Power to the people
Mega-quarry protests save local farmland
Protests helped bring awareness about the mega-quarry threat to city dwellers
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.” These words, attributed to anthropologist Margaret Mead, capture the power that we, as citizens, have to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds.
It just happened in Ontario, where Highland Companies announced it was withdrawing its plan to build a massive open-pit limestone quarry in the rural countryside north of Toronto. The proposal to blast a billion tonnes of limestone from beneath some of the finest farmland in North America initially drew the ire of a handful of local farmers and residents who faced overwhelming odds to stop it.
Rules governing aggregate mining in the province are weak, provide little protection against large projects and too often sacrifice prime agricultural land and nature to industry. Making the battle more challenging was the fact that Highland was backed by a Boston hedge fund, the Baupost Group, with assets of more than $25 billion. It was also represented by Hill and Knowlton, the high-priced PR firm that infamously worked with Big Tobacco to convince smokers that cigarettes don’t cause cancer.
Citizens rallied, though, and showed that the real issue was the protection of local food lands and drinking water, things of importance well beyond the borders of their community. Groups like the North Dufferin Agricultural and Community Taskforce successfully brought the battle to the city, through tireless outreach at events like farmers’ markets. Thousands of “Stop the Mega Quarry” signs sprouted in yards across southern Ontario.
In 2011, renowned chef Michael Stadtländer produced Foodstock with the Canadian Chefs’ Congress and local farmers. The protest event drew 28,000 people to a farm field a few hundred metres from where the quarry would be built.
This past October, that celebration of local food and protest was replicated in Toronto. Top chefs from Canada and the U.S. prepared gourmet soup from donated local ingredients for more than 40,000 supporters. They sent a strong message to the company that urbanites stand in solidarity with the farmers of Melancthon.
People power won! And it wasn’t the first time it’s happened in Canada. Similar grassroots victories have helped stop logging on Haida Gwaii, prevented giant dams from being built in northern Quebec and halted highway projects that, if established, would have wiped out historical neighbourhoods in downtown Toronto and Vancouver.
Canada’s political and corporate leaders should take note. Controversial mega-projects, like the Northern Gateway Pipeline, are being met with increasing criticism and public opposition.
Although we’ll celebrate this victory over the mega-quarry, the Ontario government must also seize this call to overhaul its policies for aggregate mining that allowed the proposal to be considered in the first place. No community should have to fight so hard to ensure that prime farmland and valuable nature aren’t sacrificed to the interests of big business.
David Suzuki is host of CBC’s The Nature of Things and author of more than 30 books on ecology.