David Suzuki: Mega-quarry victory shows people have the power

Photo: Mega-quarry victory shows people have the power

(Credit: Jose Diaz via Flickr)

“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 to protect the environment.

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 controversial 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. And it’s easy to understand why cash-strapped, rural-based municipalities would be tempted to accept industrial projects, with their promise of local employment and an improved tax base.

Making the battle against the quarry 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. Opponents of the mega-quarry reached out to people who may not have considered how they would be affected if a company succeeded in destroying thousands of acres of fertile fields close to a large urban centre like Toronto.

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 in towns and cities across southern Ontario.

In 2011, renowned chef Michael Stadtlander, from the nearby community of Singhampton, 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, when the David Suzuki Foundation (which had earlier provided scientific research and submissions for the regulatory process) and the Canadian Chefs’ Congress hosted Soupstock. More than 200 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 to oppose the mega-quarry.

Soupstock showed the movement was gaining momentum, but no one predicted that Highland would raise the white flag a month later.

People power won! And it wasn’t the first time it’s happened in Canada.

In 1984, I heard about a controversial plan to log the pristine Stein Valley, the last untouched watershed in the southern Coast Mountains, northeast of Vancouver. The battle to protect the Stein began with a small group of conservationists and scientists but soon grew to include tens of thousands. In 1988, the B.C. government placed a moratorium on logging. A few years later the area was protected through the creation of the 1,060-square-kilometre Stein Valley Nlaka’pamux Heritage Park.

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 megaprojects 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.

But for now, we can savour success. Together, tens of thousands of people accomplished something that only months ago seemed impossible: stopping the mega-quarry.