Hundreds of people flooded into a meeting room at Balls Falls to begin a public forum on exploring biodiversity offsetting. The meeting was held by Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA) on January 27. The venue welcomed the most people the room has ever held, as Kerry Royer explained in the introduction section of the meeting.
The scheduled panel — Jayme Campbell, Steve Miller, Jocelyn Baker, Lee-Ann Hamilton, Suzanne McInnes, Carmen D’Angelo, and Peter Graham — looked shocked at the volumes entering and the clearly growing interest of Watershed residents. The attempt to control the space was not successful, as NPCA had to push back the projector screen as well as bring out stacks and stacks of more chairs to accommodate.
“They had to put out more than twice as many chairs as planned and move back the speakers table, there was still standing room only,” explained Ken Brennan, an attendee sitting in the front row of the meeting.
Carmen D’Angelo spoke first, attempting to define biodiversity offsetting as a “No Net Loss” concept, rather than a clear-cut definition. When an audience member asked during question period for a definition of biodiversity, the panel had no written definition to share and therefore did not define biodiversity. D’Angelo simply explained that the “four pillars of our mandate are conservation, restoration, development, and management,” where the audience noticed the extra emphasis on the last two mandates. D’Angelo claimed “we do value the wetland.”
This sentiment, however, was soon undercut when D’Angelo said: “We do put an economic value on the wetland”.
D’Angelo continued to call out documents that have been raising awareness on the meeting. Firstly, he examined a poster distributed by concerned locals at Brock University entitled “Niagara’s Wetlands at Risk” and dismissed it as “false.”
Next, he called upon a letter to the editor published in Niagara This Week. Despite the letter’s claims about pressure from developers, D’Angelo denied that there was any pressure placed on the NPCA to look at the project of biodiversity offsetting.
“When you talk about wetlands, you need to know what’s happening underneath,” said D’Angelo.
The schedule was organized to go from mini sessions on water testing, to water quality, restoration projects, wetland complexing, legislation and development, lessons learned and past attempts at biodiversity offsetting, to the process itself, and finally a question period, followed by planning of the next meeting. Due to time restraints, the two categories that were not talked about were legislation and the planning of the next meeting.
“Water testing — not useful information for us. Water quality — not useful information. Restoration — maybe useful. Wetland complexing — maybe useful. Legislation and development — this is key… This is the only way for legislation policy by the NPCA [can tell] us how they are influenced by the provincial government; essentially telling us how we can influence the provincial government to disallow to do the things they do… When they decided to cut someone from the presentation, they cut the only person who could actually give any information to the crowd.”
Brennan and many others felt the period before questions was simply a distraction, and had little to provide in terms of the questions that were being asked.
Following the panel, the question period finally began. Many audience members felt dissatisfied with the responses they received, especially to questions in regards to the duty to consult act.
“Before anything can be done, because these plans can even be discussed or put forward or talked about about being put forward, and – no offense to this community – before this community can even be consulted, our people have to be consulted with first,” Giniw (Graham) Paradis began, “Not just saying ‘we are going to do this’, but ‘can we do this?’ And if people collectively say no, it means ‘no’.”
The question was completely disregarded, to the point where Ed Smith, also an attendee at the meeting, rose to repeat the question.
“You have a right — an obligation I should say — to consult with the Indigenous community,” Smith reinforced.
After Paradis felt his question did not receive a sufficient response, he continued to question why Aboriginal peoples groups were excluded from any consultations before the meeting. D’Angelo responded that: “You being here is evidence that we are open and transparent.”
The NPCA also failed to respond to questions that were sent to them, prior to the meeting, regarding the partnership that is between NPCA and academia such as Brock University and Niagara College. All attempts to shut down this notion and comfort associated with academic involvement in the process, were largely disregarded by the panel.
“Our concern is that the NPCA has stated quite often their intention for Brock University and Niagara College to be involved in the implementation and monitoring of any offsetting that takes place,” explained Smith. “We would welcome an opportunity to engage the subject matter with scholars at either of these academic institution in a discussion on the issues; however when asked for those points of contacts the NPCA is evasive. If openness and transparency in the process is the NPCA intention, then by all means let us pursue this dialogue with academia together.”
Brock’s large history of biodiversity offsetting and industrialization is proudly displayed on campus. Large boards in Guernsey Market explain the process of building Brock on a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and images become “ghostly evidence of the past” and unreal reflections of what used to be. However, the need to get rid of these notions of Brock and Niagara’s involvements are still issues at hand.
It is no doubt that students from Brock University and Niagara College are intrinsically involved with the actions the NPCA does, and that there is a growing interest in not only awareness, but preservation of the Watershed.
Abbey Mckillop, currently associated with the Society of Ecological Restoration at Niagara College (SERNC), spoke out about upcoming development.
“We need to stop building up the region and start preserving what we have left instead of thinking of alternate ways to still develop and still ruin habitat,” said Mckillop.
The big question of the night was a general curiosity towards who is involved in the discussions and consultations, and whose opinions and advice is being listened to?
“Of course every voice matters,” said Mckillop, “but let’s face it, not everyone’s [voice] has the same effect. People with more authority and say will have more impact on the issue… I want to live in a utopia where everyone is held accountable for their actions.”
“The concept of biodiversity offsetting is we are not trading one for one,” said one attendee at the meeting. “That value of the wetland is more important that any development… The functionality of our water systems and the relevance of wetlands is number one in Ontario, in Canada… we are losing them. We can’t offset them.”
Citizens may not have the final say when it comes time to the environment, but they do have the first. Furthermore, those opinions are currently being stated loudly, and directly at stakeholders, as this meeting has shown.
The entire meeting, however, was perfectly summed up in one moment of anxiety in the beginning of the presentation regarding the local watershed. D’Angelo began, “When you look at our watershed…”, but ironically, the slideshow revealed a blank slide. While perhaps only a small human error by the coordinator, the incident metaphorically presents the future of Niagara’s watershed and wetlands – non-existent.