Since the Industrial Revolution, people have been swept up from their fields and farms and crammed into cities. Many today are born, live and die, all in this new urban environment.
But people are lost without their connection to nature. To preserve this relationship, Canadians must protect their urban parks.
The Senate is debating a bill on Canada’s first national urban park, Rouge National Urban Park, located in the heart of the Greater Toronto Area. It stretches from the shores of Lake Ontario in the south to the hills of Oak Ridges Moraine in the north. Despite the noble intent of the bill — which would accord Rouge Park the same level of ecological protection as other national parks — it fails to recognize the unique balancing act of managing an urban park with highways, pipelines, hydro corridors and farmland spotted all over.
The park is home to more than 1,700 species of plants and animals — 27 of which are at risk. There are more than 225 species of birds, including eastern screech owls, blue herons, red-shouldered hawks, trumpeter swans and red cardinals, as well as 55 types of fish and 19 species of amphibians, such as the snapping turtle. This is also part of the rare Carolinian life zone, a type of forest covering less than 1% of the country's land mass, but providing habitat to more species than any other life zone in Canada.
Rouge Park is also home to Toronto’s only campground, one of the region’s largest marshes, amazing hiking trails and some of the last-remaining, working farms in the Greater Toronto Area.
But surprisingly, Rouge Park isn’t just about nature conservation — it’s about farming too.
Less than 1% of Canada is actual farmland. Of that, less than 1% is identified as the most fertile “class 1” or with no crop limitations.
Rouge Park has approximately 30 square kilometres (or 7,500 acres) of class 1 farmland. According to the Ontario Farmland Trust, prime farmland is under severe threat in Canada, particularly in the Greater Toronto Area. Between 1976 and 2011, 2.8 million acres of farmland — almost 20% of total farmland in the region — were taken out of production in Ontario.
So it is critical for us to take immediate measures not only to protect our precious forests but also our endangered farmland. Limiting the rights of these remaining farmers, or refusing to put out a forest fire right next to them and an entire city because of the need to apply conservation tactics is simply unrealistic and could even be seriously damaging.
Rouge Park is a place where the interaction of people and nature over thousands of years has created the environment we see today. It is an area of distinct character with significant ecological, biological, cultural and agricultural value where safeguarding the integrity of this interaction is vital to protecting and sustaining the area.
Evidence of generations of presence and activity survives in the landscape, presenting an intriguing record of the area’s social history. Wildlife, geology, natural processes and human influence have been the fundamental forces behind the creation of this landscape and the rich and diverse heritage within it.
Rouge National Urban Park is a testament to our Canadian identity — to our nature, history, roots, cultures, and collective spirit.
I encourage greater collaboration between policy-makers, local communities, urban planners and other stakeholders to ensure the continued protection of natural areas, for the benefit of all.
As Canada celebrates its 150th birthday, we should remember that our country is more than the history in its textbooks. First and foremost, Canada is this place we call home. We should stick up for it.
Victor Oh is a senator representing Ontario. He is a member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, the Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples, as well as the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade.