Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/9/2017 (754 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
On a bright mid-July morning this summer, Jenna Vandal got a Facebook alert. Forty-two acres of pristine aspen forest and wetlands in south Winnipeg known as the Parker Wetlands were being clear-cut by a private developer. She immediately drove to the site and stood in front of the mulching machines. "If a person is bleeding out, do you run to get help or run to stop the bleeding?" Vandal said later.
Vandal acted to preserve lands that were originally Métis, situated on river lots 17 to 24 of the St. Boniface parish and dating back to before Confederation. The wetlands also bordered the historic Métis settlements of Rooster Town and Tin Town, whose inhabitants were driven out in the 1950s to make way for the Grant Park Shopping Centre. "I knew the land had been important for hunting, gathering, trapping and ceremonies," Vandal said. "There were stories of artifacts and gravesites."
Others joined her, including local citizens who had been fighting to preserve the forest and wetlands for almost 10 years. The group set up camp on the denuded land to protect the remaining two-thirds that were still untouched. Supported by an eclectic coalition that included Indigenous elders, union members and residents of the surrounding Fort Garry community, the Rooster Town Blockade lasted for two months until it was dismantled by court order earlier this month.
But the battle isn’t over. Members of the blockade are now taking both the developer and the city to court. And to understand why, a little background is in order.
The Parker Wetlands were acquired in a land swap in 2009 between the city — under then-mayor Sam Katz — and Gem Equities, owned by developer Andrew Marquess. Although the area had been designated in 2000 as an ecologically sensitive natural heritage area, at some point during Katz’s administration it was re-designated as a major redevelopment area for rapid transit and housing.
The executive policy committee’s own minutes from 2009 show that the land swap was done in a hurry, with no proper appraisal of the land value, no environmental impact assessment, and no public consultation. An external KPMG audit in 2014 of the city’s real-estate transactions called the land swap a "rush job."
When the deal became public, furious Fort Garry citizens held a public town hall meeting and demanded action from city councillors — to no avail. Home to whitetail deer, foxes, owls and hawks, as well as threatened plant species such as the yellow lady slipper and the bottle gentian, the popular green space was used by hundreds of people every week for dog walking, hiking and skiing. Much of the area’s flora and fauna were found nowhere else in Winnipeg. Not only that, but as one of the city’s last urban wetlands, it provided a vital natural filtration system that released melt and rain water into the water table, in turn reducing flooding.
Yet the city pressed ahead, relocating the southwest rapid transit corridor through the Parker wetlands — a plan the community also opposed — instead of along existing bus routes on Pembina Avenue. Gem Equities proposed a 1,700-unit housing development on its parcel, but in June denied rumours about tree removal. "There are no plans to remove any trees on our property until such time as we have an agreement with the City of Winnipeg on potential locations of the naturalized greenspace area to be protected," Marquess told the media.
Instead, a month later, under cover of ongoing rapid transit work on the adjoining site, Marquess razed 14 acres (roughly one-third of the total), claiming a permit wasn’t needed for what he called "pre-development." But the city’s own planning regulations and the City of Winnipeg Charter make clear that removing vegetation is, in fact, development. In July, Mayor Brian Bowman asked Marquess to stop cutting more trees at Parker and urged him to submit a development plan, a request he ignored.
Those of us involved with the blockade suspect the entire forest would now be mulched if we hadn’t acted. We, as citizens, acted because the city didn’t. The recent court ruling in favour of Marquess was based on a narrow interpretation of property rights, not on whether Marquess had abided by city regulations or whether the land deal itself was above-board.
What are we asking the court for? First, we want the city to issue a stop-work order on the clear-cutting. Second, we want a judicial review that will examine all elements of the original land deal. We also want that review to compel the city to consult with Métis and Indigenous communities in light of its recent commitment to reconciliation processes.
The citizens of Winnipeg are fed up with sham public consultations and city administrations who ride roughshod over their choices. We shouldn’t have to live with the toxic legacy of a previous administration now under investigation by the RCMP for alleged bribes and kickbacks to civic officials.
According to the Indigenous Accord signed this spring, the city of Winnipeg is envisioned as a place where "everyone has a voice, a place where people and the environment come first." It’s time the mayor and his administration stepped up to show who they genuinely represent as part of this new era of reconciliation and partnership.
Patricia Robertson acted as a spokeswoman for groups involved in the Rooster Town Blockade that occupied the Parker Wetlands until forced off by a court order on Sept. 15.