Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Participatory democracy? Not welcome in London, Ontario.

Why do I bother trying to save the world

by Barry Kent MacKay

After a three hour drive, and a long meeting with two knowledgeable animal protectionists and an accurate and precise lawyer and a wonderful dinner provided by a colleague, I spent several hours in an “overflow” room in London, Ontario’s City Hall.   TV monitors relayed an ongoing series of deputations by property owners, their agents, lawyers and senior company executives, all fighting to maximise profits from the planned “development” of a large swath of nearby land.   It was a massive topic.

Let’s back up a few weeks.   That’s when I took a walk with concerned citizens and media along what is locally called “Stanton Drain”, or more accurately “Stanton Creek”, in what has been, since 1993, part of the city of London, Ontario.  It was my second visit, and we viewed the two beaver dams in the arrow-straight creek which, old maps showed, had once been a naturally meandering creek.  At some point heavy equipment had straightened it out, and wire baskets of stones had lined at least parts of it, to facilitate draining adjoining flatlands for agricultural purposes.   Nature has asserted itself, and the creek now hosts two beaver dams, a lush growth of vegetation and an accompanying diverse population of various native wildlife species.

The city decided to kill the beavers, remove the dams, and ream out the waterway to better drain water from surrounding lands, all now slotted for multi-million dollar urban sprawl.  There were profits to be made and the damn beaver dams were in the way.   It happens all the time.

During my walks each time I identified some species of wildlife I was asked if it was “endangered”.  But by their nature, individual animals that are of endangered species are normally not encountered because there are so few of them.    Finding an endangered species is pretty well the only way protection of the habitat might be afforded and then usually not without a battle that environmentalists may not win. Failing to protect the habitat of species officially recognized in law as being threatened with endangerment will ultimately lead to extinction or extirpation (local extinction).

Hold that thought and let me return the night of October 15.   We were told we could speak to the city council committee at 9:30 p.m., but by midnight we were still waiting.  Finally, around 1:00 a.m., a tired and depleted committee deemed it our turn to speak.  First up was AnnaMaria Valastro, the indefatigable head of Peaceful Parks Coalition, who had invited me to view the Stanton Creek, and now asked me to depute.  I had driven from Toronto with Liz White, Animal Alliance Environment Voters of Canada, with whom I had co-signed a letter to the committee, outlining our concerns.  AnnaMaria had done what we’re told citizens should do; she had gotten involved, and diligently educated herself on the complex issues pertaining to what the city’s legal obligations were under a complex network of confusing legislation.   She began by explaining the results of our meeting with the lawyer, a meeting that had led to serious questions about which of two Operational Plans apply, and other issues too multifaceted to get into here.

But wait.  The Mayor tried to shut everything down on the grounds that AnnaMaria was threatening to sue, and asked if that was her intent?  It’s an absurd question.  AnnaMaria was engaged as a citizen, seeking to assure herself that the city had followed all legal procedures by getting answers to specific questions.  The courts are a last resort, but the law does exist to serve the citizenry and if politicians don’t want to engage in co-operative dialogue, concerned citizens are left with diminishing choices.  The mayor should know that, assuming he believes in participatory democracy.   The alternative to the citizen involvement he seemed to detest is either confrontation or the courts.

It’s hard enough trying to make points and elicit information in the five minutes allocated each speaker, all the more difficult at such an absurdly late hour but that wasn’t enough for the mayor, who, as AnnaMaria was speaking, turned to talk to a fellow political.   When AnnaMaria justifiably asked for his attention he said he could speak and listen at the same time.  Actually, he can’t.  It’s a well proven physiological impossibility to speak while hearing and fully or even reasonably comprehending another person’s comments, or to comprehend two speakers simultaneously. I don’t imagine the mayor cares.   I’m grateful I don’t live in his community.

I spoke last and knew that my task was impossible.  There was simply no way I could encapsulate decades of hard won knowledge into a five minute time slot in a way that could be understood by exhausted politicians and a clearly hostile mayor.   I can’t do it in normally-sized blog, either, so this one is long.

I tried, by pointing to the incontrovertible fact that we were in the most severe extinction spasm in some 65 million years, and that by losing such massive biodiversity we are also compromising the environment’s ability to sustain us, and our commerce.   If the laws allow this, they aren’t working in the interest of the environment, thus not in all our interest, either. There are books written and university courses taught to help one understand why this is so, but nothing can explain it in a few minutes.   I ended up resorting to my own experiences, explaining how, in the 1970s, I took part in biological surveys in rural lands east of Toronto, and how the species of birds we saw then, in large numbers, are now absent….not fewer, but altogether absent.   But these people wouldn’t know or care what a vesper sparrow was, or if there were no more bobolinks.   I explained I had held an amphibian that was the end product of three billion years of evolution and is now extinct.

Yawn.   The clock ticked off my five worthless minutes and then it was decided that by gosh, the city’s legal department was right, everything was super-duper legalwise, and okay, the beaver would be live-trapped and moved somewhere or something, and then the wetland could be destroyed as planned so let’s all go home.

I made the point that for ecological reasons it would take a few paragraphs…time not available…to explain it is much harder to exterminate species in Ontario than in many parts of the world, and yet we’re doing it!   Another speaker mentioned turtles.   Let’s think about turtles, since they are aquatic by nature and because the Stanton Creek and adjoining ponds are potential turtle habitats.   There are only seven species in Ontario.  Just seven.  And of those seven, only one, the painted turtle, is reasonably abundant.  The speaker had seem them in the creek, and the snapping turtle, a species common in my youth, but now officially listed as a Species of Special Concern under the provincial Endangered Species Act.  But the problem is that the question is not what has been seen in the creek, but what will forever be prevented from using that creek to assure a viable population.  That conceivably could include the beautiful little spotted turtle.  I saw them as a child but they are now endangered, although Stanton Creek is within its range.   The northern map turtle is also a Species of Special Concern and the creek is within its range.  That category refers to a species with characteristics that make it vulnerable to changes created by human or natural activity. The Blanding’s turtle is unlikely to occur there, although it could, and is listed as threatened.  The attractive wood turtle is endangered, close to extinction, and yet there may still be some in the southeast corner of Lake Huron, an hour’s drive from Stanton Creek.  The spiny soft-shelled turtle is a species at risk, meaning it is at risk of becoming endangered in Ontario if limiting factors are not reversed?   Limiting factors?   I’d list the Mayor of London as one such.

Ah, but who cares?   What does this mayor, these politicians, care about such things?  And yet…

While the city officials claimed they had cleared everything with the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), some of the speakers pointed out that they had been unable to find anyone at the MNR who could remember such a meeting.   And a day later I saw a letter, written a year earlier, by the MNR that said what, in a more legalistic way, what I and others were trying to say, that the absence of protected rare species (of turtles, for example) does not mean that the city’s plans “will have no negative impacts on the natural heritage features and areas”.  In other words, as AnnaMaria tried to point out, it’s more complicated than the city claims; there are questions to be answered.

I don’t believe the Mayor or many others on council actually give a damn. If they did, how could they dare ask if we will exercise our legal, democratic rights to protect what we know is important, even if they don’t seem to.

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