Even for the winners, it was a shock.
Last month, an unlikely coalition of local farmers, celebrity chefs, weekend cottagers and First Nations in Ontario learned they had successfully blocked what would have been the biggest open-pit mine in Canada. Buried by two years of bad press, beset by constant and growing opposition, and facing a thorough environmental assessment, Highland Companies announced Nov. 21 it would abandon its plan to build a 2,316-acre gravel pit in prime agricultural land in Melancthon township, about an hour north of Toronto.
For the losers, who were backed by a hedge fund worth $25 billion, it was probably no less shocking that they were forced to pull the plug on the project.
For the rest of us, it’s a model of tenacious community activism that builds a broad coalition of unusual allies to preserve a way of life that’s deeply linked to its environment. For mining companies, and Highland Companies in particular, it’s a sharp lesson in how not to do business. Community consent matters and can no longer be ignored.
I wrote about this project a year ago last summer. At the time, I noted the flagrant dishonesty the company used to buy up thousands of acres of agricultural land from local farmers whose families had been cultivating the land for generations. Only after it had assembled about 7,000 acres did the company announce it would actually be destroying the farmland in order to create a mega-quarry to mine limestone for gravel and concrete operations.
If the opposition to the project had remained based in the local farming community, the excavators would probably be already scraping away some of Canada’s most fertile topsoil. But four farm families refused the big corporate cheques they were offered to sell their land, instead drumming up allies that eventually included hip urban foodies, environmentalists, popular musicians, wealthy weekenders and the nearby Beausoleil First Nation.
Jeff Monague, a Beausoleil band councillor, told the Globe and Mail that about 50 members of his band were regulars at anti-quarry protests. Montague said this kind of non-violent resistance could serve as a template for land and water issues that affect Natives.
“It was a grassroots effort. It really came from the people,” Monague said. “One of the things we’re trying to show is that we can do these kinds of things without any direct conflict, that it can be non-violent all the way through. The young people can really learn from that.”
For the company, the fatal error was “arrogance,” said Carl Cosack, chair of the North Dufferin Agricultural Community Taskforce (NDACT). “You can’t force something on a community of this nature without having repercussions,” Cosack told a local newspaper.
“Ontarians really pulled together,” he added. “I’d challenge you to come up with any other issue that has brought as many people together as this has in recent memory. There hasn’t been one that I can relate to.”
The movement was highlighted by two gatherings notable for their originality. The first, “Foodstock,” was held on the land owned by the four holdouts and focused on the mutual dependence between rural producers and urban consumers. It attracted 30,000 folks who were able to sample locally grown foods prepared by dozens of celebrity chefs. The second, “Soupstock,” drew 40,000 people to a Toronto event in October that likewise emphasized the importance of preserving local food sources.
A central organizer of the two rallies was chef Michael Stadtländer. He also helped mobilize support from hundreds of fellow chefs across Canada by arguing industrial operations like the Melancthon mega-quarry would be catastrophic for local agriculture.
The message was consistently hammered home at farmers’ markets, especially in Toronto, where petitions and pamphlets were distributed to urban consumers. Mark Calzavara, Ontario organizer for the Council of Canadians, said the movement really harnessed the emerging enthusiasm for food as a political tool.
“Food was a new message and really important,” Calzavara said in an interview with the Globe. “They really mobilized in every way they could, from food to music to popular culture. In my neighbourhood, they were at the farmers market in High Park every week with signs and literature.”
With musicians such as Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy and Sarah Harmer adding their vocal support, the movement took on momentum that eventually proved to be overwhelming for Highland Companies.
Just as a provincial environmental assessment process was getting underway last month, the company threw in the towel. Said Highland spokesperson John Scherer: “We acknowledge that the application does not have sufficient support from the community and government to justify proceeding with the approval process.”
In the end, community consent is essential. But only if the community works hard – and long – to express its consensus to decision-makers. As local farmer John Herndon said following the announcement, “It’s a testimony to what can be done if people get together and exercise their democratic rights and obligations.”