"You don't need to take that tone, ma'am."
So said one Transport Canada staffer to one Lake Ontario Waterkeeper staffer over the telephone late last week.
We had contacted the federal government asking for a copy of the new agreement between Transport Canada and the City of Oshawa. It spells out the future of the Oshawa Harbour and - we hope - settles decades of dispute over who will clean up contaminated lands and who will restore public access to Lake Ontario.
The Government of Canada hosted a public event to announce the deal on July 16 ... only trouble was, they forgot to share the deal with the public. Day after day we, the media, Oshawa-residents and community organizations kept requesting copies of the agreement. Then, finally, late Tuesday night it was posted on the City's website.
We want to share our thoughts on the agreement with you. And the media. And our friends and family from Oshawa. We want to, but we can't right now.
For one thing, the late-release of the documents means we haven't had time to actually read and analyze the fine print. For another, we think it's more important to first explain to you, to Transport Canada, and to everyone who wonders ...
Yes, we do need to take this tone.
We need to be firm when a harbour sits, polluted and off-limits, with no restoration or law enforcement action for years on end. The gaping hole in the waterfront landfill carved by the Harbour Commission in 1976 has been leaking contaminants into the harbour for thirty-four years. We have known about the pollution problems there for at least twenty-seven years. The Commission promised action in 2002. To date, not a single significant remedial step has been taken.
We need to be firm when one of our cities loses its public marina. Boaters were kicked out in 2002. For eight years, Oshawa has been the only major city on the Great Lakes where the public cannot put a boat in the water.
We need to be firm when, after all of this, the federal government makes plans for industrial development that are completely inconsistent with local dreams and environmental protection. The rail spur was approved over local objections. The ethanol plant (still a major concern, by the way) was promoted by Government of Canada programs. Meanwhile, everyone who lives, works, and plays around the Oshawa Harbour fought for a different, mixed use, environmentally positive future.
We need to be firm when the federal government hires a highly respected mediator to propose a solution - then tosses aside his advice when it does not promote Port Authorities, federal control, or total industrialization.
We need to be firm when a city takes the Government of Canada to court, just to get its attention. The City of Oshawa had to resort to legal action and negotiations, just to force a settlement that begins to show respect for local interests, plans, and dreams. (If you have forgotten just how unresponsive the federal Harbour Commission has been, recall that its CEO told the press in 2002, "We're going to do what we want with the marina for whatever are our reasons.")
We need to be firm when the federal government demands all negotiations and plans remain behind closed doors. Legitimate decision-making is messy and time-consuming and no one can control the message or the outcome. That may be something that stakeholders dislike intensely, but it is actually how government is supposed to work.
We need to be firm when any level of government does not release source documents. With all due respect, we will not just "trust you". We are hard workers, and we like to read every line of original source material we can get our hands on before we make up our minds about whether a project is good or bad for the water. We also strongly prefer it when the media is allowed to do its job - to report, with a healthy dose of skepticism - based on facts and not just press releases.
It is our duty as educators and as citizens to make recommendations when accepted procedures are not followed. When decisions could be better-informed. When groups of people are being asked to give up rights and privileges to accommodate others. If, after a decision is made transparently, all the facts are presented for the public to make up its own mind (i.e., without spin, thank you very much), real action is taken to correct environmental problems, and respect for public knowledge is shown ... If, after all of that, you still object to our "tone", then we most sincerely apologize.
Until then, we will continue to be firm. Because we truly care what happens to the Oshawa Harbour and its people.