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Ontario Place deal with Toronto would allow province to override environmental and heritage laws, NDP says

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Ontario’s opposition NDP is expressing concern about new legislation that will provide exemptions for the redevelopment of Ontario Place on a number of fronts as part of a deal with Toronto.

The New Deal for Toronto Act passed first reading Monday at Queen’s Park. The act would formalize in law a deal between the province and the city that would see the provincial government take responsibility for the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway in exchange for the city’s recognition of the province’s right to proceed with its redevelopment plans for Ontario Place.

The Ford government has been marching ahead with plans to provide Therme Canada a long-term lease to build a private water park and spa on the Ontario Place grounds.

The act provides exemptions for the Ontario Place redevelopment on a number of fronts, including environmental assessments, the Heritage Act, and regular noise regulations the city would normally be able to enforce. It also gives the infrastructure minister power to issue ministerial zoning orders (MZOs) that can override local laws to move the project forward.

Speaking in the legislature Tuesday, Ontario NDP Leader Marit Stiles questioned whether Premier Ford is overriding his own rules to avoid accountability under the law.

“The conservatives are muddying even further when it comes to Ontario Place,” Stiles said. "They're doing everything they can to ram their private luxury spa through, even skirting their own rules. They proposed exempting the project from environmental assessment laws and the Heritage Act."

Infrastructure Minister Kinga Surma responded that the government is eager to move forward on the project.

"We have done everything that is required by us by law, and now we have to make a decision and move forward," she said.

But Stiles responded and said the act amounts to the PC government "giving themselves a free pass to do whatever they want for whomever they want with public dollars."

Each side accused the other of being "obsessed" with the project.

Speaking with reporters later, Surma said she needs the ministerial zoning powers because the city has not updated its official plan.

"So Live Nation for example, technically should not be operating on the site, because it's only supposed to be allowed for Park Marina and boating," Surma said.

She also said that the province needs to move forward with the project in order to avoid penalties associated with delays.

An area fenced off for construction work is seen at Ontario Place in Toronto, on Friday, November 3, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

"The city respects our timelines. Listen, whenever there's a big project or construction, you have to respect the timelines and there are costs associated with delays," Surma said. "And we've been very patient with the City of Toronto. We've respected the democratic process, the transition period, we've had the working group, we've nailed down a successful deal that's very good for the City of Toronto and the province of Ontario. And now we are getting on with building.

"There will be lots happening on the West Island, lots happening in terms of public realm, shoreline enhancements, removal of certain things on the island, and we're excited for it."

Surma said that the province has already conducted two environmental assessments for the project, as well as 40 studies on how water, soil, and other features would be affected.

However Stiles said that isn’t the case.

"That's not true. There has not been an environmental assessment of the West island where Therma’s gonna be located," she told reporters. "So the minister is trying to make all kinds of excuses but at the end of the day, they don't want to have an environmental assessment and they're doing everything they can to avoid it."

Asked if she felt betrayed by Chow in terms of the fight over Ontario Place, Stiles offered a similar comment to the mayor and said the issue was always going to be decided at the provincial legislature.

"I think Olivia Chow, the mayor got a new deal for Toronto from a government that is desperate to change the channel and is mired in scandal and looking for any good news they can extract," Stiles said. "But at the end of the day, the fight to keep Ontario Place and to keep that as a public park was always going to be here at Queen's Park in the legislature."

In a testy exchange earlier in the legislature, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Paul Calandra told Stiles that municipalities want to work with the province to get things done.

“You know who’s come on board? Mayor Olivia Chow, an NDP stalwart,” Calandra said.

Speaking with reporters, Surma also clarified that the fate of the current Ontario Science Centre building has not yet been decided, even though the province conceded to the city that it would keep some science programming at the site.

A business case for the Ontario Science Centre is due out Wednesday, she said.

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