Turbulence ahead at Pickering Airport proposal

How a rising Tory star seems at odds with his finance minister over an airport that might never be built


Rick Madonik / Toronto Star / Getty Images

Chris Alexander is lucky for his long service as a diplomat. The immigration minister, newly promoted to the hefty cabinet post, represents a riding just east of Toronto. It’s in that backyard, far from Ottawa’s halls of power, that Alexander requires all of the diplomatic prowess he earned during his 18 years in the foreign service. He’s in the middle of a fight between the Harper government’s most senior minister, tenacious protesters with a proven track record, and a political opponent who could threaten Alexander’s re-election in a couple of years.

The heart of the battle is an airport that might never be built. In 1972, the federal government expropriated 18,600 acres of land in rural Pickering, Uxbridge and Markham, ostensibly to make way for a new international airport. Residents were furious. They argued that prime farmland was more important than an airport they said no one wanted. Three years of sustained pressure forced the provincial government, then headed by Bill Davis, to refuse to build infrastructure to support the airport. Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals, left hanging, cancelled the lofty plans. But the feds retained ownership of the lands, and after decades of quietly sitting on the project, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty stood at a podium in the region this past June and gave it new life.

Residents were once again furious. Some have paid rent to Transport Canada since the fight’s earliest days, and they’ve vowed to fight the airport to their deathbed. They’re counting on Alexander, who campaigned against the airport during the last election, to stand up for them in Ottawa.

Alexander has massaged his position over the last two years. In 2011, he told the Toronto Star in an email he “absolutely opposed” an airport, and pledged to “work with area residents and communities to determine how best to move toward resolution of this issue.” He affirmed that opposition at an all-candidates debate in nearby Claremont, Ont. Now, he no longer explicitly opposes the government’s plans—and is vague about what exactly he favours. “I support our government’s determination, first announced in summer 2011, to resolve this long-standing issue,” he said in a statement to Maclean’s. “I pledged myself to ending these four decades of neglect, and to returning these lands to full use.” But Alexander won’t say what he wants to see on the Pickering lands, aside from emphasizing they “should serve the long-term economic and environmental needs of our community, Durham Region and the entire GTA.” Nor did he address a question about whether or not his position had evolved. He applauded the government for ending all the uncertainty, even though there’s still no timeline for the airport’s construction or what will happen with leftover land.

But if Alexander is no longer outright opposed, residents still maintain he’s on their side. “Right up until the last time we talked to him, he was adamant that he opposed an airport,” said Pat Valentine of the protest group Land Over Landings. “We have never heard him say otherwise.”

Alexander’s non-commitment stands in stark contrast to Flaherty’s advocacy. At the June announcement, the finance minister was buoyant about his government’s support for a new airport. “I’m here to confirm that the uncertainty ends today,” he said. “It’s 41 years later. The GTA has grown. Pickering has grown. The demand is here.”

Flaherty, Alexander, then-environment minister Peter Kent and Ontario Transportation Minister Glen Murray all attended the June announcement. Sources tell Maclean’s the four men might have appeared all smiles, but that Alexander was blindsided by the government’s airport announcement—and under the impression Flaherty would only be announcing the transfer of 5,000 acres of airport land to the neighbouring Rouge Urban National park. Murray publicly accused Flaherty’s office of announcing the airport plans without keeping the province in the loop. Flaherty denied the allegation.

Through it all, Alexander faces a potential rematch with the Liberal opponent he beat in 2011. Mark Holland, now with the Heart and Stroke Foundation, won’t talk about his plans for the 2015 election. But he doesn’t mince words. “My then opponent, now MP, made a commitment that he would fight [the airport] with everything he had,” he said. “It was a very significant issue in the last campaign, and I suspect it will be again.”

Alexander’s riding, Ajax-Pickering, will be sliced in half when he runs for re-election. Ajax, which comprises the southeastern portion of the current riding and none of the airport lands, will be hived off. Those lands will be captured almost entirely by a new riding, Pickering-Uxbridge. Wherever Alexander chooses to run, Holland could follow, and the former star candidate would be forced to choose sides. If he stays neutral, he risks losing the trust of the airport’s opponents. If he opposes the project, he defies his own government. The rookie MP is going to need all his diplomatic skills.


Turbulence ahead at Pickering Airport proposal

  1. An airport that is now desperately needed, that’s a given. But it dosnt need 18,000 acres. 90% of this can be put back into productive use or turned into a park. The airport itself can be privately funded. Win win, so what is to discuss?

    Oh that’s right the current renters who are abusing prime land for pennies on the dollar.

    • Markwbrooks, I don’t believe it’s a given at all. Pearson is not at capacity and neither is Hamilton, by any stretch of imagination. Given all the expense in building an airport at a time of “austerity” considering the existing infrastructure deficit, this seems a hare-brained idea.

      On the article topic, I find Chris Alexander is basically a robotic spouter of talking points on most topics – mounting a verbal defense to this flip-flop is quite beyond his abilities. Could be entertaining for the mean-spirited. I didn’t realize he had run on opposition to the airport and wondered at the time of the election how he had won. I was sure the Conservatives had made it plain the airport was going to be pushed through.

      • Pearson will never be at capacity. When they run out of slots then just up the price, and why not they have a Monopoly. The small GA aircraft that connected small town Northern Ontario To Toronto went first. To bad if the float plane from Gore bay cant keep up the speed with the international flights on approach. Now then don’t even sell avgas anymore. Nice to have a monopoly, it makes paying those six figure salary’s to the bloated 15 member board of directors easier. Yes you read that right 15, all appointed, and almost none with prior aviation experience. It makes the senate scandals look down right tame!

        Up until now Buttonville has been taking up the slack, and making money doing it too. But unfortunately the pressure of a growing city, and “not my problem” hog town politics has now forced its private owner to throw up his hands and sell out to the highest bidder. The volume and unique aircraft mix trying to fly into Toronto will be at a crisis point the moment Buttonville closes. ( Just ask any commercial pilot ).

        Well I for one am not going to let yet another Hog town politician take our tax dollars with 40 years of promises and yet do nothing. At the very least if they don’t want to be part of the solution, they should step out of the way of those who can solve the problem.

    • Pearson is under capacity, Hamilton is under utilized. Why is an airport “desperately” needed?

    • You’re wrong, Markwbrooks, in so many ways. Please visit http://www.landoverlandings.com for the facts. And check stats on Hamilton for why we don’t need more airports. And check just about anywhere for why we do need to stop sprawl and save farmland. And as for the renters? There are hardly any, thanks to four decades of eviction and demolition. This is a mass movement. It’s nothing to do with “a few tenants’. Check your facts.

      • People from northern Ontario don’t want to fly into Hamilton
        or Peterborough and then take a $200+ 90 minute cab ride ( on a good day. They want to fly into Toronto, the capital city of their province, the seat of government, bay street, the courts and the first class hospitals they have been promised equal and easy access too.
        When Buttonville closes I am sure pilots will do their best to squeeze into the smaller and smaller box at Oshawa and the island airport with predictable harsh consequences for both local residents
        and the province.

        • Interesting fact: the Pickering airport wouldn’t be in Toronto either.

          PS: there’s a perfectly serviceable runway for small craft sitting at Downsview with two subway stops (soon to be three) which, for some inane reason, we insist on trying to turn into parkland despite the reality that it needs to be there as long as Bombardier wants to employ people…

          • If people are going to fly into Pickering on their way to Toronto they better not land during rush hour because it will easily take 90 minutes. The east west roads are overwhelmed as it is.

            They would be better off landing in Oshawa.

          • Understand you are not a local, have a second look at the included map. The pickering site is right on the 407 and much closer to Toronto than Oshawa. But It’s a mute point anyways as Oshawa city council has refused to update the runway with modern safety overruns and has closed the south side to development.
            Safety concerns aside , Oshawa has made the wise choice of not being forced to squeeze hog towns airtraffic problems into the middle of their city, in an airport surrounded by homes.

    • Yeah, the “current renters” – previously the owners – whose land was expropriated.

  2. Sadly, the Government has already sold a substantial part of the southern portion of the Expropriated land to developers….shotty townhouses on Class 1 Farmland…again. Next up, complaining owners of shotty townhouses.

  3. Chris Alexander will listen to his Conservative overlords, he’s nothing more than a Tory puppet.

  4. Lets see, we can spend billions building an airport we don’t need… or billions building a high-speed rail link between Hamilton Airport and Oshawa- with stops in between – that, with a regular schedule, would improve local transport as well and make Hamilton a more viable alternative carrier destination. If it runs through Union, people from Durham or Hamilton would still have the option to jump on the new express line to Pearson and wouldn’t need to pay airport parking either.


    • That’s actually between 10 and 200 million of either all private, or a mix of public private ownership, depending on which new airport plan wins favor. That for a new regional airport the same distance from downtown Toronto as Buttonville is today. An easy deal for everyone involved.
      It would be great to reopen Downsview to public access, but why annoy a million real voters when Pickering solves the problem just as well ( right off the 407).
      An this new airport will be Ontario focused, just like Buttonville is today. And just like Buttonville very few people need to get to Pearson. People fly into Buttonville to get to TORONTO, not make a connecting flight.

      • It’s not intended to be a regional airport. It’s being designed as another international airport with an estimated budget of $2 Billion 8 years ago as per the GTAA. You can likely add another billion to that by now.

        Meanwhile, Hamilton’s international airport already sits roughly the exact same distance from Toronto Tokyo’s second airport Narita lies yet apparently that’s too far for us poor Canadians to go by direct train.

        • That’s what the current renters ( thats who the land over landing folks are supporting ) want you to think, the reality is very different. But hey, who can blame em, if I was renting land for pennies on the dollar from the tax payer a short drive from Toronto I would probably be saying and doing what ever It takes too.

          • No, that’s what the GTAA has stated outright in every one of their own reports on the subject. I recognize that you have your own stake in this game from your comments, but you can’t deny what the operator of the airport to be built has been stating from round 1 as noise from folks who want a free ride.

          • The biggest of the private groups has proposed a 200 million airport, and even then it is with private money.

            The GTAA has been opposing the development of this airport for 20 years for obvious reasons, it breaks the monopoly they have. Make no mistake, aviation access to Toronto is one profitable business.
            Luckily the billion dollar approach died when the current federal government took away the project from them. Now it is going to be a small nicely run regional airport that will cost the tax payer zip.
            Too bad for the fat cats at the GTAA win-win for everyone else, especially the tax payer!

          • Again, Markwbrooks, pls. check facts before continuing to comment. You are wrong on so many counts. Visit landoverlandings.com for articles, comments and links to FACTS, not conjecture. You could start with the second article by Nick Taylor-Vaisey which details, among other things, the FACT that Land over Landings is not made up of tenants (there are almost none), In FACT, the groups has hundreds if not thousands of supporters, both individual and groups such as original members of People or Planes who have long since been expropriated and moved to other areas, Food and Water First (based in the western GTA), the David Suzuki Foundation, Save the Oak Ridges Moraine, Slow Food Toronto, on and on — none of these are renters. This is a movement about opposing government waste and saving foodland and water. It is NOT about tenants. FACTS. Learn them.

  5. The truth is that there is no business case for a Pickering Airport with Pearson at less than 50% capacity and capable of future expansion and Hamilton crying out for new business. If built now or in the next 20 years it will fail. There is not the demand nor desire from the airlines or consumers to make it work. We saw what happened when the feds built an airport at Mirabel when there wasn’t long term demand or desire – it failed and is now one big white elephant, built at tremendous cost to the taxpayer. The same will happen again if Pickering Airport is built. Where are you Chris Alexander stand up and say what you really believe – THERE IS NO BUSINESS CASE.

    • Then why have two separate private groups proposed building it with private money? The truth is that the GTAA dosnt take any of the traffic that needs the new airport today, because it can’t support it. Go to Pearson Today and check, its all heavy metal, not a single float, and only a handful of very high end single single engine aircraft amoung them. These aircraft are the staple that links small town ontario to our capital and yet Pearson dosnt even sell the Avgas needed to power them !

      The truth is, if the pickering lands didn’t exist with the government saying that the next airport must go there, a new private airport would have already been built.

      • I agree with Broughman, and David Masters – Markwbrooks – your facts are not correct, and shortsighted. What about the potential for growing food, preserving water, and nature for this and the next generation(s)? There is no “business case” or any case at all to build an airport on this land. Beautiful, bountiful land that we can never get back again once it is gone.

        We need good food, grown locally, by farmers with the skills and knowledge. We will lose our opportunity to grow food locally and we will one day lose the skills to grow food if we keep building mushroom housing.

        When that day comes, and you, Markwbrooks are having to fly food in from god only knows where, that no one can afford, that no one really wants to eat, and there is mass starvation in Ontario, then maybe someone in power will sit up and say “hey remember all that land we used to have?”

        • If you wish to be taken seriously, I would suggest that you work on a more positive attitude, btw try using your real name. Our hard working decision makers are trusted with managing the tax payers resources. It make sense to move forward to transform land growing corn ethanol into something that can improve the lives of all of ontario’s citizens by balancing the need for green space ( parks ), farm land growing real food and not to mention actually have a place for those “emergency” food flights to land.

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