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Keeping it Simple down on the Britannia Farm

03/16/2016, 11:45pm EDT
By Carolyn Parrish

The Asphalt Is Coming

“The Board of Education is legal agent of the land, but morally speaking, the land belongs to the young children of Peel.”
That’s John Fraser, former director of the Peel Board of Education writing in a 1986 report about the Britannia Farm, the magnificent 200-acre greenspace in the demographic centre of the region. The untouched heart of Peel is bounded by Matheson Blvd. on the north, McLaughlin Rd. on the west, Bristol Rd. on the south and Hurontario St. on the east.
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Fraser goes on to say that, “it could be argued that the (legal) trust placed in the school board could best be served by retaining the land to a large extent in a natural state so that this small vestige of the children’s roots could continue to be accessible to them. One could imagine a ‘children’s place’, a large tract of land in the centre of one of Canada’s most densely-populated areas, dedicated to the education and development of the child, enriching their lives.
Nowhere in Canada, to the best of my knowledge, is space of this magnitude given over entirely to the needs of the very young. The plastic artificiality of Canada’s Wonderland or the commercial trappings of West Edmonton Mall are no substitute for the natural foundation that underlies our history in southern Ontario.”
Nearly three decades later, Fraser’s words are finally starting to look prophetic rather than ironic.
Fraser’s report was the preamble to development of a master plan for the farm which proposed pastoral/educational uses of the old farm buildings on the property and envisioned interpretation centres for the Cooksville Creek that runs through its midst, the farm lane, the sugar bush and the remaining vestiges of the track of the Toronto radial railway that once crossed the land.
Garden plots and demonstration agricultural fields were also sketched out.
Now, that starting basis for keeping the Britannia Farm green may be coming true.
The public school board and the City of Mississauga, which have historically clashed over how the crown in the jewel of the City’s greenspace should be developed, are about to sign a memorandum of agreement that will make the 1989 plan a starting point for the minimalist approach to opening this extraordinary natural asset to general view.
One cannot fault the cynics for the tut-tutting that will greet news that there is yet-another plan to “save” the farm.
Over the years covetous eyes have projected the former clergy reserve property as a sports stadium, a Sheridan College campus, a golf centre, the new home of Variety Village and ErinoakKids and offices for the board’s own Centre for Education and Training, among other things.
The last plan in 2008 called for a 99-year lease that would have allowed up to 8 high-rise offices along Hurontario St.
Fortunately, if you believe that minimum farm development provides the maximum benefit for the public, that fell through, as have all the other schemes before it.
This time it might really be different.
For one thing, the board and City of Mississauga are finally working together.
For another, they have the basic concept correct, to minimize bricks and mortar and maximize natural space.
“Maybe I had an epiphany,” says Board Chair Janet McDougald, who was a rookie trustee when the board approved the master plan. “It did occur to me that we were spinning our wheels without the City, and involving them was best.”
Leading the charge for the municipality is Ward 5 Councillor Carolyn Parrish, who - not by coincidence -  chaired the Peel Board when the master plan was developed. She pledged during the last municipal election to help raise the millions needed to preserve the farm as “a lush, green park for educational and passive recreational purposes.”
Given its fallow history “we want to better utilize that property,” says McDougald who stresses that nothing has been approved yet.
“First and foremost we want it to be for students,” the chair says. She hopes for a living embodiment of the evolution of the region, allowing City kids to experience wildlife and nature in their own backyards in the context of the area’s rich agrarian history.
Garden plots, a mini-pioneer village using the existing heritage buildings on the site (complimenting the restored Britannia schoolhouse) and a local archives concentrating on agriculture are all possibilities.
There will have to be some structures on the property, to shelter students from weather and provide pathways and viewing platforms for interpretive centres.
There will also have to be revenue, which means that the Board may still exercise the power granted to it by the Ontario Cabinet a few years ago to sever 33 acres along Hurontario St. at Bristol Rd.
Ideally, that development will be limited.
Rent from leased office space could provide revenue to run the farm and even fund other outdoor education projects, such as upgrading the Smythe and Finlayson centres in Caledon and deliver a long hoped-for overnight camping experience at those sites for urban students.
When you have a prime piece of real estate like the Britannia Farm in the centre of your city, you are also going to have conspiracy theories about nefarious development schemes. There will be a minimum of two public consultation sessions “to help people get over the rumour that we’re going to pave it,” says McDougald.
It’s unfortunate any of it has to be paved.
The experience of the many, many schemes projected onto the property by dreamers and schemers lover the years proves that “lots of times doing nothing is the best solution” says McDougald.
As an editorial in The Mississauga News put it in Oct. 2002, “The Peel District School Board is searching for a use for the Britannia Farm. The solution is a simple one: keep it the way it is.”
We’ve tried all the grandiose approaches. The narrow, purer one seems the most logical and the most likely to actually be executed. 
“I believe people deserve to enjoy that piece of property in its natural state,” says the Mississauga Wards 1 and 7 trustee.
The view for passengers travelling on the future Hurontario LRT should be spectacular.
If all goes well, they’ll be able to glance out their window and gaze right into Peel’s past.
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