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Ongoing Concerns with Respect to Canadian Agricultural, Wetland, and Forest Land Reallotments

Inquiry--Debate Continued

February 6, 2024

Thank you, Senator LaBoucane-Benson. I’m still processing your truth and all of our truths. It’s quite something.

Honourable senators, I wish to rise today to speak to Senator Black’s Inquiry No. 16 regarding the ongoing concerns with respect to agricultural, wetland and forest land reallotments in Canada, as well as potential food, economic and social insecurities as a result of reduced capacity for farming, pasture, forestry and food production both domestically and internationally.

I am happy that the senator has brought this issue forward, as it touches on three of the greatest challenges this country faces: housing, climate change and food security. These are challenges that every level of government will face as we move forward as a country, and cooperation between all these jurisdictions is paramount if we are to see it through successfully and not damage valuable and needed agricultural land in Canada.

I’ve learned time and time again as a senator just how much jurisdiction can trip up policy with no clear answers on what a good compromise might be when the levels of government don’t talk with one another. You will recall when I spoke to the federal-provincial-municipal inquiry, I talked about the continued, essential importance of these jurisdictions working together. This is all the more important as we move into the next few decades.

Statistics Canada estimates that our country could have 56 million Canadians by 2050. These Canadians will need places to live, and under current practices — which treat valuable arable land as places to build those houses — Canada will lose one of its most precious resources in its farmland.

All over the country, the urban and the rural are increasingly running against each other, and this friction often comes at the expense of the farmer.

It’s been estimated that over the last 20 years, Canada is losing the equivalent of seven small farms a day. Much of this land is being lost to urban sprawl. Reports from Statistics Canada comparing surveys from 1971 to 2011 showed an estimated 642,100 hectares of agricultural land were lost to new settlements around Canada’s largest metropolitan areas. Housing is tremendously important, as we well know, but all too often housing wins over conservation.

Built housing is something a government can point to as a policy win over the course of a typical election cycle. The negative effects of these, however, won’t be felt until much further down the road when the governments who may have made these decisions are long gone. This is why we need a national conversation, where all levels of government sit down, and shoulder the burden and make those necessary compromises to preserve valuable farmland.

This problem is, of course, a multi-faceted one. It’s not only a matter of not paving over arable land for urban and suburban sprawl; areas abutting cities and farmland are just as important to try and obtain some form of balance. It’s fitting, colleagues, that we are here in our nation’s capital, where just five and a half kilometres south from here, this intersection of rural and urban is playing out in real time.

Some of you might be aware of the Experimental Farm. I can’t recommend it enough for those looking to get in touch with nature when we are here in Ottawa. This farm is run by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada at the federal level, and does crucial research on maximizing crop yields and determining how climate change will affect some of the most important food staples.

Scientists grow special varieties of wheat, soybeans, barley, corn and oats there that might be better able to weather the effects of climate change. It’s important research being done.

This farm, being in the middle of the city, is surrounded by homes and apartments, abutting areas that need intensification and development to accommodate Ottawa’s growing population.

One developer has proposed the construction of two towers — 16 and 27 storeys — just northwest of the farm. These towers are slated to include 350 rental units, including some that could qualify perhaps as affordable housing. The problem here is the shadows the buildings would cast over the fields at sunset, with the lands just southeast of the proposed towers losing the equivalent of almost 70 days of sunlight per year. Researchers cannot accommodate this, and it would spoil years of work in these crucial areas.

I don’t tell this anecdote with any opinion on what the right answer is.

There are no easy, right answers when it comes to the intersection of housing and farmland, but we have ignored this problem for too long — much to our detriment. We have seen this in my own home province of Ontario. The largest conversion from arable land to settlement happened in the Golden Horseshoe area around Toronto that includes my region of Kitchener‑Waterloo, which alone lost 28,900 hectares of arable land between 1971 and 2011.

During that 40-year period, 85% of all urban settlement in the Golden Horseshoe was built on once-prime agricultural land. When farmland is lost to sprawl, it is unlikely to ever recover. Among other effects, “sealing” soil under urban development severely reduces its potential for carbon capture, groundwater absorption and supporting our dear wildlife.

I mentioned earlier that farmland doesn’t need to only be paved over to be ruined. Urban sprawl running up against farmland can have a negative effect on the farming in that region as well. Homeowners and farmers are almost always butting heads in those areas where new developments and farmland run up against one another. New homeowners don’t like the smell. They don’t like the noisy operations or the pesticides being used on crops. Farmers, on the other hand, have to deal with trespassers, vandals and people dumping garbage on their land.

New roads and suburban comforts fragment farmlands and make transportation more difficult. Businesses like abattoirs are driven out and farmers have to go further and further to access services vital to their operations. All this undermines the viability of the farm and, more often than not, it’s the farmers who ultimately lose in these scenarios and eventually leave the area.

This is where something called edge planning comes in, and where I am proud to say my hometown of Waterloo has turned into a national leader in preventing these conflicts from happening in the first place. To quote a report published by the Ontario Federation of Agriculture and Environmental Defence:

Waterloo Region is taking a very broad approach to edge planning — an approach that not only eliminates conflict between urban and rural land uses, but reinforces the region’s commitment to permanent rural landscapes outside its urban boundary. The Region uses major landscape features to define its urban boundary, composed of environmentally sensitive landscapes (wetland clusters, woodlots, etc.), protected countryside, and recharge areas (moraine). Urban expansion into areas with these designations is prohibited in the region’s Official Plan. Together, these wide swaths of land add up to about 70,000 acres of permanently open space. About 75 per cent of the urban boundary is buffered in this way with the remaining boundary being the direction the Region intends to grow in.

The Region is also using community design and infrastructure planning to reinforce its permanent urban edge. Subdivisions abutting the urban boundary are not permitted to contain road stubs that dead end towards the buffer area — short-circuiting a common practice that presupposes further additions to the urban area. The Region also requires that infrastructure servicing the edge areas be sized to accommodate only the land within the current boundary, making it very difficult for future councils to allow urban growth to penetrate the boundary.

Long-term and sustainable.

According to this report, colleagues, the creation of a permanent edge to the city has invigorated the farm economy outside the buffer area.

Speculation and creeping divestment in farm operations are being reversed as farmers realize they can count on being viable into the indefinite future from generation to generation.

Without wading into provincial politics, colleagues, we’ve seen this strategy challenged in recent years. The region is actively pushing back against what they see as forced expansion of an urban boundary that they think perhaps goes too far and undermines a sustainable future that maintains valuable tracts of farmland that can be used to grow food that feeds both Canada and the world.

It’s why this inquiry, I think, is so timely. I’ve shamelessly plugged the good work of my city in charting a more sustainable path for our growing population, but there are other issues at play here and other regions that have faced different challenges and come up with their own solutions. This is not about one level of government telling another level what to do. Too often that is the case, and it’s led to the kind of disjointed, frankly short-sighted and damaging policy we’ve seen over the last 40-odd years.

Municipal, provincial and federal governments need to sit down and chart out a sustainable path for the future, one they will all equally own and be responsible for. Without that, colleagues, we’ll just get more of the same, which, as we’ve seen, will lead our limited farmland to ruin.

I thank Senator Black for starting this conversation, and I look forward to hearing more in the coming weeks and months from my colleagues on how we might move forward together. Thank you, meegwetch.

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