Thank you very much, Mr. Chair, vice-chairs and members of the standing committee.
We're very honoured to be here. I have to say that we never expected to be here, but we're very happy to be here. Thank you for putting this on the agenda for the committee's consideration, and for inviting me to speak to you today.
I speak to you on behalf of four organizations that sent you the letter concerning the elm on March 18: Ecology Ottawa, a grassroots organization with a broad environmental mandate and a large following, mostly aimed at a younger demographic; the Ottawa Field-Naturalists' Club, founded in 1863 and the oldest natural history club in Canada, with 800-odd members; the Community Associations for Environmental Sustainability, CAFES, a collective of about 30 neighbourhood associations in Ottawa, including all or most of those in this riding, Ottawa Centre; and the Greenspace Alliance of Canada's Capital, of which I'm the current chair. We're a 100% volunteer, non-profit organization dedicated to protecting and preserving green space in the Ottawa-Gatineau area since 1997.
We're here to ask for two things. The first is to delay the removal of the centenary elm until after “leaf out”, so that its condition can be ascertained clearly and without controversy. The second is to reconsider the currently held assumptions about the size and location of phase two of the visitor welcome complex.
Why reconsider these assumptions? These assumptions are the proximate cause of the planned removal of the elm. We believe they should be revisited to confirm that the implicit trade-off that is being made between preserving the elm and building phase two of the visitor welcome complex in the same location still holds. To be clear, unless the government is open to considering or reconsidering these assumptions, the elm cannot be saved.
Why delay the removal of the elm? Well, to reconsider this trade-off, you as parliamentarians really need up-to-date, conclusive information about its condition.
Why this tree? Why are we going all-out to protect this one tree? First, it's not just any tree. It's an American elm. It's a species that was widespread in this part of Ontario until it was all but wiped out by Dutch elm disease in our area in the 1970s and 1980s. There were many on Parliament Hill, but this one is the sole survivor. It is unique. It's distinctive. It's historic.
For our colleagues in the Ottawa Field-Naturalists' Club, on this basis alone it would deserve protection and preservation wherever it might be located, but it's not located just anywhere. It stands next to Canada's most iconic building, Centre Block of Parliament. From this close proximity, it acquires an added significance and takes on an emblematic quality. Whatever happens to this elm makes a statement, which gets magnified and resonates far and wide.
To community organizations such as CAFES, the elm is emblematic of every mature tree being routinely taken down in their neighbourhoods to make way for infill and renovation. The loss of mature trees in Ottawa's core, and in urban centres across Canada, has reached crisis proportions. Community associations are desperate to stop the loss of tree canopy in their neighbourhoods. They are aghast to see the same dynamic being played out on Parliament Hill—they really can't understand it—wherein a builder with a plan always trumps green space.
To Ecology Ottawa, whatever happens to the elm is emblematic of the federal response to climate change. Mr. Reid, at the last meeting, referred to the 2006 long-term vision and plan for the parliamentary precinct. The rehabilitation of Centre Block represents the culmination of this vision. At the same meeting, deputy clerk Michel Patrice emphasized the need to reassess plans when things have changed.
Well, things have changed in a fundamental way since 2006. In 2019, climate change is real and action is urgently required to mitigate its impact. This is why the scope of the visitor centre now needs to be reconsidered. In this new context, different relative weights would likely be applied in the implicit trade-offs being made between preserving the elm and locating phase two of the visitor complex in that same space.
At this time of climate crisis, every action matters. Every bit of warming matters. Every year matters, and every choice matters. This is the message the youth strike for climate brought to Parliament Hill and all over the world on March 15. I was with them on the Hill that day, and I spoke with maybe 100 of them, singly and in groups. When I pointed out the elm to them and informed them of the government's intention to cut it down, all reacted with shock, disbelief and disgust. They don't think you have your priorities right.
Up until last Tuesday, the elm did not stand alone. It was surrounded by many other mature trees. Most or all were removed by PSPC when they stripped the site of vegetation last week and turned it into a construction zone. This little enclave was part of the city's urban forest, which is one of the city's most important assets in its defence against climate change. It provided shade for visitors to the Hill, which is otherwise quite denuded, cooling and filtering the ambient air, absorbing and fixing carbon and releasing the oxygen we breathe, just the basic life-preserving work that trees do for us.
This clear-cut may seem catastrophic, but in fact it is also an opportunity. One of the arborist's reports commissioned by PSPC in September 2018 includes this recommendation:
If this tree is to be preserved where it stands, multiple measures will need to be taken....If we are to see any improvement in the trees health the entire critical root zone measuring 9 meters from the trees trunk in all directions should be carefully excavated and cleared of all unnatural debris. This area...would have to be closed off to the public and all soil within the area would need to be remediated.
If the option of preserving the tree were selected rather than cutting it down, the clear-cut and vegetation stripping carried out by PSPC has in fact made a good start towards doing this remediation work. It's an opportunity.
In prior communications, both PSPC and the NCC have asked us to consider how their plan includes the regreening of the area after the renovations are complete. To replace the elm with like for like would take 100 years. It is, for all practical purposes, irreplaceable.
Regarding the planting of other trees in 10, 13 or however many years it will take to complete this renovation project, all we can say is that it's literally too little too late. We have the same 10 or 12 years to take effective action against climate change if we wish to keep its impact within adaptable limits. Again, however, the clear-cut may present an opportunity. The field is now clear to proceed with this replanting immediately with large caliper trees and the 4:1 replacement ratio recommended by the NCC to recreate a new, improved green enclave in this location.
Every one of us is being called upon to take action against climate change in whatever small way we can, reducing our greenhouse gas emissions or preserving or increasing green space as carbon sinks in our homes, in our lifestyles and in our own backyards. Preserving the centenary elm and restoring this green space is something parliamentarians can do right here on Parliament Hill in your own backyard.
PSPC has referred to the poor condition of the centenary elm as justification for its removal. We have found that the information supporting this judgment is contradictory and inconclusive. Our technical report on the subject was sent to you on March 18. I will read out only its conclusion here:
Given the conflicting information concerning the condition of the tree, the dramatic unexplained changes observed in September 2018, the lack of testing or other inspection other than ground level visual observation and the fact that weather conditions in September 2018 might well indicate that heat and water stress were at the root of the tree’s observed condition, it would seem appropriate to delay the removal until such time as 1) it is ascertained whether the tree has survived into spring 2019, and 2) further testing is done to determine if the tree is affected by any disease.
Destruction of this elm must not happen, and it can be stopped by you, Canada's parliamentarians.
While the National Capital Commission provides federal land use authorization and Public Services and Procurement Canada, as custodian of the land and buildings, executes the construction and renovation project, both are working to requirements approved by the Speakers of the House and Senate who, on your behalf, exercise the powers of Parliament to regulate its own affairs and to administer its precinct. Indeed, this standing committee has rightly taken upon itself the exercise of oversight that is so badly needed for this renovation project.
We've heard from PSPC and parliamentary staff, at the last meeting, that designs for the second phase of the visitor's centre are still very preliminary. All they know right now is how big a hole they want to excavate. It's very big—wiping out the centenary elm and forestalling the growth of any greenery in the northeast quadrant of the Hill for many years. Is this what you want? Is this what Canadians want?
Please do the right thing. Preserve the elm and restore its retinue of trees for the benefits they provide locally here on Parliament Hill. Also, take this opportunity to send the right message to all Canadians watching. Every action matters. Every choice matters. Please delay the removal of the centenary elm until leaf out and initiate a process whereby the currently held assumptions about the size and location of phase two of the visitor welcome complex are reconsidered.
Welcome back to meeting number 146 of the committee as we continue our inquiry into the status of the elm tree on Parliament Hill.
We are pleased to be joined by officials from Public Services and Procurement Canada. Here with us today are Robert Wright, Assistant Deputy Minister, Parliamentary Precinct Branch; Jennifer Garrett, Director General, Centre Block program; and Lisa MacDonald, Senior Landscape Architect and Arborist.
I want to make a couple of comments before we start.
One is on the relationship with the National Capital Commission. From Parliamentary Privilege in Canada, page 169, “The grounds are maintained by the National Capital Commission by virtue of a request from the Minister of Public Works”. That's where the buck stops.
I'd also just like to put this discussion about one tree in the larger context. I think that over December and the beginning of this year we crossed the Rubicon in having parliamentarians have input into the development of their precinct. I want to thank Public Works and the Board of Internal Economy for coming to those agreements, which I think will make for good development.
Mr. Wright, before you came here I mentioned that I hoped you might include in your opening comments some real, technical description of the relation of where the visitor centre would be in relation to the nine-metre base coming out from the roots of the tree.
Second, the May report said the tree was in good condition, and subsequently it deteriorated; one of the reasons given was the drought in September. I'd just like to know if there's irrigation in that section of the Hill, water sprinklers, etc.
Lastly, do you have any comments on the fact it was fine in May? I read the dendrologist's report by Mr. Farr that your department provided to us; apparently there was just a one-day cursory evaluation of the tree.
Ms. MacDonald, first, could you tell me a little about your position and your scientific background?
I do have some formal opening comments, but I'll try to address some of those questions up front so that sets the stage, if that would be okay.
The location of the visitor welcome centre is obviously a really critical matter to this study. You would all be aware of where phase one of the visitor welcome centre is located, in between Centre Block and West Block, which creates the new public entrance to West Block. The blasting that was referenced through some of the discussion in the first hour was related to the creation of that phase one of the visitor welcome centre. It's a large excavation.
Although the final elements that will be going into the visitor welcome centre are not final at this point, and we're working very closely with officials within the parliamentary administration to clarify that, it is becoming clearer over time. We'd be happy to come and make a presentation on where things are at. We do know, however, and have known for a long time, the broad contours of the visitor welcome centre. The visitor welcome centre in simple terms has phase one as the western section in between West Block and Centre Block. We would see the mirror image of that on the eastern side. The parliamentary complex, the triad, would work together as an integrated complex. As people were referencing during the discussion, it would extend out under the front lawn in front of Centre Block and be a fairly significant facility that would connect the triad and create a host of services that have been requested by Parliament.
First and foremost, of course, it creates significant enhanced security to the triad. That has for a long time now, in getting to an integrated visitor welcome centre, been seen as a priority. Two, it provides a universally accessible, barrier-free front door to Parliament for the first time, obviously extremely important; a number of services for Canadians who will be visiting the Parliament Buildings; interpretive services provided by the Library of Parliament; and of course core services. The intent would be to have some core services for Parliament as well. At this point, working with parliamentary officials, and again it's not final, it would be envisioned to have some committee rooms within the visitor welcome centre as well. We have heard loud and clear on Centre Block that it is very important to retain the look and feel of Centre Block. You would see many important services taking place within the visitor welcome centre. That would enable a restoration instead of a changing of Centre Block, which I think we've heard, critically.
That's the visitor welcome centre. We would be happy to come back or follow up with some images that could demonstrate that in a clear manner.
On the question about irrigation, there is no irrigation in that area. It happens from natural rainfall. Perhaps Ms. MacDonald can speak to this more clearly.
There is a suite of maples, for the most part, and the elm tree is in the area. Some of the maples are invasive. There are some linden trees that are invasive as well. Then there are a number of indigenous trees. My understanding is that maple trees are more susceptible to drought than elm, but you see some of those being quite healthy.
Now, the range of opinion on the health of the tree is critically important, because the conversation really began with asking, “What is the condition of the tree? Would it really be viable for removal and replanting?” Initially, we had a couple of different perspectives, going back to 1995, when a very eminent arborist indicated that it would have a lifespan of about 20 plus years, which we're at about now due to a couple of factors, of having suffered from Dutch elm disease and....
Just by way of interest, I grew up in “the city of stately elms”, Fredericton, New Brunswick. I've been an elm tree lover for a long time.
We took this very seriously. We had some differing reports, so essentially we went out and got a second opinion and a third opinion, as you would if you were getting a medical diagnosis. In fact, I think at this point there are six assessments. It would seem fairly conclusive evidence—and I'll maybe have Ms. MacDonald speak to this more specifically—that the tree is in poor and declining health and is not a good candidate to be removed and replanted, which really informed our advice.
With that, I'll move to formal comments.
Good afternoon. My name is Robert Wright, and I am the Assistant Deputy Minister for the Parliamentary Precinct at Public Services and Procurement Canada, or PSPC.
Also here with me today is Jennifer Garrett, the Director General for the Centre Block rehabilitation program, as well as the professional arborist Lisa MacDonald who works under the design team for the project, CENTRUS.
Mr. Chair, I would like to start my remarks today by thanking you and all the committee members for your keen interest in the restoration and modernization of the Parliamentary Precinct.
Public Services and Procurement Canada is committed to working in partnership with Parliament in implementing our long-term vision and plan that is focused on restoring and modernizing the parliamentary precinct to ensure it meets the needs of a modern parliament and continues to serve as an inviting environment where Canadians can gather.
A core part of this joint plan is the restoration of the iconic Centre Block and the construction of an expanded visitor welcome centre, which will provide important services to parliamentarians and the Canadian public visiting Parliament Hill, providing both enhanced security and a barrier-free front door to Parliament.
Our joint plan to restore and modernize the precinct extends beyond the buildings to safeguarding and renewing the parliamentary grounds and all other spaces key to the operations of Canada's parliamentary democracy.
The landscape and the setting, including the great lawn that serves as Canada's market square as well as the rugged escarpment and the urban forest, are as much a part of what makes the precinct uniquely Canadian as the beautiful neo-gothic buildings themselves.
The restoration of Centre Block and, more to the point, the construction of the next phase of the visitor welcome centre, which will be located underground to minimize the visual impact to this important landscape, will require significant excavation work. Unfortunately, there are a number of trees, including the large elm tree, in the middle of the excavation zone.
To enable the work to proceed, it is impossible for the trees located in the excavation zone to remain in place. Although excavation work is not scheduled to begin for several months, it is highly dependent on the completion of preparatory work this spring and summer on the east side of Centre Block. These preparatory activities include archeological work, the relocation of underground services including an IT duct bank and the completion of a construction road.
Demonstrating leadership in sustainability is a core objective of the long-term vision and plan and the Centre Block rehabilitation. Public Services and Procurement Canada is committed to working with Parliament to reduce its environmental footprint, as well as protecting and enhancing Parliament's urban forest.
As a means to achieving this important commitment, Public Services and Procurement Canada has developed a comprehensive strategy to minimize the impacts of this required excavation work as much as possible. The focus of this plan is on relocating, wherever feasible, healthy trees that are indigenous to the area and replacing within the precinct all removed trees at a 4:1 ratio. Note that this plan exceeds the National Capital Commission best practice recommendation of replacing trees at a 2:1 ratio.
Of the 30 impacted trees, 14 will be relocated within the precinct. Of the 16 that will be removed, eight are invasive species. To offset the removal of the 16 trees, 64 new trees will be planted within the precinct.
Additionally, the Centre Block and visitor welcome centre projects will include the implementation of a landscape plan that will see additional trees replanted in the east pleasure grounds.
To implement these plans, we worked hand in hand with parliamentary officials who have been engaged throughout the process. We also engaged with the federal heritage buildings review office, given Parliament Hill's important status, and with the National Capital Commission, which reviewed our plans and provided approval to proceed.
In addition, Minister has communicated with the Greenspace Alliance of Canada's Capital about the plan to remove the tree. Departmental officials also met with representatives of that organization. In addition, PSPC responded to a joint letter from the speakers of the House of Commons and the Senate of Canada.
I want to ensure the committee that removing trees in the parliamentary precinct is seen as a last-resort option. Unfortunately, the American elm tree is located in a high-intensity construction zone requiring significant excavation work and will not be able to remain in its existing location.
Given the tree cannot stay in its location, Public Services and Procurement Canada sought the advice of independent experts on the possibility of relocating the tree. Multiple arborists were consulted. They found that the elm is in deteriorating health, and given its health, the elm would not likely survive the trauma of relocation even if world-leading best practices in tree relocation are used. The costs to relocate the tree would be significant, estimated at approximately $400,000. These costs were developed by the construction management firm for the project, PCL/EllisDon, in joint venture. The combination of the elm's declining health, its low likelihood of survival and the significant costs that are involved led us to recommend the tree be removed.
Even if the construction on the visitor welcome centre does not proceed as discussed here earlier and the tree remains in place, significant construction activities in support of the Centre Block rehabilitation, such as the excavation of the foundation and work on the building's exterior masonry, will undoubtedly cause the tree stress and exacerbate its already poor condition. To preserve the legacy of the American elm, it is proposed that the dominion sculptor repurpose the wood in consultation with Parliament. As you may be aware, the thrones used in the newly restored Senate of Canada building used wood donated by the Queen from her estate.
As well, on the advice of the Greenspace Alliance of Canada's Capital, we are working with the University of Guelph to propagate the elm as well as provide genetic samples to support the university's elm recovery project. We recently took approximately 100 twig samples with the objective of being able to propagate up to approximately 50 elms within the parliamentary precinct.
This means that the tree samplings will be reproduced under scientific supervision, and we are committed to continue to work with Greenspace Alliance to commemorate the tree and to work with them and Parliament to find appropriate locations where the newly propagated elms might be planted.
Now that parliamentary operations have been moved out of Centre Block, we are preparing to begin the major rehabilitation program. We want to keep the project on track so that Centre Block can be reinstated as the seat of government as soon as possible. Work in the east pleasure grounds starting this spring is essential to maintain the program's momentum.
In closing, I would like to reiterate that the ongoing engagement with Parliament is essential to ensure that the work being undertaken meets the needs of a 21st century parliamentary democracy without losing touch with our collective past.
Once again, I would like to thank you for your interest, and I would be happy to respond to questions from committee members.