A thorn in the Ford government’s side: How these three women helped galvanize the fight against the controversial Highway 413
By Paul Webster Special to the Star
Fri., May 14, 2021
Jenni Le Forestier, Irene Ford and Susan Beharriell are community-minded, civil and respect the rules.
They volunteer for environmental projects, spend weekends in hockey arenas and a lot of time with family and friends, and, until recently, not a lot of time combing through the minutes of municipal council meetings.
Then, in 2018, Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s administration, with support from allies within the Peel, York, Caledon and Vaughan governments, relaunched the long-debated Highway 413 — which is proposed to run 60 kilometres across farms and forests north of Toronto. Le Forestier, Ford, and Beharriell took offence.
They decided to start tracking the discussions and decision-making about the highway at their local council meetings.
Since then, they’ve picked fights with local councils and provincial leaders. They’ve knocked Premier Ford’s government and some of its deep-pocketed highway supporters off-balance.
Along the way they have helped galvanize a torrent of grassroots opposition to the highway that helped persuade the federal government earlier this month to take charge of the environmental assessment for the proposed highway, which observers say will slow if not kill the project.
The three women are now at the centre of an opposition movement that is widening its scope to tackle not just Highway 413 but a broader push to build suburbs on some of southern Ontario’s best remaining farmland.
So how exactly did a music teacher, a former municipal research analyst and a retired air force officer wind up orchestrating a series of pitched battles with municipal, regional, and provincial governments?
“We started quietly comparing notes via email and Zoom sessions and a bunch of Facebook pages,” Le Forestier explains. “And then we realized that huge decisions are being quietly taken under cover of COVID to build this highway and ram through massive sprawl along with it.”
When the Progressive Conservatives revived the project late in 2018, they also pledged to review the provincial environmental assessment (EA) for the highway, allowing for a more “streamlined process for assessing potential environmental impacts.” This would allow for early works along the highway route such as new bridge construction or expansion to begin before the completion of the EA, expected in 2022.
In August 2020, the Ministry of Transportation laid out the “technically preferred route” for the highway, also known as the GTA West Corridor.
“Irene and Susan and I met because we all hate the 413 and the secrecy Premier Ford built around it under cover of COVID,” said Le Forestier, a nature-loving music teacher who lives in Caledon with her husband, school-age daughter, and a horse she shares with friends.
A spokesperson for Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney said the government is “fully committed to continued consultation” during the provincial environmental assessment process, will continue to listen to stakeholders, including the public, and takes its “responsibility to safeguard the environment seriously.”
“We are following through with the (environmental assessment) process, and this work will ultimately determine if this is a viable project for York, Peel and Halton Regions.”
The premier’s office has said the 413 would serve a growing population and relieve pressure on existing highways.
“Even with significant investments in transit, the major highways in York and Peel regions are all forecasted to be operating over capacity by 2031,” a spokesperson has said.
Irene Ford, who lives in Vaughan and formerly worked as an environmental research analyst at Toronto city hall before becoming a self-described hockey mom, is remarkably nonchalant about the head-on confrontation that she, Beharriell and Le Forestier have taken against the political heavyweights backing the 413.
“We’re all sick of being steamrolled by politicians supporting property developers while sidestepping their own environmental commitments,” she said.
“But then we discovered that COVID is making it easier for citizen activists to network and push back because council sessions have been virtualized.”
Waiting to begin her presentation before Caledon Council, Le Forestier was nervous.
The 46-year old had some difficulties getting on the council meeting’s agenda that February evening, and she expected a chilly reception. She’d been involved in tough local fights over quarries and subdivisions and sewage dumping in Caledon’s rivers. She holds her ground.
“Community members are alarmed that the council chose to support such a large project without consulting or informing the community,” Le Forestier told the council. “Council not only chose to endorse it, they supported fast-tracking it.”
With steady support from Councillor Annette Groves, Le Forestier’s plea that Caledon hit the brakes on the 413 was a success.
By the end of the evening, council members, including the mayor, who had been supporters of the proposed highway, seemed to be softening their stance. Caledon Mayor Allan Thompson promised to formally write to Ottawa in support of a federal environmental assessment.
Emboldened by her win in Caledon, in the weeks that followed, Le Forestier took her fight to Mississauga and Peel Regional councils — both of which had also long supported the 413.
Again with considerable support from Groves, a politician from Bolton who sits on both the Caledon and the Peel Regional councils, as well as Carolyn Parrish, who sits on the Mississauga and Peel councils, Le Forestier delivered her appeal against the 413 via video-conferencing. She was backed by many supporters who made statements and wrote letters of support.
Mississauga and Peel both voted to request a federal review of the 413.
And then, much to Le Forestier’s delight as she watched the proceedings at home alone, feeling disconnected from the wider world, both councils voted to withdraw their support for the highway altogether.
That decision, explains George Carlson, a Mississauga and Peel councillor, resulted from a debate over “the 1970s view that more highways are always a good idea since growth will follow like day follows night, versus a more nuanced approach that new highways contribute to more pollution, lazy planning and the hollowing out of underutilized existing infrastructure.”
Credit for forcing this debate, says Councillor Groves, has to be given to Le Forestier.
“Jenni’s role as a citizen activist is catalytic,” she said. “Many council members now see that their constituents don’t want them to be pressured into sacrificing huge new areas of farmland and conservation lands to the real estate and highway construction industries.”
Irene Ford spends plenty of time stuck in traffic and is just as fed up with the gridlock as everyone. Before becoming a stay-at-home mom, she had learned some bureaucratic black arts working on environmental files at Toronto City Hall: how to assess planning applications for their conformity to environmental bylaws; and discerning relationships between project proponents, city staff and council members.
She first grew concerned about development plans in the GTA during months of unpaid solitary slogging through municipal documents detailing approvals of big box retail and vast product distribution centres across farms and forests between Bolton and Highway 400.
“It dawned on me that they’re carving up the farms in the area because they expect the 413 to be built there to serve their huge fleets of trucks,” Ford said. “And then I realized the public hasn’t been informed about any of this, let alone consulted.”
On Feb. 11, five days before Le Forestier helped persuade Caledon to support a call by advocacy group Ecojustice for a federal review of the 413, Ford presented her case against the highway to York Regional Council.
York Council’s track record of support for the 413, Ford argued as a Vaughan resident, is an affront to the city’s declaration of a climate change emergency.
The highway, she told the council, will benefit landowners who have been lobbying and donating to politicians. These developers, who own land near the proposed route, could benefit if it is built. At least two councillors appeared to be sympathetic and requested more information from staff.
On March 2, Ford took her concerns to Vaughan Council. Councillor Marilyn Iafrate, who represents a rural ward that could be largely paved-over by the 413 and the ensuing sprawl, described the debate that followed as possibly the most intense she’s ever been involved in during her 30 years in politics.
“Irene has galvanized a big rethink.”
With support from hundreds of residents who wrote emails and letters — some presented via video-conference alongside Ford — a narrow majority of Vaughan council withdrew its support for the 413.
As for York Regional Council, staff planners have told officials in Ottawa that a federal environmental review was not needed and that citizen opposition to the 413 is being appropriately addressed by the provincial government.
“I’m very concerned that York regional transportation staff are saying the provincial process is satisfactory and meets our concerns,” Ford said. “That’s not true.”
On March 18, Ford, along with a long list of petitioners, waded into the York council virtual session with a series of carefully co-ordinated presentations against the 413.
Two provincial transport ministry officials made the case for the 413.
They said they did not yet know the answer to some big questions, Ford recalls.
“When asked what the 413 will cost,” Ford said, “they said they didn’t know. When asked where they got their data support their claims the 413 will save travel time across the GTA, they said they didn’t know. When asked if the 413 will be a toll road, they said they didn’t know. And when asked what the proposed streamlining of the provincial environmental review of the 413 will mean, they again said they didn’t know.”
The debate that day resulted in eight of 21 regional councillors voting to withdraw support.
Although York Council did not vote to stop supporting the 413, it voted to request the federal environmental review.
“My belief is that Irene will win this fight,” says Iafrate. “All she has to do is persist in what she’s doing.”
Retired military intelligence Lieutenant-Colonel Susan Beharriell had been comparing notes with Ford and Le Forestier from her solar-powered, geothermally heated rural home in King City.
A long-standing volunteer member of King’s municipal environmental committee, Beharriell had attended several public information sessions regarding the 413.
“What bothers me about these sessions is that we’re never asked to discuss whether the 413 is actually needed,” she said. “We’re only ever asked what form it should take. That’s not real public consultation.”
Beharriell argues the province should regain control over Highway 407, which was privatized by the Progressive Conservatives in 1999 and is now majority-owned by the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board. “The 407 was designed to alleviate traffic on the 401, especially truck traffic,” she says. “Let’s find a way to bring down the tolls and use it for that.”
On March 25, Beharriell and others in King successfully petitioned King Council to reverse its long-standing support for the 413.
“The process is surprisingly simple and straightforward,” Beharriell said. “There’s nothing to it. Just say your piece to your webcam from a common sense perspective, and show a little passion. The rest is just technical logistics.”
For Beharriell — an analyst who advised NATO’s top generals during the Gulf War, and was the senior Canadian on duty at North American Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado when the alarms rang on 9/11 — the fight against the 413 is part of a much larger strategy.
“It wasn’t such a big shift for me when I retired to shift towards facing a new enemy,” she said.
“Climate change, the developers who ignore the rules to protect wildlife habitats and nature, and governments that enable all of this to happen, when I see all of this happening here, my alarm bells go off.”