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The high rise condos and apartment buildings near Kennedy Rd are seen in the distance beyond the forests of Rouge Park which is slated to become a national park. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
The high rise condos and apartment buildings near Kennedy Rd are seen in the distance beyond the forests of Rouge Park which is slated to become a national park. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Parks Canada

A decades-long journey to protect the natural jewel of the GTA Add to ...

The human history of Canada’s first national urban park dates back 10,000 years, to the nomadic tribes that travelled through the wilderness and left their stone scrapers and spear points behind.

The political history of what will be known as the Rouge National Urban Park doesn’t stretch back quite that far. But it has been nearly a quarter of a century since Pauline Browes, then a Progressive Conservative MP, convinced Tom McMillan, the environment minister at the time, to stop and visit the Rouge River Valley on his way from the Rocky Mountains to Prince Edward Island.

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“He told me he had no idea how magnificent it was,” remembers Ms. Browes.

Mr. McMillan and other politicians of the day joined her quest to protect a strip of marshlands and forest on the eastern edge of the Greater Toronto Area. On Friday, that dream moved much closer to reality when the Harper government committed more than $140-million over 10 years to turn the area into a new national park.

Much work remains to be done to create what the government is hoping will be a “people’s park,” including consultations with the community and building trails, a visitor’s centre and other facilities. But on Friday, Environment Minister Peter Kent paid tribute to Ms. Browes, Mr. McMillan and many other people for their hard work and commitment.

“A lot of people have put a good portion of their lives into keeping the dream alive,” he said.

It was Ms. Browes’s private member’s bill, passed in 1990, that started the Rouge Valley on its long journey toward national park status. Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government set aside $10-million to help protect the area.

After the Liberals were elected in 1993, the campaign for a national park lost momentum, says Ms. Browes, who lost her seat.

There was, however, plenty of progress at Queen’s Park. The Rouge Park was created by Ontario in 1995, and the governments of David Peterson, Bob Rae, Mike Harris and Dalton McGuinty all provided more land. Many municipal politicians have played an important role, as has David Crombie, the former mayor of Toronto who also served as a federal cabinet minister.

After the Conservatives were elected in 2006, Ms. Browes, who has been called the “godmother of the Rouge,” began to lobby hard. She worked with Alan Wells, chair of the Rouge Park Alliance, which runs the park, and Conservative MP Michael Chong, who is the federal representative on the alliance.

There were a number of meetings with Parks Canada to talk about whether the Rouge Park could be transformed into a larger national park, as was recommended by a team of consultants who looked at the best way to preserve it for the future.

The idea also offered a solution to a challenging problem: Attendance at Canada’s national parks is declining. In 1995, 15.3 million Canadians visited a national park, compared with only 12.5 million last year. A new urban park could help introduce millions of Canadians to the national parks system.

Mr. Kent took the proposal to cabinet. It was approved and the commitment to the new park was announced in the Speech from the Throne in June, 2011. It was also mentioned in the March budget, and, although specific funding was not allocated, Parks Canada has been moving forward with it.

The park’s proposed boundaries extend from Lake Ontario in the south to the Oak Ridges Moraine in the north. It will include land within the existing Rouge Park, plus additional federal lands west of the York-Durham town line.

But the announcement of long-term funding comes as the federal agency is implementing $29-million in budget cuts. Parks Canada is reducing the number of scientists and technical staff that help protect the ecological integrity, or health, of the parks across the country.

This has many conservation experts worried about the future of our national parks, including the latest proposed addition to the network.

Follow on Twitter: @AnneMcIlroy

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