A Place to Grow: Competing Visions for Ontario’s Greenbelt

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The 1967 film, A Place to Stand, opens on two brief close-ups of Ontario’s provincial flower, Great White Trillium. Created for Expo 67, the film is a nervy time capsule of Ontario’s Centennial era. At around eighteen minutes long, the film leaps from bucolic scenes (an orchard in bloom, poppies dancing in a gentle breeze) to men logging, hard-hatted and sunburnt. Cigarettes, made from Ontario tobacco, slip by on a conveyer belt. Explosives rip through a quarry. A bushfire burns. Cattle stand in silence. Toronto, filmed from above, hardly resembles its present self. The film ends with a slow pan across a maple tree, leaves shimmering in the low, autumn sunshine.

  • Trilliums on a Sunny Day

Winner of the 1968 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Subject, the film also introduced a notorious earworm: the bouncy 1967 pop song, “A Place to Stand, a Place to Grow.”

“Give us a place to grow,” the lyrics urge, “And call this land, Ontario.”

In April, 2021, I retweeted a video created by Toronto Star reporter Evy Kwong. In the video, Kwong connects Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s controversial—and escalating—use of ministerial zoning orders (MZOs), with his ties to Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario donors in the construction industry. Following my retweet, I was asked to write this blog post, connecting my research into Kate Crooks (a long-forgotten Ontario botanist) with the provincial government’s plans to build a new highway in the Greater Toronto Area.

Premier Ford, who once said he would open a “big chunk” of Ontario’s Greenbelt for development, is keen to move forward with the highway, which would pave nearly 400 acres of protected land.1 Arcing along Ontario’s Greater Golden Horseshoe region, the Greenbelt safeguards 2 million acres of river valleys, wetlands, forests, and meadows. Farms in the area produce local food and wine, while contributing to Ontario’s tourism sector.2

During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen the value of urban and near-urban nature as a relatively safe space to socialize, to exercise when gyms and recreational facilities have been required to close, and to find solace in our own solitude.

Value, of course, is in the eye of the beholder.

400 year old oak tree surrounded by a wooden fence at Bronte Creek Provincial Park.
Nearly 400-year-old Oak Tree at Bronte Creek Provincial Park, Oakville, Ontario. “Ole Oak Tree_DRF_1864-3” by Fungman is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The Beverly Oak: “Not a Saw Long Enough”

In the 1820s, during a trip to Guelph, John Galt stopped at a roadside tavern. There, the Scottish colonist, author, and founder of the city found himself on the fringes of “an uncleared portion of the primeval forest,” in the old township of Beverly.3

While his horses fed, Galt stepped into the nearby woods. Not far from the settlement, he encountered a remarkable sight—the largest oak he had ever seen. In his 1833 autobiography, Galt remarked that the tree reminded him of the Monument, the 202-foot-tall stone pillar that commemorates the Great Fire of London.4

“Had I been convinced that it was perfectly sound, I would have taken measures for cutting it down and sending home planks of it to Windsor Castle,” Galt wrote, confidently.5

Years earlier, Samuel Strickland (brother of the Canadian naturalist Catharine Parr Traill) found the very same tree in the woods between Cambridge and Guelph. Strickland was led to the tree by the pub’s landlord, who revealed his own intentions for the towering specimen. According to Strickland’s 1853 autobiography, the landlord “calculated that he should cut that ‘ere tree down some day, for he guessed it would make enough rails to fence the side of a ten acre field”.6

Aghast, Strickland replied, “Surely, you would not be such a Goth as to cut down such a splendid oak merely for fence-wood, when you have plenty of rail-timber which will answer that purpose equally well; and, besides, it may be the means of drawing customers to your tavern.”7

“I do not know what you mean by a Goth,” began the landlord, carefully, “but I do know, if I could get a crosscut saw long enough to cut that tree, I would not let it stand there long; for you see it is mighty straight in the grain, and would split like a ribbon.”8

“Thus was this gigantic specimen of the primeval forest preserved for a time,” Strickland wrote, “because there was not a saw long enough to cut it through in Canada.”9

Kate Crooks and Her Herbarium

The Botanical Society of Canada’s botanical garden at Queen’s College, Kingston.
The Botanical Society of Canada’s botanical garden at Queen’s College, Kingston. Credit: Queen’s University Archives V28-B-SUMM-2.1.

I first heard of this once-iconic tree (known locally as the Beverly Oak) as I researched Kate Crooks, an intriguing historical figure from southwestern Ontario. Born in the Niagara region in 1833, Crooks joined the Botanical Society of Canada, founded at Queen’s College (now Queen’s University) in 1861.10 In Kingston, Crooks and her collaborator, Alexander Logie, presented Crooks’ herbarium of 490 dried botanical specimens.

The Botanical Society of Canada’s other “Lady Members” (as they were known) produced floral crafts and poetry, and taste-tested new varieties of squash.11 Crooks, however, oriented herself as a scientist, creating an award-winning body of work that was exhibited at home and abroad.

International Exhibition in London England
Canada and New Brunswick Courts, International Exhibition, London, England. Credit: London Stereoscopic and Photographic Company / Library and Archives Canada / PA-126886 / e011092612.

In 1862, Crooks’ herbarium was displayed in London, England, at the International Exhibition. There, she won an honourable mention for her work, and the judges observed, “Its completeness gives it a high scientific interest.”12 Crooks’ herbarium was shown alongside specimens of Canadian gold, furs, and flax. Nearby, in the British Columbian Court, sat a piece of timber cut from a 309-foot-tall Douglas fir.

A specimen of Sabatia angularis, pressed by Kate Crooks
A specimen of Sabatia angularis, pressed by Miss Crooks in 1865. Credit: Dr. Frieda Beauregard, McGill University Herbarium.

Kate Crooks married in 1865, but continued to work, displaying her herbarium in 1866, at Toronto’s Provincial Agricultural Exhibition.13 Three weeks later, in October, 1866, Crooks gave birth to her first child. Tragically, Crooks died, eight days after giving birth to her third child, in 1871. Similarly, the 38-year-old’s remarkable herbarium is now believed to be lost. Today, there is just one known specimen attributed to Crooks.14 If not for a flora published in the Annals of the Botanical Society of Canada, there would be no complete record of the plants Crooks collected.

Southern Ontario’s Ecozones at Risk

Kate Crooks worked in the communities of Cambridge, London, St. Thomas, and Hamilton, gathering plants in the woods, marshes and meadows of Canada’s Carolinian ecozone. While some of the species she recorded (such as Cylindrical Blazing Star) are endangered or vulnerable in Ontario, many others can be found today, on either side of the Niagara Escarpment. These include native plants such as Fringed Polygala, Prickly Ash, and Great White Trillium.15

Much of southern Ontario’s old growth forest has been cut down since the beginning of European settlement. It is estimated that forests once covered up to 90% of the southern Ontario landscape.16 Today, there are parts of southwestern Ontario where that number dips to just 6%.17 We remember these lost woods in the names of our towns, cities, and subdivisions, among them, Forest Hill, Willowdale, and Oakville.

In a “high-risk” scenario, Environment and Climate Change Canada recommends a minimum of 30% forest cover in a given region—the lowest possible threshold to mitigate species loss and harm to our watershed.18 Parts of Ontario’s Greenbelt meet or exceed this threshold. 78 species-at-risk call this region home—including Smooth Yellow False Foxglove, collected by Kate Crooks in Hamilton, in 1859.19

Map of proposed Highway 413 in Ontario.
Map of proposed Highway 413 route. Source: BlogTO.

Highway 413 is Proposed

In November 2018, Dianne Saxe, then Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner, called on the provincial government to “protect all southern Ontario wetlands as significant until proven otherwise.”20 Days later, Premier Doug Ford’s government dissolved the Office of the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario.21 In its 2018 Fall Economic Statement, the province also announced it would resume a dormant environmental assessment of Highway 413, officially known as the GTA West Corridor. Highway 413 would link Highway 401 (North America’s busiest highway), with Highway 400, paving a 52-kilometre-long swathe through Ontario’s biodiverse Greenbelt.

In a letter to Jonathan Wilkinson, then Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Ecojustice Canada (a non-profit environmental law organization) wrote:

The project would consist of 8.8 million square metres of new paved surfaces [and] would bisect the sensitive headwaters of four watersheds from west to east, including the easternmost Sixteen Mile Creek, a stretch of the Credit River, the entire width of Etobicoke Creek, and the Humber River.”22

Shared Landscapes, Different Times

Kate Crooks’ 1861 paper, “Remarks on the species of oak, their history, habits and uses” was not published in the Annals of the Botanical Society of Canada, so it is not known whether she visited the Beverly Oak during her research.23 Did the tree still stand by then? Or had some Goth finally found the right saw for the job?

Roughly ten years before Crooks was born, John Galt stood beneath the Beverly Oak. Wistfully, Galt characterized it as “the scion of a forest that had passed away, the ancestral predecessor of the present woods.”24 Two centuries have passed since Galt paid tribute to this mighty oak. He knew, then, it was not long for this earth.

The first verse of “A Place to Stand, a Place to Grow” evokes Ontario’s sylvan heritage—even as the accompanying film foreshadows today’s climate crisis. Ontario, say songwriters Dolores Claman and Richard Morris, has “hopes as high as the tallest tree.”

Long may that be so.


Feature Photo: “Sabatia angularis (rose gentian, rose pink); a single plant (so far) has the deep rose-pink color typical of the species” by tgpotterfield is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Notes:

  1. Kate Bueckert, “Doug Ford Plans to Open up ‘Big Chunk’ of Greenbelt for Development | CBC News,” CBC News, CBC/Radio Canada, April 30, 2018, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/kitchener-waterloo/doug-ford-pc-greenbelt-open-developers-mike-schreiner-1.4641575.
  2. Greenbelt Foundation, “Learn How Ontario Thrives Thanks to the Greenbelt,” Greenbelt Foundation, accessed June 10, 2021, https://www.greenbelt.ca/learn.
  3. John Galt, “Chapter V” in The Autobiography of John Galt (London: Cochrane and M’Crone, 1833), 2:144–45.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Samuel Strickland, “The Beverly Oak,” in Twenty-Seven Years in Canada West: or, The Experience of an Early Settler (London: Richard Bentley, 1853), 1: 253–55.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Anna Soper, “In Ontario, a Quest to Rediscover the Work of a Groundbreaking 19th-Century Botanist,” Atlas Obscura, June 4, 2019, https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/botanist-ontario-kate-crooks.
  11. Thomas Briggs, Jr., “On the Hubbard Squash,” in Annals of the Botanical Society of Canada 1 (1861): 48-49.
  12. Foster, Peter Le Neve. and John Frederick Iselin, Reports by the Juries on the subjects in the thirty-six classes into which the Exhibition was divided. [Printed for the “Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce,” and edited by J. F. Iselin and P. Le Neve Foster]. United Kingdom: 34, 1863.
  13. Soper.
  14. M. Waterway, K. Martins, G. Laroque (2018). McGill University Herbarium Database. Version 2.1. McGill University. Occurrence dataset https://doi.org/10.5886/srzbj7 accessed via GBIF.org on 2021-07-07. https://www.gbif.org/occurrence/1455175363.
  15. K Ueda (2021). iNaturalist Research-grade Observations. iNaturalist.org. Occurrence dataset https://doi.org/10.15468/ab3s5x accessed via GBIF.org on 2021-07-07. https://www.gbif.org/occurrence/3113295067; K Ueda (2021). iNaturalist Research-grade Observations. iNaturalist.org. Occurrence dataset https://doi.org/10.15468/ab3s5x accessed via GBIF.org on 2021-07-07. https://www.gbif.org/occurrence/3307274825; K Ueda (2021). iNaturalist Research-grade Observations. iNaturalist.org. Occurrence dataset https://doi.org/10.15468/ab3s5x accessed via GBIF.org on 2021-07-07. https://www.gbif.org/occurrence/2626646198.
  16. Brendan M. Larsen, The Woodland Heritage of Southern Ontario: a Study of Ecological Change, Distribution and Significance (Don Mills, Ont.: Federation of Ontario Naturalists, 1999.
  17. Gina Pannunzio, “National Forest Week,” Essex County Nature, Essex County Field Naturalists’ Club, September 10, 2019, https://www.essexcountynature.com/national-forest-week/.
  18. Environment Canada, How Much Habitat Is Enough? A Framework for Guiding Habitat Rehabilitation in Great Lakes Areas of Concern, 2nd ed (Downsview, ON: Environment Canada, 2004).
  19. Greenbelt Foundation, “Learn How Ontario Thrives Thanks to the Greenbelt,” Greenbelt Foundation. Greenbelt Foundation, accessed June 10, 2021, https://www.greenbelt.ca/learn; K Ueda (2021). iNaturalist Research-grade Observations. iNaturalist.org. Occurrence dataset https://doi.org/10.15468/ab3s5x accessed via GBIF.org on 2021-07-07. https://www.gbif.org/occurrence/1920793061.
  20. Dianne Saxe, Back to Basics: Respecting the Public’s Voice on the Environment (Toronto, Ontario: Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, 2018).
  21. Queen’s Printer for Ontario, “2018 Ontario Economic Outlook and Fiscal Review,” Fall Statement 2018 | Ontario.ca. Queen’s Printer for Ontario, November 15, 2018. https://www.fin.gov.on.ca/fallstatement/2018/index.html.
  22. Laura Bowman, Letter to The Honourable Jonathan Wilkinson, Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, “Re: GTA West – Request for Designation under S.9 of the Impact Assessment Act,” Ecojustice Canada, February 3, 2021, https://iaac-aeic.gc.ca/050/documents/p81381/138109E.pdf.
  23. Botanical Society of Canada, “Seventh Meeting. Friday Evening, 14th June, 1861,” Annals of the Botanical Society of Canada 1 (1861): 110–66.
  24. Galt, 144-145.

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Anna Soper is an artist, writer, and librarian from Kingston, Ontario, Canada. As an artist, she has exhibited her work in London, New York, and Toronto. She has a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from OCAD University—where was was awarded the OCAD University Medal in 2011—and a Master of Library and Information Science degree from Western University. A love of wildflowers and wild places informs Soper’s written work, and she is particularly inspired by little-known environmental histories. Find her online at www.annasoper.ca.

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