Ontario's North: A Region of Continental Ecological Importance

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In 2007, the ECO undertook an extensive analysis of the environmental implications of various land use policies and allocation decisions in Ontario’s northern boreal landscape. The following articles are included:

The sheer size of northern Ontario makes it one of the few remaining places on earth where entire ecosystems – at a landscape level – can function relatively unimpaired by human impacts. It is an ecological treasure. The manner in which the province plans and manages it is of the utmost importance, for its own sake and that of all Ontarians.

The boreal forest, as a whole, comprises 59 per cent of Ontario’s forests and covers 49.8 million hectares. It is composed of various forest types, consisting of coniferous and deciduous trees, including white and black spruce, tamarack, balsam fir, jack pine, white birch and three species of poplar. North of the contiguous forest lies the Hudson Bay Lowlands, which contain a massive expanse of wetlands. This tundra covers an area of 25.7 million hectares, comprising both treed and open muskeg, and is dotted with hundreds of thousands of small lakes and ponds.

Northern Ontario has an ecological significance at a continental scale. A third of all northern bird species annually migrate there from Central and South America. More than 300 species of birds depend on the boreal forest as a breeding ground, including 80 per cent of all waterfowl species in North America. The boreal forest also plays a critical role in regulating climate change. Based on such factors, a recent independent study concluded that the total annual non-market value of boreal ecosystem services in the year 2002 across Canada was $93.2 billion.

These forest, tundra, and aquatic ecosystems support a great abundance of wildlife. Many of these species require vast amounts of space and have evolved to form complex inter-relationships, in addition to depending on natural disturbances, such as forest fires. Species that depend on these northern ecosystems for their survival which are most readily identifiable by the public include gray wolves, polar bears, and great grey owls.

There are several dozen species at risk – species whose survival is in jeopardy – that inhabit the forests, tundra, and aquatic ecosystems of northern Ontario. These represent a broad diversity of bird, fish, mammal, lichen, and plant species. Mammals at risk include the North American puma, the wolverine, and woodland caribou. Significant bird species include the bald eagle, the American white pelican, and the short-eared gray owl. Aquatic species at risk include the aurora trout, the deepwater sculpin, and lake sturgeon.

Many species, like woodland caribou, serve as invaluable barometers to assess whether sustainable policy choices are being made in northern Ontario. A detailed discussion of woodland caribou as an indicator of the fragility of the north can be found in Conserving woodland caribou: the benchmark for Northern sustainability in this report.

There is a groundswell of public concern about how the northern part of the province should be managed. Many stakeholders – ranging from First Nations to forestry companies to conservation organizations – have been united in their call for a new framework to protect much of the boreal and to ensure that land use planning is completed in advance of industrial development. Indeed, the federal Senate Subcommittee on the Boreal Forest stated in 1999 that


Portions of Canada’s remaining natural, undisturbed boreal forest and its areas of old growth are now at risk, from both climate change and over cutting. In addition, the demands and expectations placed on Canada’s boreal forest have escalated to the point where they cannot all be met under the current management regime.


At a national level, this Senate report proposed that the boreal be divided into three land use classes. The Senate report proposed that 20 per cent of Canada’s boreal be intensively managed for timber and fibre production, 60 per cent be managed less intensively for a wide variety of forest uses with biodiversity conservation as the primary objective, and the remaining 20 per cent would be set aside as protected areas.

Building on this idea, the partners of a coalition called the Canadian Boreal Initiative proposed in 2003 that half of Canada’s boreal be managed for sustainable resource development and the other half be enshrined in a network of protected areas. Such proposals about how to manage the boreal need not be literally applied in northern Ontario, but they serve as an invaluable starting point for public debate and government action.

It is troubling that the Ontario government is resisting this tide of concern, particularly given that it is the single largest landholder in northern Ontario. In September 2005, an EBR application was filed that requested the creation of a comprehensive land use planning system for northern Ontario. The applicants asserted that a wide array of evidence suggests that a new approach was warranted, including the need for:

  • incorporating ecological values into decision-making;
  • properly engaging First Nations communities and the public at large;
  • conducting thorough environmental assessments of proposed development projects;
  • designating protected areas before resource allocations are made; and,
  • addressing the cumulative impacts of proposed developments.

The Ontario government responded that it does not believe that such change is warranted, because it believes that the various approval processes currently in place are adequate. This EBR application is discussed at length in 2007 Review of the Need for Comprehensive Land Use Planning in the North.

It is clear that the existing approval processes operate in isolation from one another, and they do not embody a comprehensive approach. The Ontario government, for example, has chosen to take a one-window approach using MNDM as the lead ministry for all major non-forestry industrial developments in the north. Unfortunately, environmental and land use planning issues are not parts of MNDM’s core responsibilities or mandate. The consequence of such an approach is that environmental and land use planning concerns are of secondary importance and a lower priority than they ought to be.




This is an article from the 2006/07 Annual Report to the Legislature from the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario.

Citing This Article:
Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. 2007. "Developing Priorities: The Challenge of Creating a Sustainable Planning System in Northern Ontario." Reconciling our Priorities, ECO Annual Report, 2006-07. Toronto, ON : Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. 57-59.

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