Private Lands Have to Go, Says Gatineau Park Scholar
Hot off the press is a book on Gatineau Park that promises to rattle the NCC’s cage and the status quo—it may even wake up Canada’s sleeping parliamentarians and press gallery...
This latest work by Gatineau Park scholar Michael Lait pulls no punches. It spotlights the utter administrative chaos and dysfunction that has plagued the park for decades. In particular, the book underlines how the NCC has always tried and failed to square the circle of private property in practice—although most of its plans took the right approach on park management and private property.
I say most of its plans, because the 2021 Gatineau Park Master Plan represents a disgraceful capitulation to private interests, a clear violation of the park’s public and ecological missions. For over 70 years, park master plans had underlined the need to remove private lands from the park for conservation and visitorship purposes. But now, in its latest plan, the NCC presents park residents as partners, stewards and protectors of the land.
From bad in the past, to protectors today, park residents are now being invited to build more houses, so long as they do it by using ecological design principles. Yet, not a word in the press or in Parliament on this capitulation to private interests that sounds the death knell for a conservation park worthy of the name.
I would argue that this will be the craven legacy of the weaklings who are in charge of the NCC: CEO Tobi Nussbaum and Chairman Mark Seaman—the most mediocre senior officials ever to serve in those capacities. And let’s not forget the atrocious record of park director Christie Spence, who issued occupation permits to over 60 Meech Lake residents who’d built various structures on park property. She did this without permission of the NCC board, in violation of section 12 of the National Capital Act. And she still has a job...
But there is light at the end of the tunnel for anyone willing to take a closer look. In his new book, Dr. Michael Lait calls a spade a spade. He illustrates the main issues facing park management: 1) boundaries; 2) private properties; 3) federal legislation; 4) conservation in a near-urban context.
He endorses what he calls the “consensus view on Gatineau Park,” while outlining “what a National Conservation Agency dedicated to the protection of near-urban ecological areas could look like.”
Although I haven’t read the final draft, and don’t fully know what he means by “consensus,” I do have an inkling... A review of public and parliamentary debate on the issue over the last two decades, reveals that a consensus on the park has emerged with respect to its management and legislative protection for it. Park advocates now generally agree that legislation should meet basic criteria: it should mandate conservation and ecological integrity as top priorities, enshrine boundaries, eliminate private property development, and dedicate the park to future generations. As well, federal legislation should take note of Quebec's territorial integrity—given the precedent established by the National Parks Act, whereby provincial cooperation and agreement are needed for the creation of a national park.
This book couldn’t be more timely, given the utter collapse of the NCC on the question of private properties in Gatineau Park, and the ongoing conflicts pitting residents and park users—most notably the harassment of swimmers at Meech Lake in 2021 under pressure from park residents.
Moreover, the utter fiasco and illegality surrounding demolition and reconstruction of the Pellerin Bridge near lac La Pêche, for the exclusive pleasure and benefit of a resident, illustrate the extent to which private properties are totally incompatible with the park’s ecological and public vocations. Here again, the NCC failed to respect section 12 of the National Capital Actlaws, bylaws and policies were violated at the municipal, provincial and federal levels.
The NCC did this right in the middle of the critical habitat of the Blanding’s turtle—whose status is being downgraded from species-at-risk to endangered—and without the shade of an environmental impact assessment.
Gatineau Park management needs a very serious overhaul, and Michael Lait provides an excellent roadmap to guide that process. Below is the abstract to his book.
Title: Governance of Near-Urban Conservation Areas: Lessons from the Conflicts Surrounding Gatineau Park near Ottawa, Canada, by Michael Lait, PhD, Springer, 2021: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/350291968_Conclusion.
This study of Gatineau Park governance documented the planning and management issues that have been introduced by private land ownership in a near-urban protected area. Ironically the history of Gatineau Park could have been otherwise: it was supposed to be the first near-urban national park in Canada and the first in a nationwide system.
When championing the Gatineau Park proposal, the Commissioner of the Dominion Parks Branch, JB Harkin (1913), claimed that the system of near-urban national parks would have brought Canada to the “forefront of civilization.” Instead, Canada has one near-urban national park, the Rouge National Park near Toronto, Ontario. Further, Parks Canada has not published any details about a future systematization of near-urban national parks, nor are there active discussions about the next Rouge.
Nonetheless, as national parks and protected areas will be critical tools with which to address the climate and biodiversity crises, it is not an either/or with respect to how closely they are situated to cities. Today, in North America, national parks and protected areas tend to be located far away from urban centres. Yet it remains key that governments give the public controlled access to nature, with the attendant recreational, educational, and psychological benefits that are derived from people’s experience of natural places.
The conclusion reviews the historical creation of Gatineau Park by and for the cottage communities at Kingsmere and Meech Lake, and how cottagers worked behind the scenes with the federal government to ensure that their communities were maintained. As cottagers were making progress towards this goal, planners were conceiving of Gatineau Park as the capital’s national park. The status quo of private ownership at Kingsmere and Meech Lake was the defining issue of the Federal District Commission’s Gatineau Park Advisory Committee which ultimately dissolved over the issue.
Previous chapters revealed that the transition from the FDC to the park’s current governing body, the National Capital Commission did not result in any substantive change to the park’s governance and overall development policy, such that the NCC continued the piecemeal land acquisition program that relies on negotiated purchase. This research reveals the numerous expropriations that the NCC has carried out in order to prevent incompatible developments on privately owned lands, including hotels, marinas, and subdivisions.
Despite NCC officials being aware, early on, of the inherent problems with the land acquisition policy, they failed to persuade leadership to take decisive action. In light of this remarkable continuity in the governance history, three lessons are drawn concerning the establishment and protection of near-urban wilderness areas:
(1) Sort jurisdiction early—by introducing multiple layers of jurisdiction, private land ownership complicates park management and territorial control, and is intimately linked to the interests of local government, including the quasi-local governments of the Kingsmere Property Owners’ Association and Meech Lake Association;
(2) Set clearly defined boundaries and land acquisition mechanisms—legislators failed to give Gatineau Park adequate protection not only by neglecting to include a park mandate statement in the National Capital Act, they also failed to codify the park boundaries in law and the NCC subsequently took advantage of this through a boundary rationalization exercise, completed without public consultation; and
(3) The need for timely action on land acquisitions through a well-funded Property Acquisitions department that is provided with specific goals and timeframes, acquisition priorities, and scientific guidance on ecological corridors and other areas of ecological significance.
In addition to the lessons that can be drawn from the case study, the conclusion endorses the consensus view on Gatineau Park legislation specifically in mandating the NCC to complete the land acquisition program while giving it the right of first refusal. Following the phronetic approach, it also outlines what a National Conservation Agency dedicated to the protection of near-urban ecological areas could look like.