Poilievre vs. Toronto Island’s Gatekeepers

Having just contributed to a YouTube video about Billy Bishop Airport, I felt obligated to watch Pierre Poilievre’s about the same topic. Poilievre’s hook is that, while his plane from Billy Bishop is delayed, he does a walk-and-talk about the airport. Like Aaron Sorkin’s protagonists, Poilievre walks and talks briskly, accompanied by music that gets increasingly intense. His message, delivered in just under four minutes, sets out a value proposition, identifies the bad guys, and concludes with a promise.

Value Proposition

Poilievre’s value proposition is that the operators of Billy Bishop should be allowed to extend the runway 300 metres, which would permit jets to operate there. Porter Airlines would buy $2 billion in jets from Bombardier, creating jobs in Canada. There would be fewer cars driving from downtown Toronto to Pearson, and passengers lucky enough to be able to use Billy Bishop would have greater satisfaction than at Pearson, which Poilievre tells us is a “zoo” and “absolute mess.”

The Bad Guys

Poilievre calls the bad guys the “gatekeepers,” which he explains when his walk-and-talk is halted when he arrives at a locked gate in a wire fence. The gatekeepers include “wealthy waterfront condominium owners” and “millionaire mansion” owners on Ward’s Island. These gatekeepers are the same people who block First Nations from developing their resources, prevent immigrants from practicing their occupations, force Canada to import oil, and in other ways hold back our economy. The Trudeau Government sided with the gatekeepers when, shortly after it was first elected, it refused to allow Billy Bishop Airport to extend its runway. So the conflict is between the elitist gatekeepers and middle class travelers who would like to fly out of Billy Bishop to more destinations.

The Promise

Poilievre ends his video with a promise that, if elected, his Government will tell Ports Toronto and the City of Toronto that it will approve a proposal to self-finance a runway extension that will permit the use of jets at Billy Bishop.

My Critique

As one who has in previous posts advocated shuttering Billy Bishop, what do I make of this video? The first thing that strikes me is that the only values that count to Poilievre are those that can be measured by the yardstick of money (“the economy”). The case against introducing jets to Bishop is in part environmental, and he has no concern for the environment. Poilievre unwittingly concedes this point with a graphic that shows the runway being expanded, especially towards Ontario Place on the west. The unanswered questions are about the implications for noise, pollution, and safety of this expansion. Poilievre’s video doesn’t mention the runway end safety areas (RESAs) that will be required by 2027 and would extend the runways even further into the harbour.

Poilievre says that increasing flights at Billy Bishop will reduce car traffic to Pearson, but he doesn’t acknowledge the existence of the Union-Pearson Express, which, since it opened in 2015, has been carrying passengers from downtown Toronto to Pearson in a much more environmentally friendly way than driving. Indeed, Porter has admitted that the UP Express has cut into its business at Billy Bishop.

Poilievre’s argument that introducing jets at Billy Bishop will lead Porter Airlines to spend $2 billion on jets manufactured by Bombardier ignores the fact that Porter is now flying long haul flights from Pearson, and has already spent that money, but on Embraer jets manufactured in Brazil. So this purported benefit to the Canadian economy of expanding the runway at Billy Bishop will not occur.

Poilievre’s argument about gatekeepers is an example of guilt by association, scapegoating, and a false dichotomy. Owners of waterfront condos are only a small part of the downtown neighbourhoods adversely affected by Billy Bishop and the homes on Ward’s Island, on sites leased from the City, resemble modest cottages more than millionaire mansions. The issue of how Toronto Island should be used is entirely separate from the other issues Poilievre cites. Poilievre would have his audience believe that this is a conflict between the elite and the middle class, but again there is no evidence to this effect. Indeed, the opposite is more likely, namely that well-off business travelers who use Billy Bishop are opposed to many less prosperous downtown residents who live nearby and use the waterfront and the island for recreation.

I find this video a troubling signal that Poilievre that would govern based on ideology rather than using evidence to weigh convenience for airline passengers, environmental concerns for downtown residents, and alternative uses of the airport site against one another.

The Upshot

Surprisingly, Ports Toronto and Nieuport Aviation, which owns the terminal at Billy Bishop, have not yet applied to the City for approval to build runway end safety areas and to extend their lease on City land, which expires in 2033. Perhaps they are anticipating a Poilievre Government will be elected next year and are waiting to make their move then. By a similar logic, we opponents of Billy Bishop should press our case for an objective assessment of the issue before Billy Bishop’s cheerleaders take office. In the interest of fairness to our own cause, here is our recent YouTube video.

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