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Toronto Pickering, Ont. landowners left in limbo over decades-old airport plans

Michael Robertson stands by his barn where the federal government wants to put a runway for a planned airport in Pickering on Dec. 30, 2016. Robertson has been fighting to stop the government from building an airport in Pickering for the past 45 years.

Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

When Michael Robertson moved to an idyllic patch of farmland in Pickering in the 1970s, he was looking for peace and quiet. He didn't foresee an interminable battle with the federal government.

"We loved being able to grow a garden and being out of the city," Mr. Robertson said. "So when the announcement came out, we were all pretty much in shock."

It was 1972, and the federal government under Pierre Trudeau announced the purchase of 18,600 acres of Pickering farmland with the intention of building an airport. All properties covered by the purchase, including Mr. Robertson's plot, would be expropriated.

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Nearly half a century later, after countless political debates and community protests, an airport has yet to be built. The plan has never formally been approved nor cancelled. Mr. Robertson and his neighbours remain in limbo, always braced for the next fight. The saga has exhausted politicians and citizens alike.

In November, Pickering City Council asked the federal government to expedite its decision on the airport. Originally, the council motion sought to get Ottawa to move ahead with the planning and implementation of the proposed airport, but commotion from inside council chambers forced an amendment. In the end, the motion requested only one thing: an answer.

In 1975, Mr. Robertson recalls, they almost had one. In response to demonstrations of the People over Planes oppositional movement in Pickering, the government tabled plans for a potential airport. "In the beginning, none of us really thought we had any chance of stopping it," he said. "We just felt like you have to try."

In the years since, the topic has lain dormant for the most part – mainly emerging during election cycles and in the odd council meeting.

However, in 2013, then-federal finance minister Jim Flaherty shocked Pickering residents by announcing his support for imminent construction. From there, the debate was kicked back into high gear.

In July, 2015, the federal government transferred 21 square kilometres of the expropriated lands to the Rouge National Urban Park. But there was still no word of cancelling the airport.

Three years after Mr. Flaherty's endorsement, there are still no answers – just an ever-mounting pile of reports.

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At the end of November, an independent advisement report for Transport Canada was released – one week after an access-to-information request was filed by the Ajax-Pickering Board of Trade. The board has vocally supported the construction of an airport and was anxious to see adviser Gary Polonsky's conclusion.

But Mr. Polonsky's recommendations only lead to another waiting game; he asked for further analysis of factors such as size, location and infrastructure before a decision is made.

The recommendations left many politicians, including Pickering Mayor Dave Ryan, exhausted. "We're 45 years into the process with yet another study."

Mr. Polonsky sticks by his rationale. "We interviewed over 60 groups, over 100 people," he said, listing groups within aviation, business, government, First Nations and conservation authorities. There just isn't enough information yet to support or condemn an airport in Pickering, he said.

A report by KPMG for Transport Canada, which will assess the capacity, supply and demand of Ontario airports, began last May. Mr. Polonsky hopes that both the pro-airport and pro-farmland camps in Pickering will respect its results, but that report isn't expected for another two years.

Several reports not specific to Pickering have been cited within the airport debate, including a 2011 Transport Canada study that found Toronto Pearson International Airport would likely reach capacity between 2027 and 2037.

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In December, it was revealed that Air Canada and the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) intend to turn Pearson into a mega-hub on a scale with Amsterdam Airport Schiphol or Dubai International Airport, but nothing has been said about how those plans would affect the need for a satellite airport.

The issue of diminishing capacity in Southern Ontario has been one of the driving arguments for an airport in Pickering, which is immediately east of Toronto. However, that argument is strikingly similar to the one used to justify the construction of Montréal-Mirabel International Airport – which raises alarms for many.

"That's the elephant in the room," Mr. Polonsky said. "Mirabel was, and is, a disaster."

Mirabel opened in 1975, following land expropriation similar to what happened in Pickering, and was intended to serve as a secondary airport to Dorval, which is now Montréal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport. But Mirabel's business fell off quickly, and commercial passenger traffic ceased in 2004. This year, the last piece of the terminal building was torn down.

"Absolutely no one wants to replicate that product," Mr. Polonsky said, pointing to the importance of analysis of supply and demand.

Mr. Ryan, though, isn't worried about that. "Mirabel keeps being held up as a white elephant," the mayor said. "But the reality is that Mirabel is, in fact, a strong economic component for Montreal and the area."

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Mirabel has been altered from its original purpose into a manufacturing space for companies such as Bombardier, said Mr. Ryan, who wants to see the Pickering airport built. He sees the economic spinoffs as a strong selling point, adding that Pickering's population of 100,000 will double over the next 15 years.

"We need to have the economic stimulus to attract jobs that support that population growth, or else we're not going to be sustainable as a municipality," he said. Tens of thousands of unionized jobs have been predicted if an airport is built, although no firm number can be found in the reports.

For Mr. Ryan, undertaking municipal planning around a question mark is difficult.

The uncertainty is also hard on those living on the lands and trying to preserve them.

"We just kind of rode that roller coaster for many years," said Mary Delaney, a resident and the chair of the advocacy group Land over Landings (LOL), the successor to Mr. Robertson's People over Planes.

Ms. Delaney moved to Pickering five years after the airport idea was initially shelved by the federal government, but she can recall the emotional impact the expropriation had on landowners, who lost properties their families had lived on for generations.

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At the same time, she started to take note of Pickering's Class 1 soil – a marker of highly productive agricultural land – and became interested in issues such as food justice and clean water.

In her opinion, those issues should take precedence over the events of the 1970s. "We can't be doing what we're doing because we're angry," she said. "We can't be doing it because of old slights and old wrongs, even though they're very real."

Many Pickering residents have spent the past 45 years renting their families' old properties, not knowing when or even if they'll have to leave. The scenario is uncomfortable for Pickering-Uxbridge MP Jennifer O'Connell, whose long-term advocacy for preserving the Pickering farmlands began during her time on city council. Now, Ms. O'Connell serves on Parliament Hill and can speak directly to her colleague, federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau.

"Minister Garneau's recent position has been that any decision on the airport would need to have a strong business case, and I agree with that," she said, noting that he has requested updated capacity numbers for Pearson airport.

But she's adamant that a decision must be made quickly, so people can get on with their lives.

"There are generations of families that have gone through this," Ms. O'Connell said. "Whenever they start hearing about this again, there's this image for me of having their bags packed at the door."

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