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SOS alarms coming thick and fast from Bala Falls
Catherine Nasmith | March 17, 2015

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From Issue No. 238 | March 17, 2015

Recent Protest in Canoes on the high side of the Falls, photo John Wright, North 45 Communications

In spite of concerns expressed by Wahta First Nation to both the Premier of Ontario, and the Prime Minister of Canada, the hoped for last minute miracle that would preserve the much-loved scenic falls and historic portage route in the centre of Bala from a provincially backed hydro development remains elusive.

Bala Falls has been on Heritage Canada The National Trust’s Top Ten Endangered List since 2012. Over the weekend the emails were coming thick and fast as frustrations mounted.

Last week, over the written objections of 200 constituents from a Township population of just 6500, the newly elected Council of the Township of Muskoka Lakes supported a road widening, removal of trees on the municipally owned, heritage designated portage site, construction of a retaining wall and landfill to support a construction staging area so vehicles can access the provincially owned adjacent land where the plant is planned. The motion narrowly passed four votes to three. Bala resident Allan Turnbull described the session as follows “Mayor Don Furniss and his slate seem intent on one thing and one thing only – to help their friends at Swift River Energy push through this proposal as quickly as possible, over the wishes of the community of Bala. The only person to say anything in favour of Swift River Energy was their own representative.”

The extraordinary measures necessary to gain construction access give an idea of just how impractical it is to build a hydro plant on this postage sized site. Councillors Sandy Currie, Phil Harding, Donelda Kruekel and Ruth Nishikawa continue to argue for preservation of this place of community memory.

For a second election in a row, the development at Bala Falls was a defining issue, with candidates divided in their positions. Don Furniss defeated former Mayor Alice Murphy on a platform of fiscal probity. He made it clear during the election campaign that he had no intention of fighting the province or the plant developer, Swift River Energy Limited (SREL) any longer. He holds a majority of one vote in a 9 member council, which he is using to play hardball with opponents. The councillors elected to represent Bala are strongly opposed to the development, but are outvoted by councillors from other wards.

Council has struck a working committee to work with SREL on the design of the hydro plant that excludes representatives of Wahta First Nation, Save the Bala Falls and Moon River Property Owners Association, but includes two reps from SREL.

Under Mayor Murphy, Council launched several legal appeals to gain protection for the historic portage route that starts on municipal property, and crosses the adjacent provincially owned lands. Appeals of actions by the Ministry of Natural Resources in shutting off public access to a community park and the portage failed, as well as the appeal of that Court decision. The issue of the right to portage in Canada has received national press attention, and with a different election result might have reached the Supreme Court of Canada.

An appeal to Transport Canada by Save the Bala Falls also disappointed. The only win was at the Conservation Review Board who agreed to the precedent setting designation of the Portage Landing as a cultural heritage landscape. (I acted for the municipality as expert witness in that case.)

Each of these appeals has resulted in delays but opponents are running out of avenues. Fighting with the multiple provincial ministries involved is like dealing with a pillow. Somehow in spite of ten years of concerted effort, the province remains deaf to the ongoing and very loud expression of local public opinion.

Peggy, the Muskoka Lorax, has occupied the site since last summer.

Letters to the Premier from the Wahta First Nation, objecting to the failure to consult with them were referred to the Minister of Environment instead of the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs. The Honourable Glen Murray responded that his staff said that consultation had taken place, as if Chief Franks was delusional to suggest otherwise. One wonders how hard would it be for any of the Ministers involved to just pick up the phone and speak directly to Chief Franks. This situation definitely needs a “conversation”.

The Green Energy Act suspends all municipal planning in cases involving green energy, with cultural heritage as one of the few items that must be considered as part of the Environmental Assessment. Because the designation of the Portage Landing occurred after the EA was finished it has had little impact.

Since then, the Township has conducted a study and plan for a larger cultural heritage landscape designation for the public areas in central Bala. Council passed a designation bylaw shortly before the end of the last term. SREL as well as several other local property owners have appealed the HCD Plan to the Ontario Municipal Board. It is not clear whether the municipality intends to defend the HCD, but the delay in re-instating the Municipal Heritage Committee does not bode well.

However, Save the Bala Falls and Wahta First Nation are not rolling over yet. Much hope is placed on the soon to be released documentary film, Fight for Bala by Rob Stewart, who directed the internationally lauded Sharkwater. Here’s the trailer.

To keep abreast of what you can do to help, go to Save the Bala Falls.

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