Gatineau Park is a matter of national concern

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Photo: flickr/Brett Hodnett

The National Capital Commission's (NCC) continuing destruction of Gatineau Park to protect the interests of private landowners should persuade federal legislators to reassess the agency's power to administer the park. And think hard about adopting legislation to protect it.

Time and again, Canadians have been told that Gatineau Park is the "essential feature of any plan for developing the nation's capital," or that it's the "Crown Jewel of Canada's Capital Region," or even, rather farcically, that it's the "Capital's Conservation Park."

Yet the place seems to be run by a crew of drunken sailors.

Since 1992, 128 new houses have been built there -- in violation of the letter and spirit of Gatineau Park Master Plans and the National Capital Act. Not to mention that two new superhighways have been built through it, and that eight-square kilometres of its landmass have been cut off. All of this behind closed doors and without any input from Parliament.

Besides further fragmenting park habitat, continued residential construction will create more conflict between visitors and residents, as the former ask for more access, and the latter for more privacy. It will also increase the cost to Canadians for acquiring all private lands in the park.

At present, the estimated cost for this is about $31 million1-- a figure grossly inflated by the NCC and Conservatives to anywhere between be $100 million and $385 million2.

I must underline that every private property in the park has been tagged for acquisition by virtue of its being brought into the National Interest Land Mass (NILM), which was created by the Conservative government in 19883. Two NCC task forces and several master plans confirm and support this commitment.

The NCC could also take steps towards solving this problem by placing a freeze on residential development inside Gatineau Park, by virtue of Section 19 of the National Capital Act, which deals with the agency's bylaw making authority.

Although land-use regulations are usually a provincial jurisdiction, the Supreme Court of Canada, in Munro v. NCC (1966), said the federal government could zone lands and expropriate if a national concern were involved, in accordance with the Constitution's Section 91 and its powers in relation to "peace, order and good government" (POGG).

In Munro, the Court determined that the federal government had authority to zone private properties in the National Capital Region, and that such zoning was a matter of "national concern." The "national concern" test determines whether the matter of legislation goes beyond local or provincial concern and whether it is the concern of Canada as a whole.

In his ruling Justice Cartwright said:

"I find it difficult to suggest a subject matter of legislation which more clearly goes beyond local or provincial interests and is the concern of Canada as a whole than the development, conservation and improvement of the National Capital Region. It is my view that the [National Capital] Act "deals with a single matter of national concern."

Furthermore, a review of other legal precedents confirms federal authority to control private land in specific cases involving federal activities. For instance, in Hamilton Harbour Commissioners v. Hamilton, the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld federal authority to enact bylaws controlling use of private lands, to the extent use of such lands could interfere with the navigation and shipping activities of the harbor, citing the principle of federal paramountcy.

Similarly, in the case of Gatineau Park, the principle would apply, for example, where a developer wanted to build a subdivision inside park boundaries. Although authorized by a municipal permit, the project could be prohibited by the NCC since it interferes with a federal activity -- in this case, application of the National Capital Act and the Gatineau Park Master Plan, as well as consolidation of the National Interest Land Mass.

Of note: the courts have consistently upheld federal authority when interference with provincial jurisdiction was necessary for purposes of national concern. Accordingly, as the Supreme Court confirmed in Johanneson v. West St. Paul, municipal bylaws purporting to affect federally regulated activities are of no effect.

It's way past time for the NCC and the government to recognize that Gatineau Park is a key federal endeavour that can no longer be left to the selfish, financially ruinous and parochial devices of private landowners and local governments. It's also way past time to enact comprehensive legislation to protect the park from continued private-property vandalism.

Jean-Paul Murray is secretary of the Gatineau Park Protection Committee and former managing editor of the federalist Quebec magazine Cité libre. The former senior policy advisor to the Speaker of the Senate and two leaders of the opposition in the Senate, he has translated 14 books, including novels by leading Quebec writers Louis Hamelin and Robert Lalonde.


1 "NCC Misrepresents Cost of Buying Private Lands in Gatineau Park":; « La CCN achète des terrains », Le Droit, le 22 mai 2008, p. 11.

2See Debates, House of Commons, March 7, 2014, p. 3686; "NCC eyes private Gatineau Park property: wants to buy up $385 million worth to stop development," Ottawa Citizen, April 4, 2008, p. F-3).

3 About National Capital Commission Lands, National Capital Commission, September 2006, p. 4.

Photo: flickr/Brett Hodnett


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