The long history of the Pickering Lands

A sign reading
Photograph by Kirsten Jerry

A sign in a field protesting the building of an airport on the Pickering Lands.

lwwsgreenversion“We’ve lived here on the federal lands since 1980,” said Mary Delaney, describing how she came to be involved with advocacy group Land over Landings (LOL), which she chairs, “so I raised my family here and we turned what was a rundown farmhouse into a lovely home.”

Delany is one of many people living on what is commonly known as the airport lands, or simply The Lands.

Feeling the need to build an airport to relieve congestion in Toronto, the government did a survey of the Pickering area lands over a seventy-two-hour period in Jan. 1972, according to The Paper Juggernaut: Big Government Gone Mad by Walter Stewart.

On Feb. 1, the Cabinet Committee of Government Operations accepted the proposal to build in Pickering. By Feb. 7, the whole Cabinet accepted.

The Lands were expropriated by the government on March 2, 1972 for the airport. On the same day, a protest group, People Or Planes (POP), was created.

A note made by POP secretary Pat McClennan on page 37 of The Paper Juggernaut recounts the effects of the expropriation on people living on the lands: “… Another time a woman called and said, ‘Well, they’ve won; my husband had a heart attack today.’ ”

 Photograph by Kirsten Jerry A house on The Lands which was closed by Transport Canada.

Photograph by Kirsten Jerry

A house on The Lands which was closed by Transport Canada.


According to the book The Village of Brougham: Past! Present! Future? by Robert A. Miller, the people of Brougham, a community in the northern part of Pickering, reacted by holding a protest meeting, which turned into POP.

The Lands are located in the “ideal” position for a new Toronto airport, according to page 203 of The Paper Juggernaut, which is why they were chosen but not everyone wants an airport built.

Those against the airport are fighting for food production, soil and conservation of The Lands.

Mary Delany, Chair of Land Over Landings, talking about some of her experiences.

All of the goods produced in the Lands before expropriation include 4 million gallons of milk, 200,000 eggs, more than 1 million pounds of beef, 375,000 pounds of pork, 30,000 chickens, and 45,000 bushels of wheat, according to page 9 of The Paper Juggernaut.

The Lands are also full of class one soil. Class one soil, when managed well, has almost no limitations for the number of crops that can be grown in it. The soil holds in moisture well, and can be used to grow many types of crops.

For these reasons, Land over Landings fights to protect The Lands.

“We changed the name of the advocacy group from People or Planes, which was very much a protest group, to Land Over Landings, which is all about advocating for something,” Delaney said.

LOL has 12 people in unpaid executive positions, some of which are held by original members of POP, and its many supporters include up to 14,000 supporters on its mailing list and 2.6 thousand likes and followers on Facebook.

In an interview at her home, Delaney said Brougham Recreation society, Voters Organized to Cancel the Airport Lands (VOCAL), and what was left of People Or Planes gathered in 2005.

“We realized we needed to work together… so we got together.”

Land Over Landings got a sizable push in membership in 2013 after the creation of the Rouge National Urban Park was announced by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and the Harper government. The government had every intention to actually build the Pickering airport.

Over half of the original Lands are now part of the Rouge National Urban Park, which covers roughly 79.1 square kilometers.

“That’s when our new executive was formed and that’s when we realized we needed to be a much more official body,” according to Delaney, who went on to say the city council often seems to fight against them.

“The leading economic driver is agriculture in Ontario and yet they (city council) keep advocating for an airport that in almost half a century has never been proven to be needed. If it were needed, it would be here.”

Mary Delany, Chair of Land Over Landings, explaining the value of The Lands.

Since expropriation, Transport Canada became the landlord of the airport lands. This does not include the sections of land now in the Urban Park.

Media Relations Advisor, Julie Leroux, for Transport Canada, wrote in an email correspondences, “The Government of Canada is taking a balanced approach to the management of the Pickering Lands, ensuring environmental, community and economic demands are being met.”

Lands were handed over by Transport Canada to the Rouge National Urban Park twice. Once in 2015, then in 2017.

Parks Canada is the landlord of all of Rouge Urban National Park.

Parks Canada works closely with 10 Indigenous peoples, including the Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nations. The land has a diverse Indigenous history.

Parks Canada’s Communications and Public Relations Officer, Jeffrey Sinibaldi, wrote in an email, “This partnership was formalized in 2012 with the creation of the Rouge National Urban Park First Nations Advisory Circle, which is comprised of representatives from these 10 First Nations with an expressed interest, and historic and cultural connection to the area of the national urban park.”

The email continues to list Markham, Pickering, Toronto, and Uxbridge as housing Park land, and says “these lands will be protected forever.”

Julie Leroux is Transport Canada’s Media Relations Advisor. Transport Canada is still looking into the possibility of building the airport.

Photograph by Kirsten Jerry

An empty lot on Old Brougham Road beside a residence.


In a recent email, Leroux wrote, “A study based on 2010 data predicted that an airport would be needed between 2027 and 2037. That data needs to be updated.”

To update the information, Leroux says, “Transport Canada has initiated an aviation sector analysis to obtain updated data on aviation demand and capacity.”

The analysis would look into information on the future needs of Southern Ontario’s air traffic, including passengers, and cargo, which type of airport would be best for the area,how the airport would affect the environment and how it would make money.

This analysis is expected to be completed sometime next year.

Transport Canada currently holds 8,700 acres, while about 10,000 acres are in the Rouge National Urban Park.

While some of The Lands have been moved into the Park, the rest are still being debated over. Some say an airport is the better choice, while others, like LOL, say the lands should be left for farming use.

“Really,” Delaney said about LOL, “what we’re advocating for is the protection of the land itself, because these are class one soils, the best in the world, next to the largest market in Canada, and now the Rouge National Urban Park.”

On the other hand, Leroux wrote, “The Government of Canada will continue to engage directly with business, community and government stakeholders on the Pickering Lands as work progresses to determine the need and business case for the development of the Pickering Lands.”

The 46-year-old story of The Pickering Lands is not over. The debate between farming and development continues to this day.