For almost half a century, one question has remained constant across Durham Region and the GTA – when, and if, Pickering will get an airport.
The proposed eastern-GTA airport has been a decades-long contentious issue, with fierce support both for and against the idea.
And while it may not be the first time, regional council has squarely placed the ball in the federal government’s court, asking for an official decision whether the project will or will not move ahead.
Fiaz Jadoon, Pickering’s manager of economic development and strategic projects, told The Oshawa Express it is time for the federal government to make a decision.
“The city itself is advocating for the airport decision to be made sooner rather than later to kickstart economic development opportunities – to attract jobs. There’s a lot of industry leaders who are reaching out to the city wanting to relocate their operations to Pickering, and we’re trying to send that message to the federal government,” says Jadoon.
Jadoon notes the Pickering city council, regional council, and Ajax town council have all thrown their support behind the development of the airport.
Pickering-Uxbridge MP Jennifer O’Connell told The Oshawa Express she doesn’t believe the federal government will support a construction of the Pickering Airport.
“The official position of the government and Transport Canada is that a Pickering Airport would not be considered without a strong business case, and so far that has not been done,” says O’Connell.
Discussions of a second international airport in Ontario dates back to the 1960s, when the federal government originally studied expanding Toronto Pearson International Airport, then called the Malton Airport.
In March 1972, then-federal minister of transport Don Jamieson announced the government’s intention to develop the Pickering Airport.
Over the next year, the federal government expropriated thousands of acres of land surrounding Pickering in preparation for airport construction.
At the same time, the province announced plans for a new satellite city called Cedarwood, which would be constructed to the south of the airport.
However, in 1975, Ontario backed out of its agreement to build roads and sewers to service the site – for all intents and purposes, halting the construction at the time.
Over the past four decades, numerous studies have been undertaken and different versions of the Pickering Airport have materialized, but has never seen the light of day.
The federal government expropriated 18,600 acres of farmland for the airport, and still holds most of those lands today.
Land Over Landings, a volunteer organization, has been fighting to protect those lands for more than a decade.
According to Pat Valentine, a member of Land Over Landings, the group’s reason for objecting to the airport is because the land is becoming more valuable as climate change escalates.
“It’s class one farmland, it has clean streams running through it… it is a place where food could be supplied to Canada’s largest city right on their borders, it’s a place where young farmers could learn how to farm and do something on the land,” says Valentine.
She also notes the organization has a “vision” where the federal government creates an agricultural preserve, and separates the land into lots where young farmers, or new residents to the country could come and have a market next-door where they could also learn.
“The idea is to have an agricultural resource centre that would look into climate change adaptation, to have an incubation centre so that these young farmers could try out new ideas and so on, and it would be right beside Rouge National Park which is such a perfect neighbour because the park itself is at least one-third agricultural,” she says.
The organization believes this solution would be for the good of the entire public, instead of an airport which Valentine says serves only a certain demographic.
“Everybody at every level, not just those who can afford to fly, would be able to take advantage of it,” she says.
However, the City of Pickering sees things differently, as Jadoon explains the city believes an airport will create job opportunities not only for Pickering, but for all of Durham.
It has been suggested with the introduction of the airport, Pickering would become an “aerotropolis,” a city with businesses and communities which grow based on the accessibility of the airport.
“The aerotropolis model is basically a model that looks at reviewing and understanding the economic development opportunities surrounding an airport up to 30 km,” explains Jadoon. “The beauty of the aerotropolis model is that it doesn’t just look at one or two particular types of industries, it looks at all types of jobs. Low paying jobs, good paying jobs, high quality jobs, and it fits the bill for all types of people that are looking for opportunities to work.”
He says many municipalities, including Durham and York regions and the City of Toronto, would benefit from the East Toronto Aerotropolis as it will create tens of thousands of jobs.
“The longer we delay, the more jobs we’re going to lose in the region,” says Jadoon.
Oshawa Executive Airport Manager Stephen Wilcox said is he “absolutely” in favour of an airport being built in Pickering.
“We know that there is capacity constraints with Pearson International Airport,” he says.
Wilcox points out that when looking at other major cities, across where a major airport works as a “global hub,” such as London or Los Angeles, there is a fairly significant number of other aviation facilities that circle the area.
“They all form part of the airport network,” he says. “In the Greater Golden Horseshoe, we have a bit of a deficit in that.”
Outside of that, Wilcox says the need for the airport is pushed by Durham Region, and the entire Golden Horseshoe, seeing rapid population growth.
“Within the context of the area from Bowmanville to Hamilton being one ‘mega-metropolis,’ it’s not only important and inevitable, but it’s critical,” he says.
Speaking on the potential economic impact of a new airport, Wilcox says Oshawa creates $80 to $100 million in GDP with 400 acres and facing a number of constraints.
“Imagine what Pickering could do,” he says.
The impact of a larger airport on Oshawa’s operations depends on the magnitude of the project, Wilcox adds.
“If Pickering opens up as an airport that can serve all the segments of aviation, I think you ask the question why would you have two regional airports. I think potentially Oshawa is an incubator,” he explains.
Regional Chair John Henry also voiced his support for the airport, noting it would serve as an economic engine.
“You can find with the changes in the economy in Durham Region, especially in the auto sector, there is probably no better time to create these jobs,” he says.
However, Henry notes the importance of farmlands as well, and he thinks with the shift in climate and changes in weather patterns, building an airport which involves vertical agriculture makes sense.
“If you look around the world, around airports, you will find that large vertical growing greenhouse operations exist,” he says. “We have large greenhouses in Durham Region right now that are vertical growing centres that employ over 300 people in one growing operation. This allows us to meet the needs of the residents, it allows us to create opportunities for economic development.”
The Southern Ontario Network of Airports, which Oshawa is a member of, has recognized the lands as an aviation asset – but Wilcox says at the end of the day, the decision is out of their hands, and that of the region.
“It’s really important to note whether Pickering moves forward or not, it is solely up to the federal government. We can all talk about it, and we are, but none of it’s up to us.”