This afternoon (Monday 7 December 2020) at Queen’s Park Doug Ford is pressing ahead with plans to gut the powers of Conservation Authorities which play a key role in protecting the environment.

As I tap this out the Third Reading of Bill 229 is under way.

Ford and his Municipal Affairs Minister, Steve Clark, brushed aside the dramatic resignation of David Crombie as Chair of the Greenbelt Council on Saturday and the six further resignations yesterday. 

Ford is using Schedule 6 of an omnibus Budget Bill to ram through changes which will fatally weaken the role of Conservation Authorities. Newmarket-Aurora’s former MPP, Chris Ballard, told Newmarket Today what is at stake.  

"The proposed changes to the Conservation Authorities Act and Planning Act are included within the Ontario government’s budget bill (Bill 229, Schedule 6). The bill contains provisions, requested by developers, that will allow the accelerated destruction of wetlands, forests, wildlife habitat and natural spaces that offer Ontarians solace and help protect us from the growing effects of climate change."

Writing in Newmarket Today just a few hours ago, the Chair of York Region and Chair of the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority, Wayne Emmerson, echoed Ballard's concerns:

"If the province proceeds with Schedule 6 in the omnibus budget bill, LSRCA will be forced to issue permits to allow for development, through minister's zoning orders (MZO), to proceed regardless of the impacts to the environment and our communities. This action will dismantle the very system put in place — since Hurricane Hazel in 1954 — to keep our communities healthy and out of harm’s way from flooding and other hazards created by poor land-use planning."

Government by fiat

The Bill will allow the Municipal Affairs Minster to extend the use of Ministerial Zoning Orders to approve developments, brushing aside the concerns of Conservation Authorities about, say, flooding risks. Under Ford, the use of these Ministerial Zoning Orders has skyrocketed

The way in which the Bill is being railroaded through the Legislative Assembly is a disgrace. The Bill was referred to the Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs ostensibly for line-by-line scrutiny yet, even now, during the Bill’s Third Reading, there are no transcripts available for the meetings on 30 November and on 1, 2 and 4 December 2020 telling us what happened. The Bill was amended in Committee but we, the great unwashed, have no idea who said what.

The Government insists the Greenbelt is protected

Ballard called on his readers to write to Christine Elliott, Ford’s Deputy, but does he seriously believe that will make any difference? When she talks about protecting the environment and the Greenbelt (which isn't very often) her support always seems tepid and qualified, a fairweather friend.

On 22 September 2008 during the second reading debate on the Lake Simcoe Protection Act she told MPPs:

"Nobody questions the need for the greenbelt, nobody is opposed to the idea of green space, but I think there has to be the science behind it, and there has to be the rationalization of those areas that are chosen for the greenbelt.”

Doug Ford famously planned to open up a big chunk of the Greenbelt to developers but then dropped the idea when his boasts were caught on tape.

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Update on 8 December 2020: Aurora's Mayor Tom Mrakas tells the Toronto Star: "This is not how you grow communities. This is how you ruin them."

Update on 10 December 2020: From the G&M: Experts fear more environmentally damaging developments.

Our neighbour to the north, East Gwillimbury, is pressing the case for an all-day two-way 15-minute GO train service to the station at Green Lane. A faster and more frequent service would bring huge benefits to us here in Newmarket. We’d get the gold-plated service too. 

But are they just going through the motions? Or is there a serious chance of getting a 15-minute service within the next decade? At least some councillors there are pinning their hopes on Caroline Mulroney, the local MPP who is also the Province’s Minister of Transportation. 

Metrolinx has today (Friday 27 November 2020) launched its third round of Public Consultation on the GO Expansion Program. For the next two weeks they are hosting a virtual Open House. But, to be clear, they are not consulting on the 15-minute service (that decision has been taken) but on other issues which can be linked to it. 

Backstory: In 2011 Ontario’s Liberal Party announced ambitious plans to expand GO Train services across the network, dramatically cutting journey times for the traveling public. It took shape under Kathleen Wynne and Metrolinx, the regional transportation agency, is charged with making it all happen

The Barrie line which runs through Newmarket is largely single track. To deliver the promised improved performance the entire length of the 63 mile corridor is to be twin tracked and electrified. But it won’t happen all at once. The work is to be done in stages.

Under Phase One (to be completed by 2027) a new all-day two-way service every 15 minutes would run from Toronto’s Union Station to Aurora. 

Newmarket and all stations to the north would see a 30 minute service in peak periods and 60 minutes off-peak.

In June 2016 Metrolinx announced five new stations on the Barrie corridor including one at Mulock Drive in Newmarket. This was seriously good news.

Additional Funding

In August 2017 Metrolinx told us:

“As additional funding becomes available from the Province, the next phase(s) of the Project will include the second track between Aurora GO Station and Allandale waterfront GO Station and associated station upgrades.”

But when can we expect the second phase? The Province is silent.

Metrolinx’s virtual open house focusses on six elements of the GO Expansion program but two are particularly relevant to those of us who use the Barrie line:

  • The new Track and Facilities Project which shows new trackwork from Aurora Go Rail Station to just north of Newmarket GO Rail Station at the Tannery. It is not clear to me if a second track is being laid. And if so, why. I've asked Metrolinx.**
  • The Network-Wide Structures Project (Addendum to the Barrie Rail Corridor Expansion TPAP 2017) – which proposes grade separation at Wellington Street East in Aurora.

Grade Separation

On grade separation, Aurora is to get a new vehicle underpass at Wellington Street East. But busier roads in Newmarket have been put on the backburner.

Currently there are 54 at grade crossings along the length of the Barrie corridor. 

Decisions on separating road and rail traffic (via underpasses or overpasses) are guided by the number of trains and vehicles at any given at-grade intersection. To get the so-called “exposure index” you simply multiply the average daily number of vehicles by the number of trains. Anything over 200,000 warrants a grade separation.

The table shows Wellington Street East had an exposure index of  254,800 in 2015.

Yet Mulock Drive had an exposure index of 534,800 in 2015. And Davis Drive, 462,000.

There are no plans that I am aware of to have grade separation at Mulock Drive (one of the busiest roads in Town). On 8 March 2018 the Metrolinx Board abandoned grade separation which had previously been deemed essential.

“The feasibility of the Mulock station concept is contingent on the grade separation of Mulock Drive, with a multi-span bridge over both the rail corridor and the East Holland River.”

A grade separation at Davis Drive - a designated growth corridor - presents major engineering challenges. 

The Newmarket GO Station lies 200 metres away from the east branch of the Holland River with a small tributary crossing the station itself before joining the main branch to the east of the rail corridor.

15-minute service needs grade separation

But without grade separation at Davis Drive there can never be an all-day two-way 15 minute service to the Newmarket GO Train Station at the Tannery. 

Three years ago during the Metrolinx consultation on the Newmarket GO Rail Station at the Tannery we were told there would be no grade separation in the near term but there would be a "re-investigation" of this in 2031. 

At the time I wrote:

“The barriers on the level crossing would be going up and down like a yo-yo all day long, causing huge traffic line-ups and making a mockery of the word "Rapidway"

I learn the rail tracks can't be put in a tunnel under Davis Drive because of the soil conditions. The GO Rail station sits in the middle of a flood plain. The alternative is to put the road over the railway but this would mean a new elevated Davis Drive from Main Street to Lundy's Lane. The Province has already spent a small fortune on the (Keith) Bridge at the Tannery so this idea is unlikely to be well received.” 

In its Factsheet on grade separations Metrolinx explains: 

“With GO Expansion, all-day 15-minute service could mean that a train will pass every 7.5 minutes – greatly increasing the number of interruptions at each road crossing. 

By grade separating crossings, Metrolinx can safely increase travel speed and capacity on our roads and rail lines. Grade separations allow trains to freely pass over or under roads without the need for the road traffic to stop.”

Fast and Frequent to Aurora 

The decision was likely taken to stop the 15-minute service at Aurora because of the huge expenditure required in Newmarket and East Gwillimbury to replace the existing level crossings with under and overpasses.

At the time, Newmarket-Aurora’s (then) MPP, Chris Ballard, tweeted

@lynngr Enhanced service coming to Newmarket. Need time to build a number of crossings in Newmarket before 15 min. service possible, though.

2.41PM – 17 Apr 2015

The question posed years ago has since been studiously ignored: when we can expect to get a 15 minute service in Newmarket?

Easing in to it

Typically, Newmarket-Aurora’s gradualist MP, Tony Van Bynen, believes we should just “ease into it”. As Mayor of Newmarket, he told the Council on 9 November 2015:

"In my own mind the difference between a 15 minute and 30 minute service doesn't change the world although I think eventually we'll need to get there. But I'd rather see us easing in to that, responding to the demand as we go forward."

East Gwillimbury is less patient. The Council has formally asked Metrolinx and the Ministry of Transportation to “proactively advance” plans to extend all-day two-way, 15 minute service to East Gwillimbury on the grounds that the Town is slated to grow to 150,000 people over the next thirty years, providing 75,000 jobs.  

"A little bit up-in-the-air"

At their Council meeting on 22 September 2020 the Town’s General Manager of Community Infrastructure, Mike Molinari, made the case for getting rid of the level crossing at Green Lane. He wanted grade separation as part of the Phase One works.

“Currently it (grade separation) is on the books for GO Transit to do that work but the timing is still a little bit up in the air. But with the recommendation of Council we may be able to get that significant at grade crossing advanced a little bit sooner.”

Sounds like wishful thinking to me. But who knows? 

In the meantime, it is critically important for the land that will be needed for future grade separations at Mulock Drive and Davis Drive to be adequately safeguarded.

If this small detail is overlooked it will be quite impossible to ease into a 15-minute service no matter what the demand. It will be gone for good.

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** Update on 29 November 2020: This is likely to be "passing track north of Aurora GO Station" as described here.

The video of the Council debate at East Gwillimbury on 22 September 2020 is here at 1.19pm. The agenda (see page 102) is here

The Newmarket GO Station Mobility Hub Study (9 March 2018) is here.

Walter Bauer, the excellent Green candidate in last year’s Federal election in Newmarket-Aurora, is disappointed he didn’t get an answer to the question he submitted to last Friday’s virtual Town Hall on the Environment. 

It was a star-studded line-up. The area’s Liberal MP, Tony Van Bynen, played host, selecting the questions, and the Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Jonathan Wilkinson, was the special guest. Newmarket Today tells us some Newmarket-Aurora residents were left unimpressed.

Cutting emissions

Walter was hoping for an answer to this:

Consistent with the Paris Agreement, the government has frequently stated, “Canada is on track to reduce our emission by 30% by 2030 compared to 2005 levels.”

Environment Canada’s regular publications indicate that under a best-case scenario Canada’s emissions by 2030 will only be 19% below 2005 levels.

Environment Canada’s best-case scenario does not include expansion of Alberta’s Oil Sands with the continued development of Trans Mountain, Keystone XL and Enbridge Line 3 pipelines, which are going to increase not decrease our GHG emissions.

A Net zero 2050 target is an empty promise given we cannot meet our 2030 target.  Why is the government ignoring Environment Canada's data and worse, expanding Oil Sands production?

That’s a good question that gets to the heart of the matter. Will Canada meet the 2030 target or not? 

It is difficult not to feel a sense of despair when we read stories about zombie oil wells in Alberta belching methane into the atmosphere in climate changing volumes.

Out of sight. Out of mind 

And why is nothing being done about toxic tailings ponds leaking into Alberta’s rivers? (Photo above right)

My question (also not reached) was about Alberta’s oil sands where an environmental catastrophe is just around the corner

“What contingency plans the Federal Government has to deal with the rupture/leakage of tailings pond dams in the Oil Sands which would release toxins into the Mackenzie and Athabasca river systems which discharge into the high Arctic, polluting the environment and threatening the health and well-being of indigenous peoples.”

After the Town Hall wraps up I write to Van Bynen asking him to forward my question to the Minister in the hope of a reply.

My request may disappear into Van Bynen’s waste paper basket (joining all the others) but who knows?  He may pass it on.

It is conceivable that he, too, could be interested in the answer.

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Update on 19 November 2020: from the Globe and Mail: the Liberals' Climate Change Bill is underwhelming.

It is just over a year since the last Federal Election on 21 October 2019 and our new MP for Newmarket-Aurora has had time to get his feet under the table. How is he doing? 

Pretty much as I expected.

Van Bynen, at 69, was the oldest of the new intake of 91 rookie MPs. He is a loyal foot soldier and is never going to step out of line. (Photo right: last week, voting virtually from his Bayview Ave office)

Until the pandemic struck he was in the bottom 5% of rookie MPs in terms of interventions in the House of Commons. (My figures are from 8 March 2020) He took a while to find his feet.

Only four rookies out of 91 spoke on fewer occasions that Van Bynen. (Zuberi Sameer (Lib); Tim Louis (Lib); Mike Kelloway (Lib) and Derek Sloan (Con))

Of course, the number of speeches an MP makes in the Chamber is no guide to their quality. 

In the House of Commons as elsewhere Van Bynen always reads his speeches from a prepared text – even when they are very short, no more than a minute or two. For someone who has been in the public eye for years this has always surprised me.

Van Bynen says little about his "Priorities"

In the first of his four micro speeches on 11 December 2019 he thanked people for electing him and focussed on his priorities:

I have heard very clearly that our community is concerned about climate change, affordable housing, infrastructure funding, health care and a need for a long-term fiscal plan, but not at the expense of creating a social deficit. These things will by my priorities during the upcoming term.

He told the media that preserving local heritage would also be a priority but we’ve heard nothing from him about that. He has been silent on the unlawful demolition of the Simpson Building on Main Street by his friend Bob Forrest.  

When he went to the photo-shoot at Deerfield in August, we learn that the promised “affordable housing” has now morphed into “attainable housing”. Whatever that means.

The importance of hugging

On 6 February 2020 he spoke for a couple of minutes on the importance of hugging. On 27 February 2020 he spoke about the Coldest Night of the Year fundraising walk and on 28 February 2020 he asked the Minister of Health what the Government was doing to prevent and treat cancer. All in all, about five minutes work.

The Benefits of Retirement

2019 was a very good year for Tony Van Bynen, the retired Mayor of Newmarket. In January 2019, he received the second tranche of the $162,739 of taxpayers’ money designed to cushion his voluntary retirement from municipal politics. He kept quiet about that second tranche for as long as he could. He then joined the Liberal Party after hearing that Kyle Peterson, the then Liberal MP, was standing down. No-one else threw their hat into the ring and Van Bynen probably surprised himself by becoming the official Liberal candidate without a contest. And in the Federal Election in October he landed on his feet, taking 42% of the vote. The Liberals nationwide got support from 33.1% of Canadian voters - the lowest share of the popular vote in modern Canadian history.

Dining out on our dollar (again)

In the early months after his election while he was getting to know the ropes he was billing taxpayers for breakfasts at the Buttery and elsewhere. It was just like old times. He holds meetings over bacon and eggs to “plan his priorities” and we pick up the tab. At least he did until the pandemic struck. In recent months he has stopped billing us for his breakfasts.

Partisan Games

Van Bynen sits on the Health Committee and he has a slot at every meeting to ask his pre-prepared questions. To my mind, they are all pretty softball. He is not the type of politician who wants to generate controversy. He says he dislikes “partisanship”. When others agree with him that means they want to get things done. When they disagree with him they are playing “partisan games".

In an interview with Newmarket Today on 25 September 2020 about the Throne Speech he trilled:

“We’ve learned during a time of crisis, partisanship falls to the wayside and everybody focuses on what’s right and what’s best for our shared constituencies… Everybody is focused on finding the best solutions.”

Minority Parliament means different rules

But that changed when the Conservatives, the Bloc and the NDP wanted a say in setting the agenda for forthcoming meetings of the Health Committee - it is a minority Parliament after all. (An election is off the cards for the moment but I doubt we shall have to wait another three years.)

The Opposition Parties want the Health Committee to focus on a range of matters such as vaccine development, Canada’s level of preparedness in responding to another pandemic and the availability of PPE equipment.  There will be a vote in the Chamber of the House of Commons tomorrow (Monday 26 October 2020) to decide the Committee's work programme. 

Speaking in the House of Commons virtually, from his constituency office in Bayview Avenue, Van Bynen makes it clear he wants the Committee to focus primarily on mental health:

“I am frustrated and disappointed in the Conservatives' new approach on the health committee. We did not always agree before, but it was always clear that everyone on the committee had a common goal to be productive rather than play partisan games.” 

Mental health is a big issue and it is laudable that Van Bynen is running with that particular ball. But that doesn't mean that vaccine development, the crisis in long-term care and all those other big issues identified by all the opposition parties are secondary and have to go to the back of the queue for discussion and debate in the Health Committee.


Personally, I would have forgiven a lot of Van Bynen’s politics (which are light years away from my own) if he had just stuck with a few principled positions. But his endless shape-shifting and weaselly evasions leave me cold.

In a virtual Town Hall with local members of the Liberal Party on 15 October 2020 he couldn’t or wouldn’t express an opinion on the planned cutbacks in the number of Registered Nurses at Southlake. That, he says, is a matter for the CEO Arden Krystal.

Gun Violence - empty promises

On the epidemic of gun violence he parrots the official line, telling his on-line viewers that the Government would allow municipalities to decide on handguns and where they should be stored. Oh dear! Before the election he said private individuals shouldn’t have handguns, a position he has now abandoned. And we get this drivel from Van Bynen at the same time the Chief of York Regional Police is telling the Regional Council that shooting incidents across the Region have gone up from 4 in 2015 to 57 in 2019. 

It’s difficult not to feel a little disappointed in Tony Van Bynen MP. 

He is furiously active on social media, endlessly tweeting and re-tweeting the latest Government line from Ottawa.

Yet he is predictably silent on many of the things that really matter.

He never shows leadership.

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Update on 26 October 2020: The House of Commons today instructed the Health Committee to undertake a study on the emergency situation facing Canadians in light of the second wave of the Covid 19 pandemic etc etc. The Liberals (including Van Bynen) voted against the motion and the Opposition parties won 176 votes to 152 votes.

Update on 28 October 2020: Last week the Liberal Government took the view that a motion from the Conservatives instructing a Committee to investigate the WE charity affair was a vote of non-confidence in the Government. The Government survived the vote on 21 October 2020 by 180-146 with the NDP, Greens and Independents voting with the Liberals. But another Conservative motion on 26 October 2020 (see update above) instructing the Health Committee to investigate further the Covid pandemic - with extensive powers to call for papers and witness - was not deemed to be a vote of non-confidence.  Andrew Coyne in the Globe and Mail says Parliament should decide, not the Government, what constitutes a non-confidence vote. In the UK House of Commons a motion tabled in this form: "That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty's Government" is always taken as first item of business on the next sitting day.