Tentative deal would see Ottawa scrap Highway 413’s impact assessment designation

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Canadian Press

Ontario has struck a tentative deal with the federal government to drop the Highway 413 project’s designation under Ottawa’s impugned Impact Assessment Act. Ontario Premier Doug Ford makes an announcement about building transit and highways in Bowmanville, Ont.

Ontario has struck a tentative deal with the federal government to drop the Highway 413 project’s designation under Ottawa’s impugned Impact Assessment Act. Ontario Premier Doug Ford makes an announcement about building transit and highways in Bowmanville, Ont., Friday, May 6, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Aaron Vincent Elkaim

Ontario has struck a tentative deal with Ottawa to drop an assessment of the province’s Highway 413 project, oversight long advocated for by environmental groups but criticized by the province as federal overreach.

The provincial and federal governments filed a joint consent order with the Federal Court asking the judge to set aside the project’s designation under the impugned Impact Assessment Act.

Ontario initially wanted the Federal Court to clarify the act no longer applied to the highway project, accusing Ottawa of refusing to accept an October Supreme Court of Canada decision ruling parts of the federal law were unconstitutional.

“We have come to an agreement,” Ontario Attorney General Doug Downey told reporters Thursday. He declined to comment further while the case is still before the court.

Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault declined to comment, citing the ongoing case.

The joint consent order filed in Federal Court Wednesday says both levels of government remain “committed to collaborating” to assess the effects of the highway on areas of federal jurisdiction.

News of the tentative deal, however, upset environmental groups and opposition parties who had pushed for a federal environmental review of the project in light of what they have alleged was weak provincial oversight.

“Having the federal government signal a possible retreat from enforcing their own laws is a huge concern,” said Tim Gray, executive director for Environmental Defence.

Last fall, the Supreme Court of Canada found parts of the Impact Assessment Act to be unconstitutional, ruling it was written in a way that could allow the federal government to make decisions about projects wholly within provincial jurisdiction.

Guilbeault has said the decision left the law standing, but the government would work to tighten the parts the court found were too broad. He said that included powers the law gives the environment minister to designate projects for review under the act.

Highway 413 was one of only five projects designated for review under that provision since 2019. The minister’s 2021 decision to step in cited the project’s possible effects on critical habitat of at-risk species as well as the treaty rights of Indigenous people.

The highway, originally proposed in 2003, was revived by Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives in 2018. It would stretch across parts of Vaughan, Caledon, Brampton and Halton Hills.

Environmental groups say the highway would encourage sprawl into areas of the Greenbelt and pave over prime farmland, all while nearby Highway 407 goes underused. They say the proposed highway could also jeopardize the health of at-risk species such as the western chorus frog and the redside dace, a small fish.

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