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From left to right, Jim Robb, Kevin O’Connor and Leigh Paulseth walk through Toronto’s Rouge Park in November. Ontario’s move Thursday to pull its lands from the urban park project has been called a ‘campaign to undermine the federal government’s initiative.’Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Municipal politicians in the eastern GTA have been caught in the middle of a heated battle between the federal government and the province over the future of what would be the first urban national park in the country.

The province announced Thursday it would pull its land from the project – which represents two-thirds of all the land in the proposed park – over a dispute with Ottawa over environmental protections. The move came while Brad Duguid, the province's minister of Economic Development, Employment and Infrastructure, was working behind the scenes to win the backing of local politicians in Toronto, Pickering, Markham and Richmond Hill. Some of those drawn into the fray have openly questioned if the province's eleventh-hour decision to pull the plug on the project has more to do with partisan politics than a concern for the environment.

The conflict centres on the federal government's decision to apply a different set of environmental protections for Rouge Park than for other non-urban national parks in the country. Ottawa says the Rouge protections are stronger than provincial laws, but the province and environmentalists say they are not robust enough.

In this battle to see Ontario's standards for ecological conservation recognized, Mr. Duguid has looked for allies in municipal government.

In late February, Toronto city Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker – who represents a Scarborough ward and who has been spearheading efforts to create the park – sent a letter to Premier Kathleen Wynne urging her government to transfer the land. Attached to the bottom of the letter were the signatures of 14 other local leaders and politicians who agreed to support the cause.

After he saw the letter, Mr. Duguid spoke to many of the municipal politicians on the list – Pickering Mayor David Ryan, Richmond Hill Mayor Dave Barrow, Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti and Markham deputy Mayor Jack Heath – and told them that the province's talks with Ottawa were still ongoing and discouraged them from keeping their names on the letter.

After Mr. Duguid's intervention, Mr. Barrow and Mr. Ryan asked that their signatures be removed. Toronto Mayor John Tory says he was asked to sign the letter, but chose not to.

"I wanted, rather than taking one side or the other – as I find myself doing sometimes on issues with the other governments – to help them do what they should be doing, which is find a resolution to this as opposed to writing letters back and forth," Mr. Tory said.

Mr. De Baeremaeker, an environmental advocate who helped draw up the boundaries of the park more than two decades ago, said he was "surprised" by the province's intervention and assumed, from Mr. Duguid's response, that the letter "hit a nerve."

Despite Mr. Duguid's efforts, Mr. Heath and Mr. Scarpitti of Markham kept their names on the letter.

"I told [Mr. Duguid], 'Mr. Minister, we're really frustrated here in Markham as to the lack of progress on this park,'" said Mr. Heath, who has been his city's lead negotiator on the park project since 2008.

He said that, while he prefers that Ontario's language on environmental protection is in the federal legislation, secondary agreements could cover that off. To him, the province pulling the land back at this point is like "moving backwards."

At the crux of the dispute are protections for land within the park area that is used by farmers. Leona Aglukkaq, the federal environment minister, has characterized Ontario's position as prioritizing nature over farming.

"The facts are clear; the Rouge National Urban Park Act provides the highest level of environmental protections for the Rouge Valley while still allowing farming to continue," Ms. Aglukkaq said in a statement Friday.

Mr. Barrow said he, like Mr. Tory, didn't want his signature on the letter because he wants the two senior levels of government to continue talks.

"It's an urban park and I think the province and the feds need to rethink what's included in an urban park," Mr. Barrow said. "I don't think we have to re-tree the thing and turn it into a wilderness."

Some believe the disagreement over environmental protections isn't even the real cause for this stalemate. Mr. De Baeremaeker accused the province of not wanting the federal Tories to "get all the glory" ahead of an election.

"I think it's a campaign to undermine the federal government's initiative," he said. "Some provincial leaders don't want Stephen Harper to look good, and it's really unfortunate."

Mr. Barrow said he was also concerned the issue "seems more political than in the best interests of the park."

Mr. Duguid dismissed accusations that his actions were motivated by partisanship. He said that he and a team of environmentalists developed a compromise for the park project that was "delivered to the Harper government on a silver platter."

"This isn't about politics," he said, "but I would say that politics could be utilized going forward to convince the federal government or the future federal government that they ought to be working with the province to get this done."

Follow Dakshana Bascaramurty on Twitter: @DakGlobeOpens in a new window
Follow Ann Hui on Twitter: @annhuiOpens in a new window

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