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First Nations group challenging MZO granted for massive Orbit proposal in Innisfil

Williams Treaties First Nations say they were informed of Minister's Zoning Order request in mid-July when chiefs were sent brief overview; MZO issued Aug. 6
Artist's concept of the concentric road patterns within the proposed Mobility Orbit community surrounding a new GO Train station. Miriam King/Bradford Today

The Williams Treaties First Nations (WTFN) have filed court proceedings to challenge a proposed development in Innisfil that could see more than 100,000 additional people living near the shores of Lake Simcoe.  

On Sept. 7, Turan Law Office filed a court action on behalf of WTFN  which includes the Alderville, Beausoleil, Chippewas of Georgina Island, Rama, Curve Lake, Hiawatha and Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nations  against Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark and The Cortel Group Inc., challenging the Minister's Zoning Order (MZO) for the proposed Orbit development near Alcona.

The case argues that Clark used his power to grant an MZO “in a manner inconsistent with the honour of the Crown,” by failing to consult and accommodate First Nations as required under Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982.

The MZO process allows the province to override the usual zoning bylaw process, eliminating public consultation, public hearings and rights of appeal. The First Nations are now asking the courts to rule that those powers do not extend to overriding constitutional and treaty rights.

The Orbit proposes a transit-oriented community with a population of up to 150,000 people upon completion on the shores of Lake Simcoe.

There was also a recent court ruling about the province's use of MZOs following a separate lawsuit launched against the province, claiming the government broke the law by failing to consult the public before passing the omnibus Bill 197 — the COVID-19 Economic Recovery Act — within a matter of two weeks in July 2020.

Months after Bill 197 became law, the province posted amendments to the Environmental Registry of Ontario for public comment. However, Ontario’s Divisional Court ruled it was too little, too late.

In a statement to Village Media for that story, a ministry spokesperson did not acknowledge the lawsuit or decision, instead referring to Bill 197 as “an important tool in the province’s ongoing response to COVID-19 by introducing an enhanced Minister’s Zoning Order that cuts red tape and accelerates the development of essential projects that help us keep Ontarians safe.”

Meanwhile, the WTFN court filing regarding the MZO granted in Innisfil says the First Nations were only informed of the town’s request for an MZO for the Orbit project on July 15, 2021, when the chiefs were sent a brief overview. Their response was that “meaningful consultation could only begin to take place with an assessment of the environmental consequences of the project.”

Despite the request for an environmental review and consultation, the minister issued the MZO on Aug. 6. When asked to establish a consultation table that would allow the WTFN, Ontario government, Cortel Group and Town of Innisfil to exchange information and address the concerns, the ministry responded on Sept. 3, just four days before the deadline to challenge the MZO, with an offer to meet after the deadline had passed.

The Town of Innisfil did not respond to a request for comment on WTFN's legal proceedings. 

The court filing says “no analysis was done by the town, the Cortel Group or the minister on the potential impacts of the project on Lake Simcoe’s water quality, aquatic life and habitat." The group says there's no proof the project will not impact the lake or WTFN treaty rights.

“The importance of Lake Simcoe to the WTFN cannot be overstated,” states the court filing, while also explaining that First Nations rely on Lake Simcoe for their water and food resources, as well as for ceremonial purposes.

The court filing calls for a suspension of the MZO and a halt to any further work on the Orbit project, while also indicating there's a constitutional obligation for “deep consultation, a good faith effort to understand their concerns, and measures to address them.”

In its request for an MZO for the Orbit, the Town of Innisfil  which is not named in the court action  had requested that the minister require the developer to work within the Lake Simcoe Protection Act. The MZO issued Aug. 6 made no reference to environmental concerns or the protection of Lake Simcoe.

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Miriam King

About the Author: Miriam King

Miriam King is a journalist and photographer with Bradford Today, covering news and events in Bradford West Gwillimbury and Innisfil.
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