With the provincial election now behind him, the hard work begins for Kitchener-Conestoga MPP Michael Harris.
In a riding so uniquely divided along urban and rural lines, the two groups can sometimes clash on the issues. One of the best examples is the ongoing debate over gravel pits in the area; as MPP, Harris is going to have to deal with both sides of the argument.
“It’s definitely (an issue) that is up there in terms of my priorities and we’ll be addressing it as soon as we can,” said Harris, who has recently been named as the critic of the environment under the Tim Hudak government, a post he hopes can help keep environmental issues such as this in the political spotlight.
Aggregate is needed to expand our roads and to ensure construction projects continue, but rural residents have voiced their concerns for the farmland in the region, which is home to much of that gravel.
There are currently 86 active gravel pits in the region with plans for eight more in the works – five of which are in Woolwich.
In the township, two citizens groups have had their voices heard in opposition to these pits, and they are the Conestoga-Winterbourne Residents Association (CWRA) and the BridgeKeepers of West Montrose.
The CWRA was specifically created with the task of fighting the Hunsberger pit, while the BridgeKeepers are concerned with the heritage landscape surrounding the iconic bridge that is about to celebrate its 130th birthday.
The Hunsberger pit was denied the necessary zone changes by Woolwich council back in August, meaning Hunder Developments – the company eager to remove up to 500,000 metric tonnes of aggregate per year and 4.3 million tonnes over the life of the pit – will likely head to the Ontario Municipal Board with hopes of overriding that decision.
Both groups are worried that if these proposed pits are allowed to proceed they will disrupt not only the heritage landscape and threaten the only remaining covered bridge in the province, but will put adverse pressure on the farmland and the water supply in the area as well.
Harris noted, however, it was important to not only speak with concerned resident groups, but to hear from all stakeholders on the issue – including aggregate producers, the township, and all residents of the riding regardless of how they voted on Oct. 6.
Both the CWRA and the BridgeKeepers have already been in contact with Harris, and hope that he will continue to fight against the pits as his predecessor, Liberal Leeanna Pendergast, had.
“He gave me a call and just wanted to catch up and ensure us that he is on the case, and that he certainly plans to represent the citizens of Woolwich and the whole riding,” said Tony Dowling, co-chair of the BridgeKeepers who spoke with Harris last week.
“I think he’s getting up to speed fairly quickly, but the aggregate act is a very complex act and it’s hard in the short-term to really get a grasp of what’s involved in it and what the other underlying issues are.”
Two weeks before the election, Pendergast announced that the Liberal government intended to review the Aggregate Resources Act and to “put pits in their place” by trying to strike a balance between the needs of the rural citizens with the demands of the aggregate industry, following through on a promise made two months earlier that the government would review the act.
Dowling hopes Harris will continue the fight for the residents of the township against the proposed pits, but said the provincial government needed to go beyond simply reviewing the act and make the protection of prime land a priority over pits.
“It’s not just reviewing the act but creating a plan for aggregate in Ontario and creating protection for farmland and communities,” he said.
The chair of the CWRA also hopes Harris will continue to stand up against pits as Pendergast had done in her four years as MPP. Keri Martin Vrbanac said she had some concerns when Harris defeated the Liberal incumbent on election night, but said that the very next day he called her to talk about the group’s concerns.
The two haven’t yet had the chance to connect, but she says it’s high on her list of priorities.
“I think one of the biggest things is that many people didn’t realize that Leeanna had been involved with us for four years. I think some people felt she just involved herself in an effort to win the election,” said Vrbanac. “She was extremely involved with us and I hope that we’ll find that same support in Michael.”
Harris said that as a member of the opposition in a minority government, he now has the tools to ensure that the Liberal Party not only follows through on the promise to review the Aggregate Act, but other promises as well.
“Along with the other commitments they made, like the Hwy. 7 extension, the additional GO Tranist, and of course the general priorities of Ontario citizens like jobs and the economy, we’ll make sure as an opposition that those commitments are followed through on.”
Here in Woolwich Township, there will certainly be more than a few eyes on Harris to make sure he follows through on his word.
“He’s vowed that was what he would do, so I’m going to hold him to it,” said Martin Vrbanac.