There has been a long fight against the building of a new Pickering airport for Toronto. In their 40-plus years of struggle against a development – in a growing suburb to the east of the city – many citizens feel priority is given to business interests over prime agricultural farmland. Until a firm and unequivocal commitment is made by Ottawa to abandon the project completely the citizen activists central to the struggle to halt the development can never be sure the project won’t find new life, at some distant moment, under yet another government. Most frustrating for those who oppose the project is that in their view there has never been an adequate explanation for why Pickering needs its own Mirabel, a Greater Toronto Hamilton Area equivalent of Montreal’s white elephant airport that has become synonymous with poor air transport planning in Canada. “Land Over Landings” is the community group that leads opposition to the airport plan. It is continuing the public engagement their predecessors began in 1972.They say that clean water and local food will always be more vital than easy access to yet another area airport.
Residents opposing the Pickering airport have come to expect the unexpected.
In their 40-plus years of struggle against a development many feel prioritizes business interests over prime agricultural farmland, the story has unfolded in fits and starts. Long periods of inactivity on the part of the federal government are punctuated by seemingly random, unanticipated announcements, jump-starting worried citizens waiting for the struggle to begin again, as it recently has.
The history of the struggle against an airport in north Pickering, a growing suburb to the east of Toronto, suggests that until a firm and unequivocal commitment is made by Ottawa to abandon the project full stop, the citizen activists central to the struggle to halt the development can never be sure the project won’t find new life, at some distant moment, under yet another government.
Most frustrating for those who oppose the project is that in their estimation, no one, in more than 40 years of discussion, has presented an adequate explanation for why Pickering needs its own Mirabel, a Greater Toronto Hamilton Area equivalent of Montreal’s white elephant airport that has become synonymous with poor air transportation planning in Canada.
When the Liberal government of Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau announced that 18,600 acres of Southern Ontario class one farmland northeast of Toronto was to be set aside for an airport in the GTHA, the shock that rippled through the community that stood in the way was palpable.
“The announcement of expropriations was literally out of the blue,” said Mary Delaney, a resident activist involved with Land Over Landings, a group now central to the continued struggle against the airport. “The Reeve of Pickering Township heard about it on the news as he drove home that day.”
That day was March 2, 1972. Projecting rapid population expansion in the GTHA would necessitate further access to air travel, the federal Minister of Transport, Donald Jamieson, said publicly it would be “criminally negligent” if the area did not have another airport to serve Southwestern Ontario by 1980.
In response, People or Planes rose up immediately to protest an airport many felt was unjustifiable and unnecessary. Moreover, no one bothered asking local residents who would be impacted by the development what they thought about the proposal.
Sandra C. Budden, an active member of People or Planes, wrote an editorial for Alternatives Journal’sFall 1972 edition as part of the group’s effort to educate the public about the project; the piece details the history of the struggle, explaining why the airport protest had nothing to do with property values or preserving unobstructed views.
“As we launched ourselves into the fray, we soon became aware that this issue was not just a regional one concerning the high-handed treatment by a government of its citizens,” she wrote at the time.
“It was a national, indeed a world-wide, issue, challenging the thinking which creates a kind of growth which now threatens civilization.”
To Delaney, their grassroots opposition “was awe-inspiring, really,” she told A\J recently.
“They rallied by the thousands and it really became a national movement. Most of the people who lived there did the organizing through party line telephones, knocking on doors and letter writing campaigns,” she said. “It’s almost inconceivable now in the day of Twitter feeds.”
While the land was set aside by federal decree, People or Planes knew the provincial government of Progressive Conservative Premier William Davis could play a vital role in halting the development if his government could be convinced the issue was a large enough local and provincial concern.
Davis, who took office on March 1, 1971, would eventually show himself willing to respond to environmental issues, though only if there was significant public enthusiasm for a proposed change. If it could garner votes for the Tories, Davis would consider it.
People or Planes set to work. The group resorted to media-seeking stunts on the front lawn of Queen’s Park, the seat of provincial power in the province; protest marches and mock hangings of Trudeau and Davis garnered the press attention so vital to informing the public of the impacts another GTHA airport could have on food production and air pollution.
To make national headlines, one Planes or People member even flew his hang glider to Ottawa, landing on the grass in front of Parliament Hill in Ottawa, an act inconceivable now in a post 9/11 world.
But a plethora of research and quiet diplomacy was occurring behind the scenes, Delaney said; in fact, research conducted by local lawyers, economists, rural and transportation planners and aviation exports remains in use to this day by the new generation who inherited the ongoing dispute.
“Some of the initial researchers are still doing work on this issue,” Delaney said. “And the research they compiled will outstrip all of what the federal government has done to prove there is a business case to be made for the airport because there is no business case to be made; there never was, isn’t now and never will be.”
By 1975, years of political agitation from concerned citizens groups like People or Planes, coupled with the federal government’s inability to effectively demonstrate the economic value the airport would bring to the region, had eroded local government support.
Premier Davis, sensing a political win to be had in siding with the public’s environmental concerns, declared his government would not approve construction of the sewage and water lines to the site, effectively killing the plan.
People or Planes had helped squash the plans, though they could not have known at the time they had won only the first phase of what would prove to be a long-term, ongoing fight against the Pickering airport.
Phase two began more than 25 years later when the federal government under Prime Minister Jean Chretien blew the dust off the airport project, again without warning. Transport Canada announced in 2001 they would begin examining the development because of insufficient capacity at the GTHA’s existing airports in Toronto, Buttonville and Hamilton.
“Nothing really happened for 25 years or so,” Delaney said. “Every now and then they would talk about selling the land or there would be a protest and governments would come and go. But it wasn’t until after 2000 that they started getting really into the demolitions of structures onsite, and that’s when I got involved.”
Though People or Planes had waged a hard-fought three-year campaign against the airport, the organization effectively ceased to exist after Davis pulled the plug in 1975. But once Transport Canada announced plans were once again under examination, local opponents realized the issue was dormant, not dead, and something had to be done.
“Many of us met and said we need to form a new group that combined together concern over farmland, air and water pollution and the destruction of heritage buildings,” Delaney said.
“But we knew it was not enough to be against something like an airport or development – you have to be for something,” she said.
“We realized after all these decades of opposition and with heritage communities like Altona destroyed, that what’s still here is the land and the water, and that’s worth fighting for.”
Land Over Landings, a loving homage to their predecessor, was the result of that collaboration, founded in 2005.
Another decade was to pass in the ongoing phony war with the federal government, as little was said about whether Ottawa intended to continue with the project. But the latest surprise in the four-decade struggle came in June 2013. At an announcement on the transfer of lands in Toronto and Pickering towards the creation of the Rouge Valley National Urban Park attended by federal finance minister Jim Flaherty and provincial transportation minister Glen Murray, Flaherty dropped a bombshell that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government was committed to ensuring the Pickering airport was operational by 2017.
“I’m here to confirm that the uncertainty ends today,” Flaherty told reporters. “The Harper government is moving forward with a responsible and balanced plan for the development and preservation of the Pickering lands.”
But Murray later told reporters he had been blindsided by the federal commitment, believing he and other officials were there to participate in a parks announcement.
If Ottawa intends to move forward with developing the land set aside for an airport, this is not the way to go about it, Murray said in June. “You cannot bring airports in if you provoke and confront the people who live in that area. If you’re going to start the debate you have to have a conversation first about whether or not and how this should happen. And this isn’t happening today.”
Whether the latest chapter in the ongoing Pickering airport saga proves to be the last remains to be seen, but history would suggest the issue is far from resolved. Yet for people like Delaney and others who have fought the airport in their spare time for years – decades, even – the process is beginning to wear on them.
“We’ve been fighting longer than People or Planes did from 1972 to 1975,” Delaney said. “You get tired and weary and worn out and despondent sometimes. But one of our members described us as a flock of geese; the lead goose falls behind when they get tired and another takes over for a while. So we hold each other up and you keep on keeping on,” she said.
Land Over Landings is continuing the public engagement their predecessors began in 1972, reaching out to local political leaders, other citizens groups fighting different but comparably contentious developments and the general public to spread the word.
Delaney thinks this is an issue leaders of all stripes can take up for different reasons. Right-leaning Toronto Mayor Rob Ford could support their cause as airport development funds could be used to fund Toronto-area subway and transit projects; provincial premier Kathleen Wynne, who also serves as agriculture minister, could appreciate the value of preserving class one farmland and encouraging the production of local food for consumption in the country’s largest market in Toronto; and federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau could right his father’s wrong by standing with the people of Pickering against an airport that remains as unnecessary now as it was then.
Delaney is adamant people will appreciate the basic argument Land Over Landings has been making since 2005; beyond there being no business case for the airport, clean water and local food will always be more vital than easy access to yet another area airport.
The people who make up Land Over Landings are not blind to the importance of growth in Durham Region where Pickering is found, or against development when done in a complementary or sustainable way.
“You can have a combination of agriculture, park land, human habitat and business uses on this land,” Delaney said. “They can work together for the benefit of all, but it needs political will to succeed,” which has been lacking to date.
“But this land is so important that shame on us if we don’t protect it.”
RICK MADONIK / TORONTO STAR
A woman wears a protest button from Land over Landings, a 40-year-old movement against a Pickering airport, while demonstrating against the revived plan. The group was not allowed near the official announcement site Tuesday as Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced that, along with a transfer of federal land to the new national Rouge Park, some would be set aside for an airport.
After being parked on the tarmac for more than four decades, plans to build an airport in Pickering have suddenly been solidified by the federal government — a move sparking renewed debate over whether another airport is needed.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty made the surprise announcement Tuesday at an event to mark the creation of the Rouge National Urban Park.
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“I’m here to confirm that the uncertainty ends today,” Flaherty said. “There will be three uses for the lands. First of all, there will be land set aside for the future airport. Secondly, there will be land for economic development, and finally, there will be considerable green space allocated.”
Aviation industry officials say they were given no advance notice of the plan, and Ontario Transportation Minister Glen Murray said he was caught off-guard.
Murray, who was on hand for the park’s soil turning, said in an interview that he had just finished thanking Flaherty publicly at the event when the airport bombshell landed.
“They announced they’re proceeding with the Pickering airport in some fashion without great clarity, without any heads-up, without any kind of consultation with us, which makes it hard to work together,” he said, adding that Ottawa is “blindsiding” the province.
In an email to the Star, Flaherty disputed Murray’s claim of being ambushed on the airport announcement.
“Minister Murray is mistaken. He should check with his officials, because for more than a week documents have been going back and forth with respect to the airport and the lands to be used for the park,” Flaherty said.
“He is not up to date on what is going on in his own government,” he said.
The Pickering lands, which include more than 7,500 hectares expropriated in 1972 for an airport, would be carved up into three sections, though no specific breakdown was given.
In his remarks, Flaherty referred to the looming closure of the Buttonville airport as well as a needs assessment study conducted by Transport Canada, released in 2011, that said the region will outgrow Pearson as well as secondary airports in Hamilton and Waterloo by 2027 at the earliest, and possibly as late as 2037.
Flaherty also noted that the Pickering airport, 56 kilometres from downtown Toronto, will fit in nicely with plans to expand the toll Highway 407 eastward to Highways 35 and 115.
But aviation analysts argue another airport simply isn’t needed at this time.
“It’s a dumb idea. There is no demand for that airport,” said Fred Lazar, a business professor at York University. “If there was the demand, Hamilton would be a thriving airport.”
Even though many cities around the world, such as New York and London, have several airports within their metropolitan areas, Lazar argued the Greater Toronto Area doesn’t have the population base. Plus, airlines would be reluctant to split services and operations between Pearson and Pickering.
“The market is just not there to support it,” he said. “I don’t think Pearson will be at capacity in 2027.”
Pearson spokesman Scott Armstrong said the airport handled 35 million passengers last year, up 4.4 per cent from a year earlier, and there were 433,000 takeoffs and landings, up 1.2 per cent.
“Over the next 15 or 20 years, we could get to 60 million passengers, but long-term planning is far from an exact science,” Armstrong said, adding that Pearson is focused on using its existing infrastructure before considering any additional projects, though it can build a sixth runway if needed.
Armstrong said Pearson, which operates as a not-for-profit private company, is still growing, adding new carriers, including Russia’s Aeroflot and EgyptAir this month alone.
By contrast, the three main New York area airports handled more than 120 million passengers last year.
Robert Kokonis, an analyst with AirTrav research firm, said Pickering would essentially be the fourth commercial airport in the region, including Hamilton and Toronto’s island airport, where Porter Airlines hopes to expand its operations.
If Porter, which wants to fly Bombardier’s new CSeries jet to cities such as Vancouver and Los Angeles, wins permission, other carriers, such as WestJet and Air Canada, will also want slots there, he said.
While airports aren’t built overnight, Kokonis argued that master plans are full of economic assumptions — “a mug’s game” this far out in time.
“It’s an awful lot of money to build a new airport,” he said, adding the federal government could use some of that money to offer rent relief to Canadian airports to make them more competitive with U.S. airports, which have been drawing loads of Canadian travellers in recent years.
Kokonis argued that Hamilton could also be developed more, especially because it has no curfew, so planes can take off and land around the clock, unlike Pearson and the island airport.
All three main Canadian carriers declined to comment, saying they had too little information at this time.
Flaherty offered no specific details on how the Pickering airport project would be financed; saying only that land had been set aside for a future airport.
“It is very early in the process and no decisions have been made with respect to specific costs or the approach to financing and building,” Flaherty spokeswoman Kathleen Perchaluk said in an email.
“Any future decisions will be informed by the interests and the needs of regional stakeholders and residents expressed during engagement and consultation activities that will take place over the coming months and years,” she added.
But York University’s Lazar thinks Pickering would be a waste of money.
“The federal government didn’t learn a lesson in Montreal with Mirabel,” said Lazar. “It’s a make-work project that will fail.”
Mirabel airport, about 55 kilometres north of downtown Montreal, opened in 1975, a year before the city hosted the Summer Olympics, with the expectation the airport would eventually serve 50 million passengers a year.
But the traffic never materialized. Travellers opted to stick with the airport in Dorval, which is closer to where most Montrealers live. Mirabel closed to passenger traffic in 2004.
If there is anywhere left for Torontonians to find patches of bucolic, fertile farmland close to the city, it’s 50 kilometres or so east in Pickering.
On a summer day, fields carpeted in hues of green spread from undulating back roads. Descend a little hill or corner a gentle bend, and a farmhouse can be found nestled in each fresh vista.
Yet 18,600 acres of this area, acquired by the federal government in 1972, remains at the centre of a debate as vociferous as the land is calm, with Ottawa’s recurring plan to build a major airport in Pickering.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s announcement in June renewed a plan to develop an airport – a plan which has been in limbo for four decades. For a strong community of activists and local residents, the arguments against an airport are the same as they were in the seventies, with the added emphasis this time on protecting the area’s rich soil for farmland to feed Toronto. Yet, there are also plans to develop parts of the land for businesses, bringing further uncertainty, say activists.
The latest newsletter this week from Land Over Landings, the group leading the opposition to the airport, is calling for volunteer teams to sell signs and buttons at public events and food markets. The group is advertising for a graphic designer to create posters and a fundraiser to help out, while a host of like-minded environmental and grassroots associations from the Ontario Federation of Agriculture to the GTA Agricultural Action Committee have lent their support. The summer, the newsletter says, has been “a blur of activity.”
Born under the Trudeau government, the airport plans have been to build a second, large Toronto hub, initially a Toronto version of Montreal’s ambitious Mirabel airport – which is now widely considered a white elephant and used primarily for air cargo.
By 1975, the protest movement People or Planes had galvanized opposition so strongly that the Ontario government backed away, shuttering the proposal and leaving the airport plans in limbo for decades. Now, land advocates and activists are gathering again in force – but this time, the focus is a little different. When People or Planes garnered widespread attention for its cause, people at that time had been expropriated from the land acquired by the federal government. Families were being moved, their lives uprooted. That’s less the case now.
“We understood two things,” said Pickering resident and organizer Mary Delaney about the new iteration of the movement. “One: It wasn’t so much about people anymore, so People or Planes wasn’t really the point. It’s about land. Because after 40 years, the communities had been destroyed.” Like others on the federally expropriated land, she doesn’t own her family’s home or the land.
Also different this time is that “just being opposed to an airport really wasn’t what we want to be about,” Ms. Delaney said. “We wanted to be for something. If you cancel an airport, and then you put houses and development and Wal-Marts and parking lots [there], it’s no different. You can’t grow food through a runway or a parking lot.”
The crux of Land Over Landings’ argument is that the area’s prime Class 1 soil, ideal for diverse crops, has been neglected and squandered in order to depopulate the land for a future airport. The land is vital and could be a valuable source of food for Toronto and the region. Land over Landings sees this as an urgent need. Mr. Flaherty, on the other hand, said he hopes to see the airport running by 2027.
The government has been leasing land to farmers on short-term contracts, which discourages agricultural businesses from investing in diverse crops, even though the area is so close to Toronto markets and restaurants. The land is being used mainly for nutrient-depleting cash crops, such as corn to make ethanol.
Similarly, Pat Valentine, vice-chair of Land Over Landings, has detailed in a series of photos the dilapidation of country houses due to years of neglect under the imposed rental system for properties.
“It all seems to be aimed at just getting people to say, ‘I’m fed up with this. I’m leaving,’” Ms. Valentine said. “Their lease contracts [say] that they can not make repairs or improvements to their properties. Some of them do anyway, because they love them, because they are heritage properties.”
As fellow activist Ms. Delaney, who lives on the lands, noted with a laugh, “Our lease says, ‘To Her Majesty the Queen hereinafter referred to as the landlord.’ In fact, with our insurance, I believe she’s the beneficiary. It’s all really quite ludicrous.”
Mr. Flaherty has defended the renewed airport plan as being a balanced approach to the long-standing question over the land. As announced in June, 5,000 of the government-owned 18,600 acres is being rezoned and given to Parks Canada for the Rouge National Urban Park. Roughly 8,700 acres will then go for the airport, with the remaining land apparently going toward business development, people close to the announcement say.
“We are striking a responsible balance that will allow us to preserve our quality of life, while creating jobs and long-term prosperity in Durham Region and the GTA [Greater Toronto Area],” Mr. Flaherty’s office said this summer via email. “With the Buttonville Airport closing, with Highway 407 being extended eastward, and now clarity around the Pickering Lands, Durham Region is well positioned to be a hub for transportation, business development and job creation.”
Most observers, however, see a giant question mark hovering over the plans. Representatives of Air Canada, WestJet and Porter Airlines all say that it is premature to comment on an airport which, if it comes, isn’t expected to be operating for more than a decade. Brian Buckles, a director of the Green Durham Association, who was expropriated from the land in 1972 and was a prominent member of the protest campaign in the 1970s, doesn’t see clarity at all in Mr. Flaherty’s announcement. “I think there is a lot of confusion here around what the announcement was basically saying,” he said, noting that Transport Canada officials haven’t indicated that development of part of the land is a foregone conclusion and that the department has been inviting public comment about how land not needed for an airport should be used.
In a letter to Transport Minister Lisa Raitt, the Green Durham Association argues that 5,000 acres is in fact a reduction of the previous promise by the federal government to protect 7,200 acres, as the passing of provincial Oak Ridges Moraine protection legislation in 2001.
In the meantime, new housing and land development may become as much of a pressing controversy as the airport. As Pickering’s mayor David Ryan said in an email, the province’s Central Pickering Development Plan in Seaton, a northern section of Pickering, is a development scheme already in the works in an area south of the airport land for up to 60,000 residents and 30,000 jobs. It is the extension of the provincial strategy of swapping provincial land in Seaton with privately owned land in Oak Ridges Moraine, in order to help protect the moraine.
Mayor Ryan sees the Seaton development and the airport acting part and parcel. “While the two-to-one resident-to-job ratio may seem ambitious, we think the airport will play a significant role in helping to reach that 30,000 new jobs target,” Mr. Ryan said.
The mayor said that he has never ran for or against the airport, but is more interested in making the best of Ottawa’s decision. He said that since 1975, the area has suffered from the uncertainty of what the federal government will do next.
“The ongoing airport saga had created a 40-year planning void in the city of Pickering. No matter what decision was to be made, the city of Pickering was prepared to move forward and plan the best uses for those lands. Now that it has been decided by the federal government, we will leverage the airport to further our economic development and job attraction efforts,” he said in an email.
However, the federal government has released no new business model for the airport. And despite Mr. Flaherty’s assertion of the need for an airport, the needs assessment report released by Transport Canada in 2011, which Mr. Flaherty cites to justify the airport, says that Toronto won’t need a new airport until 2027, or maybe not until 2037 if Toronto’s Pearson airport reaches capacity. It could take longer, or it may never reach that point.
“What they say in their conclusion is that the government should hold on to the land if and when an airport is ever needed,” Ms. Valentine said. “In other words, the study is very ambivalent about whether this is ever going to be needed. Mr. Flaherty said it was going to be needed by 2027 … If you read the report, you find that’s not what it said,” she added.
Groups such as the Green Durham Association argue that the need for farmland is much more pressing than the need for an airport. Or as Charles Godfrey, the leader of the original protest, once said, “We will in fact need a new airport someday, so as to fly in the fresh food we can no longer produce on our own land.”