Source: Essay “The Grand Outrage of the Grand Old Man” by Donald Creighton, Toronto Globe and Mail, October 21, 1972. Thanks to Chris and local historian Tommy Thompson of Whitevale, Ontario for rediscovering this gem.

This past June 11th, Canada’s Finance Minister, Jim Flaherty, revived a 41-year-old federal government political decision to build an international airport in north Pickering, including a new threat of urban development. The site is on Canada’s best Class 1 farm land, including Ontario designated, environmentally sensitive Greenbelt and Oak Ridges Moraine land. This announcement was made despite the fact that the three existing jet-serviced international airports in south-central Ontario are operating at about half of their combined maximum passenger capacity. With no price tag, no business case, and no need, there is no reason to build an airport in Pickering. Mr Flaherty’s announcement re-energized local organizations who have long opposed the Pickering airport scheme and the needless destruction of prime farmland; such as, Green Durham Association, and Land over Landings, who during the summer has allied with other groups opposed, including Friends of the Rouge, Save the Oak Ridges Moraine, and Food and Water First.

Corn crop on the Tapscott farm on the north Pickering federal lands. The Tapscott family still farms and lives on this property that the federal government expropriated from them in 1972, for an airport that was never built. (Click to embiggen.)

Criticisms of the Pickering airport proposal have not changed over the past 41 years. University of Toronto history professor Donald Creighton was regarded by many as the foremost Canadian historian of the mid-20th century. Living in Brooklin, Ontario, he took an interest in the Pickering airport. After researching the history behind the decision, in the fall of 1972 he wrote the following essay of outrage at the Pickering airport decision.

On March 2, 1972, the Governments of Canada and Ontario, like two great eagles sailing high in the sky, swooped down and pounced on the unsuspecting and unprotected citizens of Pickering Township, Ontario County.

A second international airport for the Toronto-centred region, the federal government declared in a joint announcement, will be located in Pickering Township, just to the northeast of Toronto. There had been no warning of this extraordinary czarist ukase.

There had been no public investigation of the question of air transport in the Toronto-centred region. There had not even been the slightest, most perfunctory recognition of that precious principle of “participatory democracy”, about which our politicians expatiate so self-righteously when they want our votes.

The arbitrary ordinance of March 2, was, in fact, preceded by nearly three years of almost total silence on the subject of air transport – three years of blessed governmental immunity from the questions and criticisms of citizens, during which federal and provincial officers, like so many furtive inquiry agents, carried out their secret examinations of possible airport sites.

This policy of concealment was prompted by the early realization that the safest way of settling the question of air transport in southern Ontario was to keep its potential users completely in the dark. At the beginning, of course, there seemed no need for secrecy, since there was no serious thought of a second international airport for the Toronto region.

The federal government accepted and published the report of its chosen firm of consultants, which recommended that “the expansion of the present Toronto International Airport was the most economic and viable” solution to the problem of increased air traffic in the Toronto area.

This decision, which protected the environment of southern Ontario by the effective method of confining the disturbance of air transport to the terminal in which it had been concentrated for the past quarter-century, was the wisest decision that could have been taken, from every point of view.

But the federal government then proceeded to consult the municipalities and citizen groups which represented the most populous community that had grown up around the village of Malton in the past twenty-five years.

The people of this region had voluntarily made their homes there in the full knowledge that an airport existed in their midst and was certain to develop and expand; but they now arbitrarily insisted that it must not grow any further. The federal government accepted their protest. It agreed that “land use compatibility” could not be satisfied if Malton [now called Toronto Pearson airport] were enlarged, and gave up the idea of expansion. This, the government announced, “is the kind of solution that can emerge when all citizens participate in a dialogue with government in a spirit of reason and goodwill.”

These pious sentiments most surely have been uttered with tongue in cheek. The federal government had learned its lesson. There must be no more announcements of intention concerning a second Toronto-centred airport. Above all there must be no more consultation with local municipalities and no more dialogue with interested citizens.

From then on, so far as the public was aware, the whole project of the airport was wrapped in silence; but behind this blank wall of official dumbness, the federal and provincial governments were in fact carrying on surreptitious but elaborate surveys, costing millions of dollars, of a wide variety of possible sites, numbering nearly sixty in all, but not including Pickering.

Finally, they narrowed this total to a short list of four; but unfortunately the news of this selection leaked and the citizens of the regions affected promptly protested.

Once again, the federal and provincial governments drew back. Once again, there experts evaluated Malton terminal and in September 1970, came to the conclusion that its expansion was the best solution to the problem. Once again, the governments at Ottawa and Toronto decided not to follow this advice. From then on, the airport project became top secret.

At last, after eighteen more months of silence and secrecy, the federal and provincial administrations pounced on the Pickering site, a site which had not even been studied in the original massive investigation and had, in fact, never been mentioned before.

No more cynical evasion of the democratic process and no more harsh denial of “participatory democracy” can be conceived. A little more than two years earlier, the federal government had sanctimoniously extolled “the kind of solution that can emerge when all citizens participate in a dialogue with the Government in a spirit of reason and goodwill.” Now it deliberately repudiated its own professed principle – a principle that other governments, not so addicted to hypocritical moralizing as the Canadian administrations, have scrupulously honoured.

In the United States, the National Environmental Protection Act requires a public hearing before and enterprise such as a second Toronto airport can be undertaken. In England, the Roskill Commission, set up to advise the British government the timing and siting of a third London airport, held public hearings at each of the four sites on its short list, as well as in London.

The Canadian Minister of Transport feebly tried to excuse his failure to follow these excellent examples by explaining that he would have loved to have the public participate in the decision-making process, but that he was concerned about the dreadful possibility of speculation in land.
Other countries seem ready to face these terrors in the public interest; and the Minister of Transport himself had listened to the protests of the four communities on his short list, Orangeville, Scugog, Lake Simcoe, and Guelph. Pickering alone was denied the opportunity of presenting its case to the government.

The truth seems to be that the Minister of Transport was sick and tired of “participatory democracy” in the airport issue and was determined to prevent any more of it.

The secretive method by which governments reached their decision to build at Pickering was wrong. The decision itself was equally invalid. Long-range forecasting of air traffic is about as exact a science as astrology. Planners are always optimistically predicting an annual growth rate of 10 per cent or 12 per cent; but less than a month ago, the Director-General of the International Air Transport Association gloomily reported that the world airline industry had for a second year in succession suffered a net loss as a result of declining loads and an overcapacity of aircraft.

The reliability of forecasts rapidly diminishes with the increasing length of the time frame; and, when the Canadian government, in an attempt to justify the building a second airport, estimated that Malton would have to serve 60 million passengers in the year 2000, it had ascended into the stratosphere of visionary speculation. The projection of current trends so far into the future is nothing more than an exercise in technical humbug; but if the time span is reduced to ten to fifteen years, forecasts may approach closer to future reality.

Within these sensible limits the case for the second Toronto airport is extremely weak. In comparison to the traffic growth trends of eleven major North American airports projected down to 1980 Toronto makes a very poor showing, standing in ninth place, with only Montreal and New Orleans below it.

Yet only three of these leading centres – New York, Chicago, and Washington – have experimented with a second airport and in only one, New York, serving 20 million people, has the experiment partially succeeded. In Washington, it was a failure and in Chicago a humiliation.

On what basis can two airports, both serving the same area, split the market between them? The airlines are strongly opposed to duplicating their equipment and services at two nearby terminals. The travelling public wants to go where it gets the most comprehensive selection of airline companies and flights.

The fact is that the decision to build a second airport for the Toronto region was not, in any rigorous sense, a planning decision at all. It was, fundamentally, a political decision. For the federal government, it was the almost unavoidable counterpart of another political decision, the decision to build a second major airport at Ste. Scholastique [now called Mirabel airport].

Anyone who has walked through the empty and echoing corridors of Dorval [now called Montréal-Trudeau airport], or travelled along the moving walkway with only a solitary passenger approaching on the other side, may well wonder why a second international airport was needed for the City of Montreal. If he is a Canadian, his wonderment will cease when he remembers that for the past ten years the propitiation of Quebec has become the basic imperative of Canadian politics.

Unemployment, inflation, foreign ownership, the balance of payments, the economic growth rate, the social service “rip-off”, all may cause Ottawa deep concern, though temporary concern, but the appeasement of Quebec has become its uninterrupted and enduring anxiety.

At long intervals, the federal government lifts its gaze from the contemplation of this absorbing problem and recalls the fact that Ontario, with its larger population, faster growth rate and stronger industrial and financial base, also exists and is actually, like Quebec, a part of Canada. On such occasions, it is apt to decide that Ontario should be given some obvious quid pro quo in the hopes that it will subside and be quiet.

Montreal has been awarded a second airport at Ste. Scholastique. Therefore Toronto ought to have its equivalent at Pickering.

The provincial government’s decision to support the construction of a second airport east of Toronto was also governed in large part by politics, but its political reasons differed widely from those of the federal government. One of its main purposes was to promote the development of the eastern part of the province. This was a legitimate, in fact, worthy object, but the assumption that a second international airport in Pickering was a good way of attaining it could only have resulted from some very muddled – or very devious – thinking.

If the new airport was to have any effect at all on the lower Lake Ontario and Upper St. Lawrence valley, it would have to be placed far east of Pickering, in an area which could not conceivably produce enough traffic to support it. Sited in Pickering Township, it could exert only a partial and indirect influence even on Oshawa, and virtually none at all on the development of the towns a little farther east, such as Port Hope, Cobourg and Peterborough. The real beneficiary – or the real victim – of the proposed Pickering airport would be Toronto.

The huge inevitable access highways to the new airport and the construction of the adjacent town of Cedarwood [now called Seaton] would simply hasten Toronto’s hideous urban sprawl. The claim that Pickering airport would promote growth of eastern Ontario is either a silly delusion or a specious fraud.

Political decisions are socially bad decisions because they are designed mainly to benefit governments in power. If they do serve the public interest it is, in most cases, accidentally or incidentally; and very often, as with the Pickering airport, they may inflict serious injury or irreparable havoc on the community. From every point of view, the choice of Pickering site was wrong.

Air navigation will have to face the hazards of Pickering’s heavy snows and frequent fogs; geese, ducks and gulls, which use the area as a flyway, will be frightened away. Above all, nearly 125,000 acres – four-fifths of the area of Metropolitan Toronto – of Ontario’s Class 1 agricultural land will be involved in the project.

The airport itself will occupy 18,000 acres; the adjacent Cedarwood city will extend over another 25,000; and finally, vast tracts of land surrounding the airport, the “high-noise areas”, as they are bluntly called, totalling about 80,000 acres, will be “frozen” so far as their land use is concerned.

To say that this is some of the very best agricultural land in the province is an economic fact but a serious cultural understatement. The Pickering area is, in fact, very nearly unique. It is one of the last, still relatively unspoiled survivals of the old, lovely countryside in south-central Ontario. The Government of Ontario itself recognized this fact when, little more than two years ago, in May 1970, it published, with official approval, the Toronto-Centred Region Plan. Zone II of that plan, which included much of Pickering Township, was to be reserved for agriculture, conservation and recreation.

By espousing the project of the Pickering airport, the provincial government not only abandoned its own sound regional scheme, it has betrayed and destroyed it. It has helped ensure that the dreadful industrial jungle of steel and brick and glass and concrete, the stupefying nightmare of fumes and filth and noise will extend unbroken all the way around Lake Ontario from Oshawa to Niagara.

Perhaps the most appalling feature of this prospective spoliation and wreckage is that it is not needed. The Pickering airport would not even serve the purpose for which it was supposedly designed.

Only 3 per cent of the traffic at Malton, so government studies indicate, originates from east of Metropolitan Toronto. The vast majority of passengers at the present Toronto airport are drawn – and will continue to be drawn – from the four or five million people who inhabit Toronto and the area to the west. This huge number of potential air travellers would be far more efficiently and conveniently accommodated by an airport sited at Ontario’s provincial centre of gravity, just west of Toronto.

The Pickering airport could never satisfy those obvious and compelling requirements. The existing airport at Malton has done so, and can continue to do so, if the plan recommended by the federal and provincial experts in 1967 and 1970 is carried out. Malton, with no enlargement in area, with a single new runway and improved passenger facilities, could continue to give satisfactory service for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, the two governments and the citizens concerned could carry out a comprehensive, detailed and open investigation of the problems of air transport in the Toronto region.

All these considerations ought to have induced the federal and provincial governments to hesitate before they suddenly pounced on Pickering. The fact that they went ahead without consulting, or even informing, the people who would be directly affected by this violent upheaval in the life of the township outraged a number of its residents; and their immediate response, made on March 3, the day after the government’s announcement, was to set up a citizens’ organization, People or Planes, to defend their interests.

POP’s first aim was to present its case against the second airport before an open forum, and for this it sought to persuade the federal government to grant a formal inquiry under the Public Enquiries Act.

Up to that point, the government had acted bluntly and arbitrarily; now it began to move in evasive, equivocal, and contradictory fashion. Outwardly, it seemed to concede an inquiry – but an inquiry which so completely defeated all the aims of the petitioners that it might have been disingenuously framed for that very purpose.

It was not to be a formal inquiry under the Public Enquiries Act; it was not to concern itself specifically with the Pickering airport, but with transport generally in southern Ontario. Finally, by grotesque contradiction, which might have convinced the members of POP that they were dealing with either a group of certifiable lunatics or a gang of blatant imposters who didn’t even attempt to conceal their fraud, the government announced that it would begin the expropriation of the Pickering properties without waiting for the findings of the inquiry!

For a while it hesitated to carry out this astonishing threat, but recently the formal announcement was gazetted and notices of expropriation have been sent out.

The federal and provincial governments share – in proportions which are unknown to the public – the blame for the accumulated injustice and unwisdom of the proposed Pickering airport.

The provincial government is apparently deaf to appeal, and with three years of power to run, it is also safe from immediate retaliation.
The federal government, fortunately for Canadian voters, is very differently placed. With a general election coming on immediately, it is vulnerable, and from it Canadians can really exact retribution. They can defeat its members in the constituencies, they can weaken or perhaps overthrow the government itself.

A severe electoral shock would be a very suitable retort to the insolent quip which Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau addressed to a puzzled and anxious voter in the Pickering region who wanted to know “Just where I stand.” “There is no doubt where you stand,” Mr Trudeau answered with brutal candour. “You are standing on ground that is going to be expropriated.”

An appropriate rejoinder springs naturally to mind: “There is no doubt about the office you are occupying, Mr Trudeau, and we hope it will be expropriated in nine days’ time.”

Epilogue: The October 30, 1972 federal election was so close it was uncertain who would form the government. Votes in several ridings required recounts. Ironically, Pickering was in Ontario riding, where the Liberal incumbent Norm Cafik was declared the winner in a judicial recount by 4 votes. Liberal Prime Minister Trudeau, with 109 seats, formed the new government. Progressive Conservative Opposition Leader Stanfield, with 107 seats, had campaigned on review of the second Toronto airport decision, and if needed, thought that eastern Ontario’s economy would only benefit from a site farther east. In September 1975, Ontario Premier Davis announced that the Ontario cabinet had decided not to fund the infrastructure for the Pickering airport. An angry federal government announced the next day that Pickering airport construction plans were cancelled. Transport Minister Marchand said “the people of Toronto will get the service they deserve. Toronto will be ten years behind Montréal. It is very imprudent to wait until Malton is congested before beginning plans to relieve it.” Shortly thereafter, Montréal’s second airport, Mirabel, was officially opened by Prime Minister Trudeau. In his remarks, the Prime Minister said that Torontonians would soon “be on their knees” begging for a second airport. Mirabel airport failed; its last passenger was on Halloween, 2004 and it became a “ghost” terminal. Meanwhile, technology improvements, such as larger aircraft and increasingly quieter jet engines, have enabled Malton/Pearson airport to continue to meet Toronto’s air transport needs to this day. In 2013, Pearson was operating at less than 60% of its maximum passenger capacity.