Nature Notes – From the Backyard to the Biosphere. Canada Day Tirade

Canada Day Tirade: Sustainability in Canada’s First National Urban Park in Question

I am still winding down from Canada Day festivities with my family, thinking back to the ice cream, pony rides and fairground activities of the day. But it isn’t only these sweet memories I find floating through my mind as the evening comes to a close.

I’m left on this Canada Day in a mood of reflection. Who could do other than reflect on a weekend marked by both a National Day of Action by Aboriginal people across the country, and a celebration of Canada’s coming into being as a nation? However, reflection on the questionable basis of our country’s history is met in my mind by an equally perturbing reflection on our country’s geography, particularly the geography of our protected spaces.

A bit bleak sounding, I know, but it wasn’t a dark cloud that came over me on this Canada Day, but rather a petition. I was approached mid-merriment by an earnest, clipboard-toting gentleman letting me know that the park in which I was honouring our country was to see 212 of its 572 acres go for housing development.

I had been aware that part of this park’s mandate was to cover the costs required for its maintenance. However, I was shocked to hear of the scale to which this land–federal land put aside for protection and the long-term good of the public–was to become urbanized. The shock became increasingly pronounced as I stood, pen in hand, considering this petition, surrounded on all sides by park signs, booths, and brochures whose most prominent linguistic feature was the term sustainability.

572 acres of open green space in Canada’s largest, most populated (and rapidly growing) city; a huge chunk of land transferred to Parks Canada from the Department of National Defence and touted as a first in our country: a national urban park; a self-proclaimed emblem of sustainability in action. What jumps to mind given this scenario is an incredible opportunity for a world-class, ecologically meaningful green space in the midst of an urban landscape; an accessible parkland for nature-hungry urbanites to satisfy that innate need for connection to something other than concrete; and a space to give back to wildlife in a landscape in which so much habitat is continuously being taken away.

The ecological significance of the park has not been completely lost on those in management. Sections of the park are being rehabilitated, and with impressive results. A visitor to the newly restored areas is met by swallows, monarch butterflies, bird calls, the soothing sounds of swaying grasses in the wind, and the sweet smells of fresh, abundant vegetation so rare in the city. But somehow, this aspect of the park has been relegated to a position of relatively minor importance. In the development plans are sports complexes, commercial areas, and the neighbourhoods referred to above. What, I cannot help but think, does such a plan have to do with sustainability, and how, I have to ask, will another set of subdivisions and retail outlets benefit all Canadians over the long term?

National parks like Banff, infamous among conservationists for the scale of development within what are supposed to be protected areas, seem like innocents compared to Downsview. Those in management at Banff can be blamed for letting things slide, for allowing something small to get too big. But what can be said of those in charge at Downsview, when their initial vision for this rare gem of an opportunity is based on relegating nature to a back-seat position and opening their arms wide to development corporations?

Sustainability may encompass economic as well as ecological goals. But national parks occupy a special place in our collective consciousness not because of the outstanding shopping opportunities or housing designs they offer, but because they are those rare spaces where–for once–economy must give way to ecology. The land we have decided to protect in our national parks system needs a little sanctity, as well as recognition that these spaces are unique and precious precisely because they do not offer all that can be found in the next stop along the highway. Needless to say, pen hit paper with great vigour: I signed the petition.

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