The GTA is expected to get a budget gift from Ottawa in the form of Canada’s first urban national park.
The plan will see Parks Canada take over the roughly 47-square-kilometre Rouge Park in Toronto’s east end, a long strip of green space stretching north from Lake Ontario that includes the Rouge River, forests, trails and agricultural land.
With the number of Canadians visiting Canada’s national parks and historic sites on the decline, one way to reverse that trend is to create a new park that is essentially in the backyard of millions of Canadians.
Surrounded by Toronto and Markham to the west and the growing cities of Pickering and Ajax to the east, the Rouge Valley is within about 100 kilometres of 20 per cent of Canada’s population.
Environment Minister Peter Kent, who has been closely involved on the file, is scheduled to speak at Toronto’s Albany Club on April 11 – less than two weeks after Thursday’s budget – on the topic of “Rouge National Park.”
He will be introduced by Pauline Browes, a former federal Tory minister who is often referred to as “the godmother of the Rouge.” In an interview, Ms. Browes said there are expectations that the budget will allow the project to move ahead.
Ms. Browes said the park project would need about $100-million spread over several years to cover capital costs like an interpretive centre and new nature trails. There would also be operational costs to staff the park.
As an MP in the Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney, Ms. Browes was an early advocate of the idea of creating a national park. For years, she has worked closely with another onetime Tory minister, former Toronto mayor David Crombie, on efforts to protect the valley from development.
Ms. Browes said she was very pleased to hear Ottawa commit to the project in last June’s Throne Speech.
“It was one of the thrilling moments of my life,” she said.
Conservative MP Michael Chong, a member of the Rouge Park Alliance, said the park will be an opportunity for people in the GTA – including recent immigrants – to experience nature.
“Most national parks will never be visited by the vast majority of Canadians because they’re too far away, they’re inaccessible and they’re very expensive to get to,” Mr. Chong said. “It’s going to be a wonderful opportunity for new Canadians to get acquainted with the great outdoors and to connect for the first time with our national park system.”
Mr. Chong said he didn’t know if money for the park would be in the budget, but said the project is a “key priority of the government” for the Greater Toronto Area.
Glenn De Baeremaeker, a Toronto city councillor and environmentalist, expects Thursday’s federal budget will include the funding necessary to establish a national park in the Rouge Valley.
“I expect we’ll see at least $10-million per year” in Thursday’s budget, he said, adding that his estimate has not been confirmed.
A crucial decision for Parks Canada is where to locate the interpretive centre. One option is to put it near the Toronto Zoo, which is within the boundaries of the proposed national park and whose management is looking to build an educational centre of its own.
Mr. De Baeremaeker said the city, which owns the zoo, and Parks Canada have discussed partnering on the project, but that a final decision is a long way off.
He dismissed out-of-hand the suggestion that Ottawa might take over the money-losing Toronto Zoo as part of the parks project. He said Mr. Kent, the Environment Minister, has already made clear that Ottawa is not interested in running a zoo.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misstated the geographic location of Rouge Park in relation to Toronto. This version has been corrected.