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Opposition to a proposed glass factory in Stratford, Ont., reached a fever pitch last fall.

Growing numbers of residents opposed the $400-million project, which was enabled by a special order from the Ontario government allowing Xinyi, the Chinese company behind the factory, to skip the normal approval process. The government directive, called a ministerial zoning order (MZO), was quietly requested by city council. When the public found out months later, critics were furious.

“For some people, they felt deeply betrayed,” said Loreena McKennitt, an acclaimed singer-songwriter who founded Wise Communities, one of the local groups opposing the development.

“We were mounting rallies every week there from November until Christmastime.”

The protesters were concerned not just about the lack of public input on the project, but also the environmental impact. The Township of Guelph-Eramosa had previously rejected a similar proposal from Xinyi over the environmental impact of the factory ⁠— it would have made emissions-intensive float glass, which is used for windows ⁠— and its impact on local water supply.

As tensions rose in early December, Stratford Mayor Dan Mathieson said he regretted asking for the MZO. Wise Communities and other groups like Get Concerned Stratford kept the pressure cranked high. Ultimately, Xinyi and Stratford city council failed to agree on sharing costs to upgrade infrastructure necessary for the factory to operate and the project was put on hold.

The final announcement came on Feb. 16: “Xinyi Canada has decided to suspend the project indefinitely to avoid further financial loss and unfounded attacks on its reputation,” the company said in a statement.

Similar battles are playing out in municipalities across southern Ontario as the province issues MZOs ⁠— which make a final, unappealable decision on how land can be used ⁠— at a rapid pace.

MZOs can be an important tool for kick-starting urgent projects. But while previous governments used them a handful of times per year, the Ford government has issued 37 since 2018, and used a similar mechanism to rezone a 38th piece of land. Of those, 14 cases involved environmental concerns, a Canada’s National Observer investigation found last month.

As more communities in Ontario contend with unwanted MZOs, a playbook for how to oppose them is emerging: build a coalition, do your own research and keep the pressure high. #onpoli

Stephanie Bellotto, a press secretary for Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark, said in an email that MZOs issued on non-provincially owned land were requested by the local council.

“MZOs are a tool our government uses to support local projects municipalities have identified as needed to support their economic recovery, build more affordable housing and long-term care beds,” Bellotto said.

But communities don’t always agree with decisions made by their elected officials. And as more communities fight back against MZOs, a playbook for how to do so is emerging: build a coalition, do your own research and keep the pressure high.

Loreena McKennitt, an acclaimed singer-songwriter who founded Wise Communities, speaks at an anti-MZO rally in Stratford, Ont., on Jan. 11, 2021. Photo courtesy Mark McCauley

Stratford versus Xinyi

Mathieson asked Clark’s office for an MZO in a request sent in spring 2020, which was granted in July. Public opposition started brewing in October, when Xinyi confirmed Stratford was its preferred location for the factory.

When it came to mounting a campaign, residents weren’t starting from scratch. Wellington Water Watchers, a non-profit that has worked on environmental causes in southern Ontario since 2000, helped Get Concerned Stratford with measures like petitions that raised public awareness.

When McKennitt formed Wise Communities, the group was able to rely on her musical experience to ensure they had the sound gear to host an effective rally. While they co-ordinated with their local health officials to ensure the protests were COVID-safe, they also posted clips online so people who couldn’t attend could stay in the loop.

Another key was networking, McKennitt said. Wise Communities and Get Concerned Stratford promoted each other’s work. And organizers also worked to bring in more voices: farmers who live adjacent to the proposed site of the factory, youth activists and former chief of the nearby Chippewas of the Thames First Nation Leslee White-Eye all spoke at events, each helping build momentum.

“It was a real patchwork quilt of many voices,” McKennitt said.

When Ontario entered lockdown after Christmas and large gatherings were no longer allowed, the protesters switched gears. A few volunteers stood at city hall every day to maintain pressure, while others dropped off footwear in the square for a shoe strike, with each pair representing people who would have been there.

Meanwhile, they also did research on their own, building an extensive timeline to explain what was going on for their supporters.

“The facts spoke for themselves,” McKennitt said. “Things started to turn, because they could see how much we knew.”

The work isn’t quite done yet ⁠— some in the community are still pushing for the province to rescind the MZO, since the order only allows the land to be used for a glass factory and wouldn’t allow any other type of project. But for now, the plan to build the Xinyi facility is dead.

It was relatively easy to build support in Stratford, a smaller city with a population of 31,000 where people tend to be more familiar with each other and elected officials come face-to-face with constituents more often, McKennitt said. But she said she hopes other groups can learn from some of the techniques they used to build momentum.

“There's quite a lot to it, but it's not rocket science,” she said. “It's all explainable.”

Near Lake Simcoe, an MZO request abandoned

On Dec. 2, Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition learned that a request for an MZO was brewing in Ramara, Ont., a township on the northeast side of Lake Simcoe.

Ramara had initiated a request with the province to get an order to fast-track three developments along the eastern shore of Lake Couchiching, which is connected to Lake Simcoe by a narrow strait.

The proposed projects include a hotel, a water park resort and residential units. They’re slated to go on a parcel of land that includes a lakeside protected wetland where development is supposed to be banned under provincial rules.

The coalition sprung into action. Formed in 2015, it brings together a variety of grassroots groups that have worked on several land planning issues around Lake Simcoe.

“The reason why we started the coalition was because we were tired of being behind the 8-ball of development all the time,” said Margaret Prophet, the group’s executive director.

“We're just playing whack-a-mole.”

The coalition read through council documents, made their own maps, mobilized their member groups, started reaching out to media outlets and approached local officials who they thought might be interested.

Their theory, Prophet said, was that governments care more about negative attention from other governments than they do about community outcry.

I think that was just our game plan: Let's pull the network together, figure out who knows who, and who can pressure who. And that's what we did,” she said.

The backlash grew. Officials in Ramara said the MZO was suggested by the provincial government, and insisted the township’s letter requesting an MZO was actually supposed to be the first step in a longer conversation. Councillors in the neighbouring city of Orillia, which also borders on Lake Couchiching, spoke up with concerns.

Then, on Feb. 24, Ramara withdrew the request for an MZO after a discussion with the Ministry of Municipal Affairs. (Clark’s office didn’t answer a question about what the ministry recommended.)

“We’re not looking for a shortcut here,” Mayor Basil Clarke told local news outlet Orillia Today. The developments aren’t dead, but the township is pursuing a series of studies on what their impact could be.

The coalition is keeping a close eye, Prophet said.

“If we lose these places, we lose our water quality, we lose the recreational value tourism of our lakes, and we lose flooding control,” she said.

Ally Zaheer, one of the organizers of a push to oppose the Durham Live development in Pickering, at a shoe strike in February 2020. Photo courtesy Devin Mathura

COVID-safe protests over Durham Live in Pickering

In November 2020, university students Ally Zaheer and Devin Mathura learned that an MZO-enabled warehouse was slated to be built on top of a protected wetland in their hometown of Pickering, Ont., east of Toronto.

The pair, who went to high school together, had worked together on environmental issues before. They hadn't talked in a little while, but cooped up at home amid COVID-19, they were separately concerned about the environmental impact of the MZO, which had been requested by the local Pickering council.

Mathura got the ball rolling with an information session, rallying friends and fellow students to do a "phone zap," where the group called local elected officials about their concerns. Then he asked Zaheer if she’d like to join in.

“It kind of just built and built,” Zaheer said.

In recent months, Durham Live has become a flashpoint for public debate around how MZOs should be used and who benefits. The developers behind the project have donated to the Progressive Conservatives and municipal politicians.

And as opposition to Durham Live started to heat up in November, other groups began working on the issue as well, organizing small, physically distant protests and blockades at the site. Zaheer and Mathura reached out to them, and support slowly started to grow.

With the region in lockdown, larger rallies weren’t feasible, so Zaheer and Mathura organized a shoe strike outside Pickering city hall. Zaheer, who is living in Guelph for university, enlisted her siblings in Pickering to collect the shoes and store them at their family home.

“At first I was really nervous because in the first few days, we had only gotten like two pairs of shoes,” she said. “But then once the weekend hit … my entire porch was piled up.”

In the end, they received 920 pairs from people living all over southern Ontario, some hours away. Many might not have been able to attend in person, even if it wasn’t happening amid a pandemic.

Provincial officials and municipal officials in Pickering haven’t publicly responded to the protests, and work on Durham Live continues. But Zaheer said they’re planning to up the ante with a public petition, a flurry of letters and another phone zap.

“We're hoping that that raises a lot of public attention and awareness as well as get the attention of our MPPs,” she said.

“If it doesn't change their minds, we hope that it scares the developer.”

Updates and corrections

| Corrections policy
March 3, 2021, 09:20 am

This story was updated to correct that the Ontario government has issued MZOs on non-provincially owned land at the request of local councils.

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Is there a group that is spearheading the protest against development in the Pickering wetlands? I have written and called public officials but they either don’t respond or have pat answers. I would like to join a group that is standing up for the wetlands.

Reach out to your local elected officials - they should know who is active in the area.

Me too please—-from Barrie where we have 4 MZO S ongoing

Excellent ideas and wonderful community activism detailed in this piece; good for everyone standing up to the typical conservative trick of fast tracking private development behind closed doors. Particularly during a pandemic, we need to make them realize it isn't going to be a slam dunk.....

In fact, it could well cost them the next election.