Cross Posted from National Post
Jason Van Bruggen, Special to National Post
In early 2011, while visiting our relatives’ farm near Melancthon in Dufferin County, Ont., my wife and I learned about the now infamous “mega quarry” proposal tabled by The Highland Companies, which were looking to turn the area’s rolling hills into one of the largest open-pit excavation sites in North America. This project involved drilling a pit deeper than Niagara Falls beneath the area’s fertile farmland, and permanently disrupting the source water for five pristine rivers.
My wife Blaine and I decided that this could not happen on our watch, and we took on a role as volunteer strategists for opponents of the mega quarry. Conversations with neighbours, the farmers of Mulmur and Melancthon who had not sold their land to the Highland Companies, revealed a tale of David versus Goliath. Potato farmer Dale Rutledge showed us woodlots that the quarry proponents had carved up to circumvent laws preventing complete woodlot removal. Fifth generation farmers, Ralph and Mary Lynn Armstrong, had been approached and encouraged to “retire to Florida” by people wishing to buy their farm under the guise of creating a giant potato farm.
Not being traditional “activists,” we formed a rabble-rousing group of communicators, all volunteers, and called ourselves the Comm Comm (Communications Committee). From early 2011 onward, we met several times a month to plot what were essentially marketing strategies to create a movement to appeal to everyone who valued food and water.
Highland was backed by a $25-billion hedge fund and had hired a multi-national PR agency. We, by contrast, were a handful of people sitting around the kitchen table, with no funding, trying to fit in an ambitious campaign between the realities of work and family life.
What we did have was imagination and audacity. My wife is a social media strategist and marketer. I am a producer, film-maker and photographer. We understand how to tell stories. Our group also included journalists, artists and other collaborators.
We photographed Hollywood celebrities, chefs, musicians, Olympians, all posing with “Stop the Quarry” signs. American media picked up our photos of local farmers who had disrobed and posed for the camera. During the Academy Awards, we launched an online campaign to highlight the achievements of our movement, and presented a golden “Tater” award to deserving volunteers. “Artists Against the Mega Quarry” mounted exhibits around the city to raise profile for the cause.
We worked with companies and organizations, big and small, and used their audiences and social media channels to build a following. Local shopkeepers and national retailers signed up in droves to serve as depots for the now ubiquitous “Stop the Mega Quarry” signs, while volunteers peddled the signs at farmers markets and community events. We asked our audience to take action by writing a letter, showing up to an event, making a phone call. It was in this way that our agitations got the attention of the Ontario government, which granted an unprecedented environmental assessment for the project.
In June 2011, Chef Michael Stadtlander stood in front of a small gathering at Marben Restaurant and proclaimed that he would host a food event to oppose the Mega-Quarry. Foodstock 2011 showcased fares by chefs from across the country and attracted 28,000 people to a field adjacent to the lands at risk. Undeterred by inclement weather, everyone walked away from that day muddy and inspired to do more. Fast forward a year to October, 2012, when 40,000 people attended Soupstock at Toronto’s Woodbine Park, where they tasted soups from over 200 chefs from Canada and the United States.
This week, it was announced that the mega quarry plan is dead, and we are, in a word, ecstatic. The announcement of the withdrawal of the application was a huge victory for everyone involved. However, we know that risks to local farmland and water still exist. Our work on this front is likely just getting started.
We also acknowledge that there is still a huge demand for aggregate to support the construction boom in southwestern Ontario, and that a responsible solution needs to be addressed.
But the episode shows that ordinary people can and will make their voices heard in regard to what solution is found. And those people will emphasize what is important to them. For us, it’s about the water and the land. We’re proud to have been part of the campaign to protect them.