CALLING FOR TRANSPARENCY & ACCOUNTABILITY AT THE NPCA
As the Ontario Legislature resumed this week, the first order of business before the house was Bill 139, Building Better Communities and Conserving Watersheds Act.
I had an opportunity to speak to the Conservation Authority Act changes, and highlight the recent issues our community has faced trying to get accountability and transparency at the NPCA.
Ms. Cindy Forster: It’s a pleasure to rise and have 20 minutes or so to speak about this bill. I am going to narrow my comments just around the conservation piece of this bill. I welcome Conservation Ontario here today.
I’m very happy to see that there is a purpose clause finally in the Conservation Authorities Act. It’s very clear that it is to “provide for the organization and delivery of programs and services that further the conservation, restoration, development and management of natural resources and watersheds in Ontario,” and there is no mention of balancing that with development, with private development. So that is a good piece to have.
I am concerned, though, about the section in Bill 139 which clarifies the conservation authority procedures with respect to giving more flexibility in managing their affairs, including procedures with respect to enlarging their jurisdiction, amalgamating, dissolving, amalgamation requiring ministerial approval, and public notification of meetings to discuss amalgamation or dissolution. I preface this not by painting all conservation authorities in the province, all 36 of them, with the same brush, but when you have a rogue conservation authority, which I have in my riding, particularly since the last municipal election in 2014, with a very right-wing agenda, you worry about giving every conservation authority more flexibility, although I’m sure many of them are deserving of it.
I want to spend a few minutes talking about the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority. It serves half a million people in Niagara, encompassing the entire Niagara region, and portions of Hamilton and Haldimand. That board actually has a member from Haldimand, a couple of members appointed from Hamilton, and the rest are from the Niagara Peninsula. The vast majority of them are elected regional politicians.
The Niagara Peninsula is one of the most complex watersheds in Ontario, managing over 2,870 hectares of some of the most sensitive and unique natural areas in the region, all of which is held in a public trust, and it includes areas drained by the Niagara River, Twenty Mile Creek, the Welland River, the Welland Canal, Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.
The legislative mandate of the conservation authority, as set out in the act that we have seen here, is not what we’re seeing in the Niagara Peninsula. The NPCA has been under a lot of controversy over the last three years. I think most of it started with the restructuring under a new board of governors, where about 15—I think it was 25%—of the employees were let go at that time.
Ms. Cindy Forster: The environmentalists were let go; you’re right. These people didn’t have a union at the time, so it was just: “Here’s your package. Goodbye. See you around”—some of them with 20 or 25 years’ experience. What has happened is, that has kind of continued to happen. These people eventually joined OPSEU and they got a collective agreement. But their life hasn’t been made any easier since then, except that they now have a voice and the right to file a grievance and do those kinds of things.
Then, the piece that really brought some controversy was the Thundering Waters in Niagara Falls, a huge property which is mostly wetlands. Two years ago, China-based GR Investment company bought 196 hectares of land west of Marineland and adjacent to the Thundering Waters Golf Club in Niagara Falls. A billion-dollar development is proposed in Niagara which could be used as a provincial pilot for biodiversity offsetting. This is when the MNR gets involved. Even the Premier got involved. While she was on her trip to China, she witnessed the signature of the mayor of Niagara Falls to try and promote this project in one of the last pieces of Carolinian forest and wetlands in the Niagara area.
A lot of environmentalists became concerned, and this kind of came to the forefront. There has been lobbying done of the provincial government. I’m glad the minister is actually here today because we’ve sent letters to Minister McGarry, and we sent letters to Minister Mauro before that. The regional chair and other members of the NPCA were involved in trying to make this one of the first biodiversity-offsetting projects here in the Niagara region. But the problem with that is that most of it is wetlands. The vast majority of it is either wetlands or buffer lands. So, although in principle it sounded like a good idea, stakeholders in the community have thought otherwise.
I was in Thundering Waters a couple of weeks ago, and it is an amazing place. It’s bordered by a subdivision and a bit of an industrial area. It was 85 degrees that day—hot, humid—and when you walked 20 feet into this forest, it was 15 degrees cooler. You know what? There are lots of brownfields in Niagara to develop; we don’t have to be developing major projects on the last of our protected lands. The tour was led by a young man named Owen Bjorgan. He gave us quite an education; he’d done a lot of research about this. It’s just one hour south of here. Of the 484 acres, 330 are provincially significant wetlands.
It seems to me that although we’re getting these letters from MNR about how this project doesn’t meet the requirements that would be needed to develop this, we’re not vocally hearing this stuff. Although we’ve heard from the NPCA that they agree, that they’re going to follow the mandate and do all those kinds of things, this is still rolling along with people lobbying to try to get this project forward.
That’s only one of the problems within the NPCA. As I say, it is a conservation authority that has “gone rogue.” And those are not my words; those are actually the words of some conservation authority members that I’ve talked to outside of the Niagara region. The NPCA’s mission is to balance the interests of the environment along with development. The interests of municipal and regional councils often differ from conservation authorities, because they’re worried about raising some more taxes to try and offset tax increases and to improve their services, whereas a conservation authority should actually be looking after protecting wetlands and protecting the environment.
There has been this whole issue that has come up with the NPCA where private members of the public are being sued for sharing their information—SLAPP suits: Ed Smith, a retired, respected military guy, who spent his entire career in the military; and two regional councillors, who shared information through an email to other regional councillors to ensure that they got the information—they’re also being sued by somebody. There are a number of lawsuits going on. Even I was threatened with being sued by a company that had ties to Mr. Petrowski, a regional councillor from St. Catharines who had maybe worked for this company. I was threatened with a suit if I didn’t, basically, shut up about this company.
Other issues that have come up with the NPCA: We had two sitting board members—when Minister McGarry talks about perhaps having some authority, or at least set some criteria for what board members should bring to the table at conservation authorities, I don’t necessarily disagree with her. We had two sitting board members who took leaves of absence, and one of them actually was let a contract with the NPCA, and then both of them ended up with top jobs at the NPCA while they were sitting board members. David Barrick, a regional councillor who was also a board member at the NPCA, ended up with a very senior position at the NPCA, which he hadn’t even applied for. He’d applied for another one and wasn’t qualified for it, so they just gave him the other job that was available—jobs of people that they had terminated a few months before. The other board member, Carmen D’Angelo, took a leave of absence and then became the CAO of the NPCA, and then, later, the right wing of the regional government promoted him to the CAO of the region of Niagara.
So you can see where this story is going. Bill Hodgson, who is a regional councillor, was the former mayor of Lincoln. You will know him. Bill Hodgson was on the NPCA board. He was the only person who was questioning the decisions—or one of the few that was questioning the decisions; I correct myself. He had a smear campaign against him, and eventually he resigned from that board.
They talked about not lobbying on the biodiversity offsetting, but I’ve just come across a letter from a law firm who said that they actually were working for the NPCA, along with the region of Niagara, to actually try and get this billion-dollar project back on the rails, at the expense of—
Ms. Cindy Forster: Well, there was a land deal in Wainfleet that was very early on, where I think that the taxpayers of Wainfleet and the taxpayers of Niagara paid way more than they should have had to pay for—
So this continues to go on. I’ve asked the minister, I’ve asked the MNR, I’ve asked the Auditor General, I’ve asked the Ombudsman and I’ve asked the Environmental Commissioner to weigh in on this. I’ve asked Minister McGarry to appoint a supervisor, because this stuff continues to happen.
The latest was the survey about workplace harassment. OPSEU conducted a survey of its employees, and 86.5% of the employees surveyed—the vast majority of them completed the survey. It was a very well-accepted survey out of OHCOW, the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers. The survey was done, and 86.5% of the workers surveyed said that they have been verbally harassed in the workplace, that they can’t sleep at night when they go home, that they don’t want to come to work.
The NPCA, with their new CAO—who was just hired in the last couple of months—have said, “Oh, my, this can’t be true.” They refused to set up a joint committee to work with the people in this workplace, and they’re saying, “We’re going to do our own survey. We are a wonderful organization. We do nothing wrong. We provide great service for our tax dollars in the region of Niagara, and you all must not be telling the truth.”
“My name is Jocelyn Baker; I am a former NPCA employee. I want to thank you for your tireless efforts towards NPCA accountability.” That’s what we have been doing, folks: trying to get transparency and accountability going. “I admire your professionalism and class; you have been a joy to watch. I have been waiting for my gut to tell me it’s time to speak out. Now is the time. I have no tolerance for harassment, incivility or disrespect. The NPCA, as you are keenly aware, is in crisis. The culture of harassment and violence continues, most recently verified through an OPSEU survey which I am confident you are aware of. NPCA front-line staff and middle managers continue to work in unsafe and dangerous conditions. This will continue until Ms. McGarry steps in and stops it. She has the authority; she just needs the gumption. I wrote to her as well.
“While working at the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority, I personally experienced and supervised employees who regularly experienced workplace violence, harassment (sexual, gender and family status), unwanted comment, conduct, and behaviour including bullying. All of this behaviour by members of senior management. I have been the complainant for three workplace harassment complaints, have been the key witness in two workplace investigations by Filion Wakely Thorup Angeletti LLP. The results of these investigations saw over 96 allegations of violence and harassment whereby 90% were found to be substantiated by fact. I experienced job loss threats, having a case of substantiated reprisal. I have spent thousands of dollars on legal fees and have been fighting to ensure a better workplace culture and environment at the NPCA. Despite all these efforts, my internal fight ended on November 21, 2016, after 23 years of dedicated, expert service.
So, what have we done so far? I brought forward a private member’s bill—it passed second reading here in the House—that would at least see that 50% of board members have some sort of environmental background, some sort of experience, some sort of interest. Even the mayor of Welland proposed that the appointment process, where we have two-tier government, go back to the local municipality so that at least the local municipality could appoint, as opposed to the large regional municipality having all the authority to appoint their friends on council.
We called for a supervisory position to oversee the board. We spoke at every council in Niagara. We had the support of all party MPPs to call upon the Auditor General to go in and to do an audit, and not just an audit of finances.
This is a place where contracts were given out that didn’t even follow their own policy. So when you talk about wanting to give conservation authorities more flexibility, that isn’t going to help with our situation in Niagara. One of the board members got a contract, and other people were let contracts where the policy said “$25,000” and it had to go out to tender, and all they did was split it up into two different years and pay them $25,000 this year and $25,000 next year. There are a lot of problems.
I think we had support from every municipality in Niagara to have an audit done; here we are, almost a year later, and we don’t have an audit done. We’ve had no review of the NPCA, and that certainly is problematic. That’s why I’m using my time today on this bill, because somebody has to do something. Conservation Ontario has no direct oversight over these kinds of issues, and MNR says, “Well, we don’t have any authority,” so what is a community to do?
We have thousands of people who have signed petitions. You have a town hall meeting on this issue in Niagara, and you can get out a lot of people to come and talk about how pro-development the NPCA is, as opposed to dealing with what their mandate is really supposed to be about, which is protecting the environment and our wetlands. In closing, I think that I will once again call upon the minister to get involved in this process.
Just before my time runs out: On Friday, two more top people at the NPCA were terminated. One was a manager of planning who had been there for many years; the other was a senior staff member who actually became the acting CAO until they hired the most recent person. Of course it says “mutually resigned,” but we all know what “mutually resigned” means. It means that you left, you got a package and you signed a confidentiality agreement. I would say now that 50% of the NPCA staff has turned over in the last three years.