Fine Words Butter No Parsnips
How ADM has become a major stumbling block to environmental conservation
By Richard Swift
November 23, 2022
Montrealers are faced with a struggle to save our last wild wetlands from environmental vandalism. To succeed in this endeavour, they have run up against the rather arcane arrangement governing airport development in our city, with the main airport authority becoming a major stumbling block to environmental conservation. As always, the devil is in the details.
The Aéroports de Montréal (ADM) stresses, in its own documents, that in the 1990s, the government of Canada “opted for a unique model in which it retains ownership of the airport property.” ¹ Here it is clearly stated that the “ADM has a long-term lease with Transport Canada that sets out its obligations,” the “Government of Canada plays an active role as owner-lessor,” and under “the monitoring program of airport leases, Transport Canada closely regulates ADM and continuously reviews its activities.” The geographical centre of regulatory attention is, of course, Montréal’s Trudeau International Airport, itself in the municipality of Dorval and the borough of Ville Saint-Laurent.
The very terms of the ADM’s existence make it crystal clear that “any changes to land use have to obtain prior approval from Transport Canada.” So, the Government of Canada both owns this not-for-profit corporation and leases to it the land upon which it operates. “ADM is required to pay rent to Transport Canada, which is a percentage of the Corporation’s gross revenues. Every year, ADM also has to invest to keep its facilities in good order and develop them based on the needs of customers, passengers and airlines, as well as the Montréal community.”
This clear framework of the airport’s “unique model” is important because it has led to a great feeling of public discontent. In 2021 and again in 2022, ordinary Montrealers, environmentalists, and journalists all indicated that they thought that the ADM egregiously failed the urban community and its needs.
Public anger made itself felt in over 100 submissions to a “consultation” run behind closed doors by ADM itself on behalf of the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada.
First, in 2021, ADM put its weight behind the installation of a medical, industrial plant, to be carried out by a local company Medicom, right on top of Monarch butterfly fields in part of the area that ADM rented from Transport Canada north of the airport. Montreal is a “Monarch Gold” city, pledged to the protection of the butterfly, so experts and citizens alike were outraged that 21 million dollars of a federal grant to Medicom would in effect subsidize environmental devastation. Public anger made itself felt in over 100 submissions to a “consultation” run behind closed doors by ADM itself on behalf of the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada.
Both ADM and the company were surprised that the public was so disturbed by what many took to be ecological destruction. And Medicom, which seeks to maintain a pro-environment image, withdrew its project application. This private company made the right environmental decision, not government officials.
Then, a year later, in 2022, ADM razed the very same Monarch butterfly fields where those migratory creatures reproduce and eat their replenishing milkweed. Again, ADM’s action produced immediate media attention and new public outrage.
At the very same time the butterfly drama unfolded, two environmental groups – Technoparc Oiseaux and Green Coalition – were pressing the federal government to save Montreal’s last great wetland known simply as “Technoparc.” This 215-hectare ecosystem of marshes, forests, and fields is the undeveloped section of the area that the federal government rents to the ADM. The Monarch butterfly fields are an integral part of this irreplaceable ecosystem. The menace to them is part of the threat and damage to a whole wetland ecosystem of which they are a part.
Back in 2015, a well-known local birder Joël Coutu founded Technoparc Oiseaux and brought public attention to the magnificent 215-hectare ecosystem north of the airport. Coutu, using his famous citizen tours of the area, showed that more than 200 birds use the ecosystem. The birds, in their own efforts to cope with urban sprawl and the crushing loss of biodiversity, have found the Technoparc system and gloried in it.
‘The ADM remains locked in a 1960s vision of airport development, heavily industrial, and utterly oblivious to the overwhelming impact of climate change.’
The Government of Canada was repeatedly urged to use its right of ownership of more than 70% of the invaluable ecosystem. Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault visited the marshes, saying he wanted to conserve the Technoparc, and even talking publicly before a parliamentary committee about a “project” for the area that all the parties could agree upon. But to date, no such project has emerged.
Clearly – the ADM does not want to give up its development plans for this very area, even though the airport authority is subordinate to the federal government, leases the land, and must attend to community needs and the environment.
The ADM remains locked in a 1960s vision of airport development, heavily industrialized, and utterly oblivious to the overwhelming impact of climate change.
A modern airport in 2022, and beyond, must work with the environment and seek to enhance biodiversity. It should not destroy it. In a time when a lucrative business opportunity and the fate of species (ours and many others) are so often on different sides of the ledger, only the most tone-deaf of investors are happy to proceed with business as usual.
The crew running the Montreal Airport may seem a pretty small change when compared to the carbon capitalists in the petroleum sector that is booking record profit increases while cashing in on the energy dislocations of the Ukraine war. Politicians, who used to be wary, are jumping all over new gas and oil projects like the offshore Newfoundland Bay du Nord so enthusiastically embraced by our political class at all levels.
Exxon Mobil made $18bn in profits in the second quarter of 2022. Shell and Chevron each made nearly $12bn. Those are all record numbers.² They also spell out impending species peril and climate collapse in the near term. To ice the cake, pro-carbon lobbyists were the second largest delegation attending the climate crisis talks in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, with over 630 delegates dwarfing attendance from African countries and indigenous communities.
‘So far, the Aéroport keeps its environmental commitments vague and seems determined to hold onto the control of green spaces, that it does not own and only leases in order to maintain their right to assign them to profitable corporate development projects.’
In comparison, the imperilled green spaces held under the control of the ADM and the investment opportunities they provide may seem like pretty small changes. But this is a classic struggle of sustainability versus profitability. It is not hyperbole to point out that fights against growth and profit-driven development piloted by corporate worthies and their allies in government and academia are being fought in every corner of our precious and imperilled globe.
In the case of the ADM fine words in favour of transparency, sustainability and corporate responsibility pepper their website and press releases but as the old saying dating back to the 1600s Scotland has it ‘fine words butter no parsnips’. So far, the Aéroport keeps its environmental commitments vague and seems determined to hold onto the control of green spaces, that it does not own and only leases in order to maintain the right to assign them to profitable corporate development projects.
Too often, those who make anti-environmental decisions often remain in the shadows behind the legal fiction of corporate personhood and consumer-friendly language and logos. So it is with the ADM. But a look at their website reveals at least some of those who may be involved. The management committee reveals two figures who seem likely to help shape investment decisions: Philippe Rainville, the President and CEO of the ADM, and VP Sylvain Choinière, whose files include legal matters and real estate affairs.
Of course, it is impossible to know if there are disagreements on the management committee or the wider board at large over what to do with the 155 acres of green space, which the airport maintains as potential sites for commercial development. After all, ‘transparency’ only spreads so far. But it would be good to get a sense that those in charge of piloting the ADM have thought more deeply than the usual 50s and 60s paradigm of profit-based growth no matter what the consequences.
It is not a given that the ADM needs to be an entrepreneurial entity fashioned on the ‘public/private’ model so popular in corporate governance circles these days. These have too often ended up in situations of private profit and public risk. Our transport system is supposed to be a public entity funded by public budgets for the benefit of all. If there were no public subsidies to municipal bus and subway systems, user prices would soar, and they would quickly fall into disuse.
So if the ADM needs a boost to meet its operating budget, why not make this all a regular part of provincial and federal spending subject to public debate and evaluation? Better this than making airports like the ADM play the role of real estate brokers selling off precious green spaces for urban sprawl.
‘… if the ADM needs a boost to meet its operating budget, why not make this all a regular part of provincial and federal spending subject to public debate and evaluation? ‘
Further, there is also a special responsibility for the ADM and other airports in this era of climate degradation. According to the David Suzuki Foundation: “While many sectors are beginning to reduce their emissions, aviation’s has continued to grow. Carbon emissions from the airline industry grew by 75 percent from 1990 to 2012. It’s expected they will continue to grow rapidly until 2050. If left unchecked, they could consume a full quarter of the available carbon budget for limiting temperature rise to 1.5 C.” ³
If we take climate degradation seriously we need to degrow air travel and the complex of airports and other infrastructure that underpins it. One wonders if given this imperative whether Monsieurs Rainville and Choinière are the most qualified to oversee the necessary shrinking of the ADM and whatever internal greening is possible if they cannot even give up their development ambitions for existing green spaces under the ADM trusteeship.
Reducing our addictions to air travel will mean either increasing charges for airport use to airlines that will undoubtedly try and pass these on to passengers (many of whom will no longer be able to afford tickets) or a system of rationing flying based on need and frequency.
This, of course, goes way beyond the scope of any individual airport but an ecological sensitivity at all levels, including that of the ADM, is necessary if we are going to start understanding how to degrow air travel to what are really sustainable levels. The ADM could give us evidence of this ecological sensitivity by turning over every square foot of the green spaces under their trusteeship to be safeguarded as ecological preserves in perpetuity.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WestmountMag.ca or its publishers.
Feature image: Technoparc Wetlands, by Ilana Block
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Richard Swift is an author and writer for the New Internationalist magazine of Oxford, in the United Kingdom.
This article by Richard Swift is excellent. He draws attention to central facts — that the ADM is only a lessee of the Technoparc lands, that it has an absolute obligation to serve the Montreal community — an obligation it has failed to fulfill. Swift also describes the larger crisis of air travel in a world that is and will be drowning in its own, self- created climate change. Chapeau Westmount Mag for publishing this piece!!!
This is truly a sad story! It seems to me that the Feds could settle this right now. It is such an easy ask that has been debated for years. Interesting that little Singapore, an international business hub with limited space, has just managed to create a new Nature Park (one of many) that covers an area the size of 92 football fields! It is the home to varied flora and fauna – much of which is endangered.
How can Singapore manage to do the right thing in timely fashion while Canada continues to dither! Even more disappointing is that Stephen Guilbeaut, a committed environmentalist, is the Minister in charge of this file! Who is he taking his marching orders from?