One of our guests, Shawn Micallef, published this story in the Toronto Star about his experience of the day. Enjoy!
Toronto's Accidental Breadbasket
Shawn Micaleff, Living Columnist
October 22, 2016
In June of 2013 then-federal finance minister Jim Flaherty held a news conference and announced Pickering was going to get an airport. It was a surprise announcement about something that wasn’t a surprise: an airport planned four decades ago on rural land north of Pickering.
“Local people phoned me and asked for help because I wrote the book,” says Sandra Campbell. That 1973 book was “The Moveable Airport,” about the then and still controversial process by the (first) Trudeau government of expropriating 18,600 acres of farmland, including two villages, for a new airport to supplement Pearson.
New airports were in vogue then, but not so much now. Mirabel airport, the result of a similar expropriation process outside of Montreal, was opened in 1975, but commercial passenger traffic stopped in 2004 due to lack of demand.
“I was heartbroken,” says Campbell of Flaherty’s announcement. “There are libraries full of books on why we must not pave this land. The problem is nobody cares right now.” Though Flaherty’s announcement came and went without any real movement on the new airport, this massive tract of land north of Pickering and east of Markham is still in limbo.
For the last two years Campbell has worked to create Abundance GTA, an eco-arts project that aims to get people interested in the land and its future. “I thought it can’t come back on the radar with the ‘ain’t it awful’ method,” she says. “It had to be through artists.” It’s a theory that has worked elsewhere, where arts and culture has revitalized once-depressed industrial areas and got people excited about places they otherwise might ignore.
Last weekend Abundance GTA brought of group of people working on food policy, urban planning, and other related pursuits and professions on a bus trip into the airport lands themselves. Campbell commissioned 4 poets to create work inspired by the geography, and dancers got people to think about the land.
There’s a strangeness to a visit to the airport lands: it’s quieter than most southern Ontario farmland, and a keen eye will see traces of the houses and communities that were removed. More visible are the boarded up homes with Transport Canada “No Trespassing” signs out front and the security men who patrol the dirt concessions in trucks, all paid for by us, appearing and disappearing like sinister agents in a 1970s paranoid thriller film.
As you move around this high country there are vistas southwest that look past the tower cluster of Scarborough City Centre to the downtown skyline. The visible proximity to the dense city from such a rural place is striking and rare, almost like those comic book depictions of Gotham where the hinterland and downtown are impossibly next to each other. Other times the rolling landscape looks like a Turner painting, had he tramped about the edges of Toronto with his easel.
Tenant farmers still grow on the land, and some still live there. Nearly 10,000 acres of the original parcel have been given to Parks Canada, but 9600 remain designated for a future airport.
Abundance GTA joins Land Over Landings, an older advocacy group, in pointing out that putting a hold on this land for so long has inadvertently preserved some of the best farmland in the country, and they both envision this all becoming a food hub for the millions of people in the region.
Building a new airport is the kind of megaproject politicians can hitch election hopes to, with the promise of jobs and economic prosperity, but the Greater Golden Horseshoe already has an underused international airport in Hamilton. Imagine if the GO Train network connected to it and the case for a Pickering Airport diminishes quickly.
As for jobs, in the GTA the “food and beverage cluster” does $17 billion in annual sales. At the time Campbell wrote Moveable Airport she was living in Claremont, just to the east of the lands. Campbell recalls taking the 8:05AM CPR passenger train from there to Union Station while attending U of T. Though there’s no longer passenger traffic, the line still carries freight, and there’s potential for that line to connect farm and city.
Jim Miller, who still farms here was on the bus tour and said, “Southern Ontario’s only permanent source of wealth is its farm soil.” Farmland may not have the same trophy appeal a new airport terminal does, but with an underused airport in Hamilton and rich farmland at the edge of the city we can never replace, there are opportunities for both airborne and agricultural dreams.
Shawn Micallef writes every Saturday about where and how we live in the GTA. Wander the streets with him on Twitter @shawnmicallef