Ask just about anyone who’s never been to Canada about the country, and the fact that it’s cold and full of wilderness is sure to be at the top of their list. The majority of Canadians who live in cities and routinely suffer through extreme heat spells would add a few other things. But there’s no doubt that forest, tundra, lakes and wetlands cover a significant chunk of this great nation.
But that so much of our land looks and feels wild doesn’t mean all that flora and fauna is actually protected. In fact, Canada lags behind other countries, including far more densely populated ones like Britain, Germany and France, when it comes to the percentage of land that’s protected from commercial exploitation and other degradation.
In 2010, Canada signed the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, which includes a commitment to protect at least 17 per cent of our land and fresh water and 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas by the end of 2020.
When it comes to the oceans Canada is close to meeting that target. But on land we’re not moving the needle quickly enough. When then-prime minister Stephen Harper signed the convention, 9.6 per cent of Canada’s land was protected. Nearly a decade later and with less than a year and half to go, we’re only at 11.8 per cent.
The stark consequences of global failures to protect habitat have been well-documented. Most recently, a landmark UN report found that one million species of plants and animals — out of a total of eight million — are at risk of extinction because of human action.
Turning that around is critical, not just to save the plants and animals, but ultimately to save ourselves. Destruction of habitat and loss of biodiversity erodes economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life.
With so far to go to meet our international conservation commitments and so little time left, it seems likely there will be a flurry of announcements about conservation in the north and other out-of-the-way places that we need Google maps to locate. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s certainly not all that’s needed. We must conserve biodiversity and important ecosystems wherever they’re found, not just in places where few people live and work and commercial interests are low.
Of Canada’s 629 federally listed at-risk wildlife species, more than a third live in Ontario and most of them are found in the warmer south. But conservation is a particular challenge in Southern Ontario because most land is privately owned.
The new Love Mountain Nature Reserve, just a 50-minute drive north of Toronto, is a great example of what can be done with a little effort and government funding.
Thanks to a natural conservation program funded partially by Ottawa, those 36 hectares of land that used to be privately owned are now part of the Happy Valley Forest natural area north of King City. That’s the largest intact block of deciduous forest on the Oak Ridges Moraine and home to 30 endangered species.
Land conservancies are an important strategy to increasing the amount of protected land in areas like southern Ontario. Rightly wanting to encourage more people to transfer ecologically significant private property to land trusts, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna recently unveiled $100 million in funding for a program designed to do that.
By virtue of our vast wilderness, rich wildlife and enormous fresh water holdings, Canada has a special obligation to conserve and protect. The longer we put off doing that, the less there will be to protect now and forever.
An editorial from the Toronto Star