Who's in charge here?
The province has imposed a made-in-Toronto decision on Eastern Ontario -- again. Why?
Tom Spears, with files from Dave Rider and Paula McCooey
The Ottawa Citizen

Sunday, February 16, 2003
CREDIT: The Ottawa Citizen
In 1999, water levels in the Tay Watershed generally have been substantially below historic levels, reflecting lesser precipitation in the region.
CREDIT: The Ottawa Citizen
Ontario Liberal leader Dalton McGuinty calls the decision 'Big Brother, or Father Knows Best.'
CREDIT: The Ottawa Citizen
 Liberal MPP Richard Patten: 'I think it's an extremely poor decision.'
CREDIT: The Ottawa Citizen
 Tory MPP Brian Coburn says there are 'checks and balances' to ensure there is accountability.

News that the provincial government has bypassed its own tribunal to give an industry extra water from the Tay River is raising new questions about who really makes political decisions in Eastern Ontario.

It's the fourth time in three years that Queen's Park has elbowed local decision-makers out of the way and announced a made-in-Toronto decision beyond the influence of Eastern Ontario voters.

- In 2000, Queen's Park dissolved the entire board of Ottawa Hospital, the largest hospital in the region, and put in Dennis Timbrell to run the place, responsible only to Queen's Park.

- In August 2001, the province installed Merv Beckstead to oversee the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, the largest board in Eastern Ontario. Elected trustees lost all power to make the decisions that matter most -- which schools would be forced to close, and how much money the board could spend. Mr. Beckstead reported only to Queen's Park.

- Last summer, the province announced it would end cardiac surgery at Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario and send all patients to Toronto for surgery.

- Last fall, Municipal Affairs Minister Chris Hodgson vetoed changes in municipal ward boundaries in Ottawa. Then he spent months refusing to explain or answer any questions. In December, a judge ruled Mr. Hodgson had overstepped his authority. The issue will go to a hearing of the Ontario Municipal Board.

- The latest case came at 5 p.m. Friday. Ontario Environment Minister Chris Stockwell overruled the province's Environmental Review Tribunal and bypassed the courts to allow OMYA Canada Inc., a Swiss multinational, to triple the amount of water it takes from the Tay near Perth.

He didn't offer to answer questions. "The minister has been advised by his legal counsel that he should not elaborate or comment on the decision and that the decision should stand on its own merits," his aide, Heather Capannelli, said yesterday.

"If his decision is judicially reviewed, it's my understanding that his comments can be introduced, and he has been advised by independent legal counsel to let the decision stand on its own merits."

Yet the effects will be felt far beyond Perth and the cottages of Lanark County.

The Tay River is a major tributary of the Rideau River system, which carries boats and swimmers all the way to Ottawa. The Rideau isn't a natural waterway in its present form. Before Col. John By built a lot of dams, it was an interconnected series of streams, small lakes and swamps. Even today the water flow is very slow, and residents have warned that reducing flow from the Tay River will imperil the Rideau, too.

OMYA's president yesterday pronounced the deal a "fair compromise."

"It is good because a decision has been rendered. It has been three long, sometimes difficult years," said Olivier Chatillon.

"So for me the decision appears to take into account extensive statistic data and studies conducted by ourselves, the province, federal government and independent experts."

With the increased amount of water "we are just getting back to the original permit," he said. It also allowed 4.5 million litres a day.

The company doesn't have everything it wants, because it hoped for a 10-year permit, he said. Originally the company planned to take the water from 2000 to 2010, but the first three years of that period have been taken up with the approval and appeal process.

As well, the requirement for the company to report publicly "is a little bit redundant. There is already a robust regulatory process," he said. "But I feel it is a fair and balanced compromise" that will let the company move forward.

"The next step for me is to work with the community because I am very committed to good community relations. ... I will work very hard in order now that we turn the page and we work together with the community, in order to satisfy them that we are not doing anything to harm the river and the environment."

But opponents lined up to criticize the decision and the way it was made.

Liberal leader Dalton McGuinty called it "Big Brother, or Father Knows Best."

The province shouldn't be giving away so much water for free, he said, but should be charging fees as it does for mining or cutting lumber on public land.

"This is just the latest in a lengthy list of interferences on the part of this government. Rather than follow due process, they interfere," he said.

The effects OMYA will have on the river are unknown, which is why the new permit shouldn't be granted, he said.

Liberal MPP Richard Patten of Ottawa Centre said the recent series of ministerial decisions affecting Ottawa shows a pattern of taking over issues that should be settled by people in this region, where there can be local accountability.

"The water levels are down" throughout Eastern Ontario because of the recent drought, he said. And both the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment Ministry had recommended close monitoring of the river, even with the lower level of water withdrawal.

"I asked the minister (about the river) and he said, 'Sorry, I can't talk about it,'" he said.

"He doesn't live in the area, so he doesn't have to live with the consequences. ... I think it's an extremely poor decision, and the ramifications are going to be extremely serious."

Conservative MPP Brian Coburn (Ottawa-Orléans) said Mr. Stockwell has put in place "checks and balances" to ensure there is accountability in the decision, including a requirement for OMYA to hire consultants to report publicly on the state of the river. In the past, residents have objected that river studies haven't been made public.

"There's a rationale behind each one of those decisions" involving the school board, hospital and ward boundaries, he said. "The ability is there in the legislation for the minister to step in in each and every one of them. This isn't done in an ad-hoc basis; this is done based on input we get from residents across the province as well. ... In that process, that's the way it's designed. If you don't like the process, then you change the process."

Mr. Coburn, the minister responsible for rural economic development, is in favour of the OMYA project and the jobs it will bring "as long as it can be done in a sustainable manner."

Ottawa West-Nepean MPP Gary Guzzo, a Conservative, says he has supported some of the cases where Queen's Park overruled local decisions, but he has reservations about the Tay River.

"I supported the move with regard to the Civic Hospital and I supported the move with regard to the public school board, but I have some questions that haven't been answered" on the Tay River, he said. And he says he's being stonewalled by Ontario's environment department.

"I've been trying to obtain some information for long periods of time and haven't been successful.

"I've asked questions regarding the byproducts of the operation and waste disposal. From the manufacturing process, there will be byproducts, and if so, are they toxins? I want to know how they are being disposed of, and nobody wants to talk about that; all they want to talk about is the water table."

Regarding the amount of water being taken from the river, Mr. Guzzo says there has to be protection in place in case of a dry spell.