Never overestimate the media's ability to engage the public in a thoughtful debate. It's a lesson the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (ECO), Gord Miller, learned the hard way last week. In his annual report, released November 1, Miller went beyond the usual question of how we are going to accommodate population growth to ask if it is even ecologically feasible to add another 4 million to the GTA over the next couple of decades.
"This is a vast number of people settling in an already stressed landscape. Will the resulting demands for water, sewer systems and roads leave our natural heritage areas intact? Will there be enough natural lands left over to support biodiversity?" his report asks.
Interesting questions but not interesting enough for intelligent public discussion, it seems. For Miller suddenly found himself painted with an anti-immigrant brush by Ian Urquhart, veteran Toronto Star columnist on provincial issues. Urquhart's November 1 piece linked the ECO's call for a discussion on growth limits with groups like Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization (SUSPS).
It's generally thought that that group cites environmental concerns to legitimate its view that immigrants should not be allowed into the United States.
"There are echoes in the report of the views [found] on those websites," Urquhart tells NOW, referring to content on the SUSPS website and those of similar orgs. "I believe the ECO is being disingenous in his assertion that he is not advocating for the curtailment of newcomers to the province. You can't have population growth without immigration."
Urquhart, who'd obtained a leaked copy of the report, was able to have his column out the morning of the press conference, and it set the agenda. At the Queen's Park press gallery, Miller was greeted by a group of salivating reporters poking and prodding him for an embarrassing sound bite.
"Are you calling for a curtailment to immigration?" one reporter asked. No. "So are you saying that all new immigrants should move to northern Ontario?" No. "Are you saying that the era of the single-family home is over? Are you telling new immigrants they can't dream of having their own house?" Oh, crap.
The strangest in this line of questions came from Urquhart himself. In response to a question from another reporter about the prospects for development in northern Ontario, the following exchange ensued:
Miller: "One of the biggest mysteries for those living in the North is that people say, "You can't have more manufacturing in the North because it's too far from markets.' Most of the manufactured goods we get are from China. So how is Sudbury too far but China isn't?"
Urquhart: "Most of the goods we import from China are made by people who are being paid $5 a day. Are you suggesting that would be a good wage for people moving to Timmins?"
Miller: "That's the most bizarre, twisted question I've ever received at a press conference. So I'm going to pass on it."
Though he'd said earlier that it isn't his job to dictate where people should go, the frustrated commissioner took the bait from one reporter and said that immigrants could settle in northern Ontario as a solution to the GTA's overcrowding. This short clip was played over and over on all the local news channels that evening. The CBC even aired a knee-jerk response by city councillor Maria Augimeri calling for his resignation.
The suggestion that the ECO should step down seems a little outrageous considering the actual content of the report. The 224-page document mentions curbing population growth in the introduction and in an inset that recommends that the Ministry of Municipal Affairs consult the public on the government's population projections, which currently receive no scrutiny.
"If people actually read the report, [they'll find that] the only thing in it about immigration is that it's another element of population growth and that it's under federal control. That's it," says Miller, originally a Tory appointee but respected by environmentalists as a tough-minded watchdog.
"My questioning of Ontario's population projections was aimed at sparking a debate about the future ecological health of our province, not steering discussion into a racist denunciation of immigration. It is truly unfortunate that Mr. Urquhart does not appear to grasp the difference."
In his column the following day, Urquhart wrote that Liberal MPPs wouldn't touch the enviro commissioner's report with a 10-foot pole. Whose fault is that?
The real shame is that the ECO's report raised a number of truly important issues that the Liberals should address. The Greenbelt Plan, seen as a "legacy" issue for Dalton McGuinty, has some fatal flaws. The plan truly protects very little new land.
Much of the Greenbelt is made up of the Niagara Escarpment and Oak Ridges Moraine, protected in 1978 and 2001, respectively. Most of the land set aside by the Liberals falls under the Orwellian designation of "protected countryside."
Highways, mines, golf courses and other forms of "non-development" are allowed to intrude on green space in these areas, which form most of the Greenbelt.
Many of us in the environmental community have spent the past couple of years pressuring the government to accommodate future growth in a sustainable manner in the GTA. We are pushing the province to legislate higher densities and limit the use of green space for residential development in the Places To Grow Act.
But we haven't yet given a thought to the possibility that our region could reach its carrying capacity regardless of how we build. These are the very concerns that the ECO turned a critical eye to.
I don't know where I stand on the issue of limiting population growth in southern Ontario. I'm only just beginning to consider the matter. But it is a debate that should be conducted without resorting to name-calling.
I finish my conversation with Urquhart by asking him if population and resulting economic growth trump environmental sustainability.
"That's a good question. I don't think I'm going to answer it," he replies.
Thanks to Miller, and despite Urquhart, let's hope someone at Queen's Park at least begins the dialogue.