MP Sean Fraser’s Commentary on Owls Head

January 26, 2020

I want to take a moment to provide some commentary on the ongoing controversy surrounding the proposed development of a major golf course and resort at Owl’s Head on the Eastern Shore.

During each of the last two federal election campaigns, I made a commitment to pursue economic growth for our region so more young people and families can stay at home. I also committed to help advance protections for our environment with an ambition our country has never seen.

With respect to this project, my view is that we should seek to determine whether this project can proceed in an environmentally responsible way (based on science, facts, and evidence), as we pursue an aggressive conservation agenda in our region and across Canada.

The federal component of this project involves a relatively small parcel of land (about 38 acres). The Canadian Coast Guard, under the umbrella of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, was responsible for this smaller parcel of federal crown land that forms part of the proposed development, because it includes the area surrounding the lighthouse at Owl’s Head.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has declared most of this property surplus to its operational needs (more or less with the exception of the lighthouse itself) and wants to divest itself of ownership of this property. In fact, I understand that DFO is in the process of divesting itself of up to 176 different properties that it may not need.

Until recently, the federal government had been negotiating the sale of the land to the Province, with the understanding that no other federal departments were interested in the land. However, pursuant to an agreement between DFO and Environment and Climate Change Canada, the Canadian Wildlife Service is considering the various properties that DFO is seeking to divest itself of, in order to determine whether there is interest in including those properties in some of its ongoing projects to establish more protected areas to help achieve the new ambitious conservation goal of protecting 30% of Canadian nature. I’ve been personally involved in a number of these initiatives and fully support them as an essential step to preserve our biodiversity and to help in the fight against climate change.

Fairly recently, and with some coincidental timing, just prior to the anticipated completion of the sale of the federal land at Owl’s Head to the provincial government, the Canadian Wildlife Services has expressed interest in the federally-owned property for potential inclusion in an important coastal conservation project (again, one that I have personally been working on for some time). In response to this expression of interest by the Canadian Wildlife Service, our government has rescinded its offer of the land to the Province.

From what information I currently have available, it appears there is conservation value to some of the federal lands at issue due to the potential presence of piping plovers (which are endangered) and the potential use of the land by migratory birds. Some additional work may be required to determine the extent to which there is a physical presence of these various species on this particular parcel of land.

Other portions of the federal land at issue likely have less conservation value (in fact, a portion of the land is contaminated and was not included in the intended sale to the Province for that reason). I am seeking information at present to determine whether the proposed development is counter to the conservation interest that the Canadian Wildlife Service has flagged.

We should ask ourselves where we can take this conversation. I believe strongly that we get ahead as communities when we work with and talk to people who have different ideas than we ourselves hold about given projects or policies.

The tendency in recent years has been to jump down the throats of those we disagree with, rather than engage in constructive dialogue. In particular, I have been disappointed in some of the rhetoric targeting the developer based on the fact that he is from the United States. Discrimination against an individual based on their country of origin is unacceptable and runs counter to our reputation as a welcoming province and community. Moreover, this particular individual has maintained a residence on the Eastern Shore for 16 years and has made generous contributions to a local school and businesses without seeking public attention. If there are objections to the project, there is no problem with exploring them. However, I would ask that we avoid turning such objections into personal attacks against individuals who may hold different opinions.

Personally, I’m interested in seeing whether there is a way major opportunities like this can be pursued in an environmentally responsible way. Sometimes that is possible, other times it is not. If the answer truly is that we cannot achieve economic development in an environmentally responsible way, then we need to have the backbone to defend our environment, no matter the economic potential of a proposed project. But, we shouldn’t dismiss opportunities before we take time to consider them in a deliberate way.

We need to figure out whether this kind of progress can be achieved in a responsible way by discussing our ideas. Some of the questions I would like to have answered include whether:

⁃ the development is entirely exclusive to the conservation interest that is being pursued (such as the protection of piping plovers and migratory birds);
⁃ it is possible to identify which lands are most sensitive and protect those portions while allowing portions of lower ecological value to be included in a development;
⁃ it is possible to establish permanent legal protections for additional (and equally sensitive) lands in the region that would further the conservation agenda that motivates the Canadian Wildlife Service’s interest in the area; and whether
⁃ this project could extend public access to an extraordinary local area that is currently closed off to residents.

The proponent has indicated to me that he has no interest in pursuing a project like this without support from the local community. Before any development begins or before it is dismissed outright, we should ensure that local residents have an opportunity to share their viewpoints.

If at the end of the day, there is not significant public support for the project or it becomes clear that the conservation value of this land is so high that the development would be irresponsible, then it should not proceed.

That said, we should not dismiss proposals with this kind of economic potential before we allow local residents to have that conversation. If we can identify a path forward that will enhance local environmental protections as part of an ambitious conservation agenda while we benefit from economic development opportunities that will help keep rural communities alive, I believe we have a responsibility to consider them in good faith.

To conclude a rather lengthy post, I am interested in your feedback on this project. If you support the development, I want to hear from you. If you oppose the development, I want to hear from you. If you are interested in the economic opportunity the project represents, but also have concerns about the potential environmental impact, I want to hear from you.

I will ask, however, that when you provide feedback, you do so in a way that is civil and respectful to those who may take a different point of view. That is how we can achieve progress as communities.

For my part, I am excited by the economic potential of projects of this magnitude, which I hear about routinely, but often fail to materialize. But we need to ensure that major developments have significant community support and that they can be done in an environmentally responsible way before they proceed. All of these discussions take place in a context where we must also pursue a broader conservation agenda that our region and planet desperately need.

I look forward to hearing from you, no matter your opinion.

Sincerely,

Sean