The Conversation: Ed Smith talks NPCA

Ed Smith. VOICE PHOTO

The environmental activist discusses conservation and his ongoing legal troubles with the Niagara Pensinsula Conservation Authority

BY NATE SMELLE
The VOICE

Ed Smith was born and raised in St Catharines.  He retired from the Canadian Forces in 2011 at the rank of Major, and came back home to live after a 25-year absence.  

Smith serves as a volunteer board member on an international non-governmental organization, International Children’s Awareness, where he focuses on issues in Africa.  He is a recipient of the Order of Military Merit and has an honorary PhD from Nipissing University.

Smith says that he became involved in environmental causes when the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority announced a plan to, “destroy ancient wetlands and experiment with an attempt to re-build those wetlands elsewhere in order to allow multi-billion dollar developments.” Since his retirement, Smith, 55, has made his home on the family homestead in Port Dalhousie, where I sat down recently to speak him about his ongoing dealings with the NPCA.

In 2016 the NPCA and its former CAO, Carmen D’Angelo sued Smith for defamation after Smith made public a report critical of NPCA practices. This spring, Smith countersued the NPCA and its former Chair Bruce Timms. Neither action has yet reached court. In response to comments made recently by Sandy Annunziata, current Chair of the NPCA, Smith wanted to discuss his thoughts on the Conservation Authority and the issues surrounding it.

SMELLE: In a recent edition edition of the Voice, NPCA chair Sandy Annunziata confirmed that the “C” in NPCA still stands for conservation, however he said the he was growing tired of people confusing conservation with environmental protection. What are your thoughts on his understanding of conservation versus environmental protection, and how the NPCA employs that understanding under his leadership?

SMITH: To me, Sandy’s comments are disappointing but not surprising. Since he took over at the Conservation Authority he has shown a strong bias towards development. Even in his opening remarks to the public where he mentioned that he had to consider industrial workers when in fact the conservation authority does not have to consider these things. The Conservation Authority is an advocate for what they’re mandated to protect – the environment. They may want to get into a nuanced discussion about for instance what one Regional councillor has said about the word “environment” being found nowhere in provincial policy. Well, whether that word shows up or not is not important, because it’s not only about what is exactly written in the provincial policy. As someone who has spent a lot of my career understanding grand policies and documents, it’s just as important to understand the intent of a piece of legislation or a document. If you’re not able to grasp what the intent is then you don’t have any business being involved in the leadership of an organization. If you look back at why conservation authorities were founded in the 1940s in the first place, it was the people in Ontario who started noticing that as they clear cut the trees everywhere the water quality started to go down. It didn’t take very long for people to realize that in order to preserve the water that we all needed to survive, we also had to preserve the watershed that feeds that water system. So, we need to make sure that we manage the trees the plants the animals and everything if we are to have a healthy water system. To not understand the intent of why these organizations were founded, and to just say we looked through all the policy and the word “environment” didn’t show up once is shocking to me. Getting into splitting hairs as to whether conservation really means of the environment, or conservation of something else—that is splitting hairs in a way that we should not expect from our leadership.

Speaking with Erin Warman of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) at a recent demonstration outside the NPCA meeting at Ball’s Falls, it became clear to me how much the public’s impression of the Conservation Authority had changed. She shared more than a few fond memories of her experiences as a child participating in the NPCA’s environmental education programs. Judging from Annunziata’s comments, it appears that the NPCA is looking to move away from environmental initiatives.

I remember going there myself, every school went there and we probably got the same address from the leaders at the conservation authority at the time. That’s what so disappointing to anybody who is well-informed or even mildly informed you can see right through this. These guys are trying to change the very core of what it means to be a conservation authority to try and wrap it up in language about hydrology and say at the core were just about managing the hydrology and things like that is disingenuous.

Managing hydrology is an important part of protecting the environment but is also very important consideration for developers. Do you think the NPCA’s emphasis on hydrological issues limits their other conservation efforts?

I imagine it is an important aspect of environmental conservation and protection and it needs to be considered, but is not the sole reason conservation authorities exist. Obviously, it’s a water-centric thing – the intent that drove the creation of conservation authorities in the first place was the observation that our water quality was quite literally going down the toilet. We needed to ensure that we have clean water. How do we do that? By ensuring we have a healthy ecosystem and environment to support the water. I don’t know if this version of the NPCA leadership ever received that knowledge, but if they did they’ve been ignoring it in some cases.

Do you see a turning point in the recent past where the NPCA shifted its focus away from environmental conservation/protection?

I believe the NPCA’s strategic plan for 2014 to 2017 was what marked the turning point. Part of the strategic plan was to eliminate a great portion of the staff that was doing their jobs. Although I wasn’t here I read reports that there was a consultant brought in to develop the strategic plan who made a public proclamation about getting rid of the “sandpaper” at the NPCA – “sandpaper” being the workers who stood up to developers and told them they couldn’t go ahead with certain projects because the land was protected under provincial policy. Those people were identified as “sandpaper” getting in the way of development. You can’t ignore the fact that if your employer is firing or not hiring back that many people at the end of their contracts, that they are creating a culture of fear within the staff. The implicit message quickly becomes get along with us or get out the door.

I was at a couple of the meetings where Regional Councillor Bill Hodgson called for an independent third-party audit of the NPCA, and it didn’t seem to me that he held any malice towards the board or the organization. I remember him saying that he felt the public trust in the NPCA had been shaken, and that he thought more transparency would help restore that trust. It appeared to me that he was working with the best interests of the Conservation Authority in mind. Why do you think the Board rallied against him in the way they did?

This thing with Bill Hodgson tips things in a direction that is in my eyes hard to imagine, because what you have is the appearance of a kangaroo court. They have policy within their own organization and government regulations stating that they needed a two thirds majority to censure Bill Hodgson. Their vote was seven to four, yet they went ahead and censured him anyways when they did not achieve a vote of two thirds. In fact, they voted not to censure him because the seven to four vote appears to be a rejection of a censure. So now you have the appearance of the leader of the NPCA publicly humiliating one of the most highly regarded Regional Councillors in the Niagara Region. Right now it appears to me he was doing it unilaterally because the board did not vote for that censure. In my view, it’s the only way it can be interpreted and he cannot refer to votes that went on in camera because they are not allowed. The bottom line is that he is seemingly unaware of his own procedure, he seems to be unaware of what he was doing and he went too far. The NPCA owes every citizen in the Niagara Region an explanation as to how this procedure was carried out. If we have questions about the processes and contraventions, do we not have a right an explanation? What’s most disturbing to me was that the vote was seven to four. So, there were four board members who we may be able to say are a ray of hope at the NPCA. The four board members who voted not to censure Bill Hodgson are aware of the process that took place and they can shed some light on this without violating the in-camera discussion. They are aware that the vote was seven to four and they didn’t achieve two thirds. If those four were truly champions for some kind of gradual change at the NPCA, this was their opportunity to speak up, to bring forward transparency. Therefore, they should be speaking up very loudly. They voted on Hodgson’s side on this issue. Those four need to champion this and bring transparency to this, reassure us that they are comfortable with the procedures that were employed in this censure. Instead, they’ve gone silent and we are left to speculate.

Who are the four?

Three of the four are elected officials, and one was Dominic Di Fruscio. It was April Jeffs, Pat Darte and Frank Campion. So, the mayors of Welland, Niagara-on-the-Lake and Wainfleet who all voted against the censure of Bill Hodgson and have since gone silent. They need to be held accountable or they need to speak up. The see that citizens are deeply concerned about the process that took place and yet they don’t speak up. This is a serious issue that concerned citizens have a right have to have explained to them. We should not be expected to simply trust. We’re talking about a man’s professional reputation and we’re talking about our democratic processes.

Annunziata said in July that the cost of the lawyer’s investigation and report on Hodgson’s alleged wrongdoings amounted to $5,220. The report has yet to be made public, so we don’t really know the reasons for the censuring. Do you have any idea what they are claiming he did?

There are no reasons given at all. Let’s give Sandy Annunziata the benefit of the doubt and say there were things that Bill Hodgson did wrong. Well, if that’s the case the public has a right to know. He can say it’s a personal matter, but I disagree, it is not personal. The public should know if our elected officials have crossed ethical lines. Hodgson is an elected official, so if he was doing things that were disturbing democratic processes we have the right to know. It’s normal in a democracy for the public to be informed. They did their investigation and I understand that they wouldn’t release the information during that time, so they wouldn’t unnecessarily besmirch the individual, but the investigation is done and they are concluding that there was serious wrongdoing here. Not making the report public casts a shadow on Sandy Annunziata. You know what else I believe casts a shadow the whole process is the $5,220 spent on legal fees looking into Hodgson. That’s not an astronomical amount it seems to me – because now I’m aware of what lawyers charge for their time – it suggests to me this was not an in-depth investigation. Maybe it didn’t need to be, but we still have the right to know.

Leaving it open allows for all sorts of speculation in the public as to what Hodgson allegedly did.

So, the lawyer writes a report in a few days – because $5,000 is not a lot of a lawyer’s time – with a lot of subjective words in it like “could” and “potentially” and they seize on it and say that’s what happened. To say Hodgson “could” have done something wrong also implies that he “could not” have done anything wrong. That’s why we have a right to see this report. We don’t just have to trust Annunziata’s view on the report. Here’s what we know the people who saw that report voted seven-to-four and by their own procedural rules of censure that was not enough to censure Hodgson.

Hodgson allegedly resigned over allegations of bullying by his fellow members on the NPCA board. Do you feel that they’re trying to bully you into submission to get you to shut up by slapping you with this lawsuit?

I regard this lawsuit as little more than an attempt to suppress my rights as a Canadian to free speech and to criticize my government as I see fit. My government include senior public officials. The CAO of the NPCA is a senior government official and therefore it is within my realm of rights to hold him up to that level of scrutiny. The NPCA is suing me for defamation because I wrote the report, A Call for Accountability at the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority, and there are parts of it that they disagree with. They feel that even though they are government agency they are within their boundaries to sue me. So, I’m being sued by the NPCA as an organization and I’m being sued by Carmen D’Angelo who is the former CAO of the NPCA and is now the CAO of the Niagara Region. If they feel that citizens in Canada can be sued for questioning their governance and for demanding accountability integrity and transparency from the government then let them sue me and we’ll find out what the courts think.

As someone who served in the military on behalf of this country, how does it feel to be sued by a government agency for asking questions and raising concerns about our environmental and democratic rights as Canadians?

It’s totally offensive. I may have been naïve for 25 years while I served because in that time I never would have thought that any citizen in Canada could be sued by the government for speaking out about any government issue, and this is a government issue. These are elected officials who are mismanaging our Conservation Authority and they are finding ways to circumvent or subvert provincial policy. I served with people in the military who died in the military and I know that they didn’t die thinking that was the reason they were dying. They died for what I would interpret as the right reasons – believing that we came from a great democracy. You go in with all these preconceived notions of defending your great nation. You go in with these notions of what you think your country is and you say yes, I’m willing to be a part of that military system. Then you come back and see something like this happening and you say to yourself what’s going on? When they first sued me it terrified my wife, because she was worried we could lose our house. We are talking about millions of dollars that I’m being sued for. I said to her you don’t back down from something like this. People lost their lives giving us the freedoms we have. Do you go to their graves and say thank you for fighting that fight, but now when there is a fight for democracy right here in Niagara you’ve got to walk away from it because you could lose your house? You just don’t do that. That would be the greatest dishonour you could do to the hundreds of thousands of people who have died serving Canada over generations to make this country what it is.

You mentioned to me before that you first started to pay close attention to the management at the NPCA because of their push to use the Provincially Significant Wetland in Niagara Falls, known as Thundering Waters, as a pilot project for biodiversity offsetting. During the NPCA’s public meetings over the past year I remember hearing them state repeatedly that their support of biodiversity offsetting had nothing to do with Thundering Waters, however I understand now that some of the documents you received through your FOI request prove otherwise. How so?

It makes it crystal clear, actually, because the date on this document is Dec. 3, 2016, and the meeting in January was about seven weeks after that. Biodiversity offsetting is detailed in this document created by Carmen D’Angelo and the focus is to be Thundering Waters in Niagara Falls. It shows they are pushing biodiversity offsetting for a very specific reason, and yet to the public they were saying the only reason they were talking about biodiversity offsetting was in response to the Province’s call for inputs from the various regions. They said they were not pushing any particular projects and it was not related to Thundering Waters. Now we know that this was definitely not the case, he was standing in front of the public and deliberately telling us things they knew were false. Where is the accountability for something like that? This was the CAO of the NPCA now the CAO of the region and he needs to explain.

We have been told a very specific message from Bruce Timms and Carmen D’Angelo. They were trying to reassure us – the public – that with biodiversity offsetting they hadn’t any projects in mind, no idea where they were going to implement this and all they were trying to do was get ahead of something they saw coming down the pipe from the province. The Province had reached out and was seeking input on the concept of biodiversity offsetting. That was a very clear message from Timms and D’Angelo at their public presentations, and yet now through the FOI documents we find out that that was not true. They in fact had created a proposal for the lobbyist to work on getting biodiversity offsetting so it could be implemented at Thundering Waters. So, what we know is that our senior elected official at the NPCA and our senior government employee at the NPCA – the CAO and the chairman of the board – went on a circuit around the Region. They went to Regional Council they went to Niagara Falls Council and held public meetings, and in all cases they were being misleading.

Considering Thundering Waters is designated as a Provincially Significant Wetland, what are some of the impacts and implications of allowing a biodiversity offsetting pilot project in such an ecologically sensitive ecosystem that is supposed to be protected?

I would remove the words “pilot project” and replace them with the word “experiment.” That’s really what it is. It is an experiment without any reasonable outcome that is foreseeable. Thundering Waters is one of the last great Carolinian slough forests left and they want to experiment with it for the sake of development. Thundering Waters provides us with so many essential ecological services. Let’s divorce ourselves from saying we love trees, love frogs or whatever and let’s ask what does that forest do for us right here in Niagara Falls and the Niagara Region. I’m not talking about what it does for us globally. In Niagara, it cleans our water, it controls flooding and it cleans our air. If you cut down or kill off something of that size the impact will be measurable. We’re not talking about half-acre here we are talking about 484 acres.

That’s a pretty substantial chunk of green space in an area where there isn’t that much left.

There are developments in Niagara Falls where they can’t keep water out of people’s basements because all of nature’s water control mechanisms have been removed. When the rain comes it has to go somewhere, so if it ends up in someone’s basement….

Apparently the developer has a plan to pipe water in the Thundering Waters from the Welland River to make sure it doesn’t dry up because of the proposed development. What you think of this idea?

What they don’t seem to realize is that it’s a vernal temporal pool, so it doesn’t have ground source water feeding it. It gets all its water from the environment – from snow and rainfall only. There are no rivers or anything flowing into it, so it has a different quality of water than what is in the Welland River. Since it is falling directly from the sky, it’s relatively clean. Also, these pools in Thundering Waters – though they may not dry out this year because we are having such a rainy summer – in a typical year if you go in there in August or September are dry. That is part of the lifecycle of this place. So, there are species that can live in that water when it is there for eight or nine months of the year and the only reason they can survive in that water is because it dries up. Because they dry out, no fish can live in these pools so creatures who can’t live in the presence of fish can live in these waters. When the pools dry up these creatures have their coping mechanisms such as burrowing into the mud where they wait for the rains to return. That’s the lifecycle of these pools if they start piping in water from the Welland River so they don’t dry up, they are going to disturb the whole ecology. That’s not the way this place was designed by nature to work.

Every time there is a push for a potentially ecologically destructive development, the proponents of such projects always try and sell us on how many jobs they’re going to create and the economic benefits it will bring to the area. Is this development going to create an economic boom for Niagara Falls and the Niagara region?

They’re talking about creating homes for 10,000 people, including whole subdivisions, so sure that means there will be gas stations, Tim Hortons, Burger King, whatever it is that fills in the market demand of that many people. That will create jobs but it seems to me that they will almost all be jobs at the lower end of the scale. These are minimum-wage jobs, they’re not careers. They are not the types of jobs that will keep your kids from moving away from Niagara to find work in British Colombia, Alberta or somewhere else. There will be some high paying jobs in the short-term with construction. Of course, they’re going to need engineers, bulldozer drivers and things like that, but in three to five years these high paying jobs are going to be gone. So, for a three to five-year bump in high paying jobs, they are willing to sacrifice the ecosystem services that Thundering Waters will provide us with forever. It’s not even a measurable trade-off.

Do you think these are the types of jobs the Region wants for Niagara? They don’t seem to be pushing to create many career opportunities these days.

They set their bar low. The chair of the Niagara Region, Alan Caslin, is a big proponent of this Thundering Waters project. He has come out publicly and written letters in support of it. They appear willing to sacrifice our green heritage, which should be protected and preserved in perpetuity. They’ve demonstrated time and time again that they are willing to do that. If we went through a proper public consultation and the people of Niagara said listen, Premier, please lift these restrictions and let us develop this provincially significant wetland we need jobs. If that was the clear message from the people of Niagara, if the process was open, transparent and true I may not agree with the outcome but I wouldn’t fight it either. If the people had spoken what could I do to stop. That’s not what is being done here though. What is being followed here is a series of unilateral decisions by people who hold key positions like mayor, regional counselor, or regional chair.

Where would you say the citizens of the Niagara Region stand on the proposed development in Thundering Waters and the issues with the NPCA board?

My sense from being involved is that the people of Niagara do not support the development. So far, the public process has been ignored. They started with the public process in Niagara Falls but got nothing but resistance and subsequently stopped it before it was done. At the last public meeting in Niagara Falls, so many people showed up that they decided they couldn’t handle the crowd. They promised us that they would continue with the public consultations, and told us that they needed about a month to find a bigger venue so they could fit everybody in. Well, we haven’t heard from them since then and that was about a year ago. It appears as though they saw where this was going and that they were not going to get the public’s support so they stopped it. Every time they held a meeting the numbers grew and everybody is there to speak in opposition to biodiversity offsetting and what’s going on at the NPCA.

We started with 40 people that first night December 2016 at the NPCA headquarters. The next NPCA meeting at Ball’s Falls we had more than 250 people come out. Those weren’t even official public consultations. When the official consultations started in Niagara Falls the numbers grew to hundreds of people – so many in fact we overfilled the building and they couldn’t even get all of us in the door. They are seeing that the trends in public opposition to these issues are growing and they know if they don’t cut it off they are going to be facing thousands of angry citizens, so the public consultations were stopped. What hasn’t stopped though are the behind-the-scenes maneuvering to get this project the go-aheads it needs to proceed.

Now that you have had a taste of regional politics in Niagara on a few different levels, do you have confidence that this crew of captains has what it takes to keep the ship moving forward?

I believe that the glaring issues confronting us in the Niagara Region can be directly attributed to weak leadership. There are integrity issues within many of our elected representatives and political appointees and the only way to effectively deal with it is for the people to vote them out of office. The citizens of Niagara should demand transparent, ethical and accountable officials. The next election is October 2018.

NPCA staff, citing the constraints of the lawsuit against Smith, would not comment on the record. An NPCA board member familiar with the legal action, speaking off the record, said, “Ed Smith isn’t being sued because of the questions he asked, he is being sued because of the fraudulent statements and defamatory accusations he made in his ‘Call for Accountability’ document. It was only when he refused to correct the record that the NPCA chose to sue. Also, just so we are clear, there are three parties suing Ed Smith for false and defamatory statements—Carmen D’Angelo because of an allegedly forged web page, Bill Montgomery, because of the accusations regarding the work he has been doing for the Foundation, and the NPCA because of the damage to the reputation that Smith’s statements could do to its charitable foundation.”

The Voice also sought comment from NPCA board members Baty and Barrick, former CAO D’Angelo, current Chair Annunziata, and former board member Hodgson. Hodgson declined to speak on the advice of his attorney. Neither Barrick, D’Angelo, nor Annunziata responded at all. Only Brian Baty offered comment, as follows:

“As you know there are three litigations underway with respect to Mr. Smith and I am unable to comment on those issues while the matter is before the courts. Theorizing motivation for other people’s actions seems to be prevalent in Mr. Smith’s commentary. Whether his theories are accurate or not is irrelevant. The focus should be on “what” they say, not on the conjecture of “why” they say what they do. I wrote an earlier column for the Voice indicating my role in the hiring of senior staff at the NPCA by recommending the use of  an external Human Resources consultant to interview and assess candidates before offering a position. This advice was not taken up in the hiring of Directors. In my opinion, those hires are past history as it relates to who they are and what their credentials were at the time. The judgment should be made on their performance in the role. To that end, we have instituted a comprehensive Human Resources policy for the organization, replacing a patchwork of disconnected protocols. We have instituted modern business practices. We have attained financial stability in all our revenue-generating facilities for the first time in 2016. We have prepared a budget for 2017 that, for the first time, no longer relies on reserve funds for sustainability. We have deployed resources and used pre-consultation processes to reduce permit development times from 30 days to 17 days. We have transformed our relationship with stakeholders from an aggressive, confrontative model to a customer service model. Our first-ever strategic plan is nearing completion of 100% of the objectives met by the end of this year. We have already met or exceeded new directions proposed by the government during the current review of the Conservation Authorities Act.  And yes, it has not been without turmoil within and outside the organization, but we embrace a pending comprehensive review/audit to dispel allegations and insinuations of wrongdoing by Mr. Smith and others.”

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