
Land Over Landings believes that only through the creation of an independent Land Trust, working at arm’s length from the government, can we adequately protect these lands and ensure their wise use for generations to come. Such a Land Trust would allow for continued farming and tenancy of the lands, by providing long-term leases under specified guidelines.
Land Over Landings supports the slow food, eating locally and ‘field to table’ movements that seek to reduce dependency on imported foods. We support protection of farmlands in the Greater Toronto Area from urban sprawl and recognize that these acres of Class A agricultural land must be protected to provide food for the largest urban population in the country. We strive to end farming practices such as mass planting of feed grains for animals and support wise farming practices, including organic farming. With long-term leases under a Land Trust we believe farmers would benefit from the potential of a predictable income stream and the ability to be better stewards of their land.
Preserving Community and Heritage Structures
The expropriated lands once were home to hundreds of farms and several thriving communities. Since 1972 hundreds of businesses, houses and farm buildings have been bulldozed. In addition, many homes have been boarded up and not re-tenanted. Land Over Landings continues to urge Transport Canada to allow tenants to occupy these homes, and to grant longer leases to create stable communities. We also urge protection for the remaining heritage buildings.
Educating the Public
Land Over Landings endeavours to keep the federal lands in the public eye and to inform citizens on issues past, present and future with guest speakers, school visits, screenings of The Last Stand, maintenance of a web site, booths at events, and responses to media and government reports.
Communicating & cooperating with related environmental groups
Fighting the creation of an airport and protecting these lands for green uses involves dedicated efforts by many groups and individuals. Land Over Landings promises to work with these groups towards the common goal of protecting the federal lands, and to support the efforts of groups with similar causes, particularly those within close proximity to the federal lands.
* Many issues and causes affect the North Pickering federal lands. We have provided contact information for other related groups on our Links page, as well as government and business links for further research or to communicate with politicians.