Birth of a Protest
June 16, 2011
This spring, when The Highland Companies filed its application for a 2,316-acre limestone quarry, a small rural protest caught the big wave.
Remarkably, Carl Cosack is not angry. Naturally, he’s upset about an American-based corporation’s audacious proposal to blast a hole 20 storeys deep and remove a billion tonnes of limestone from prime agricultural land near his own farm.
Cosack’s life was busy enough already. He runs Peace Valley Ranch, a 100-head cattle operation, and Rawhide Adventures, “Ontario’s last western-style cattle ranch left standing,” where people come from all around to get a good horse under them and learn how to be cowboys – and will continue to come if the quarry traffic doesn’t snarl up every highway access.
As it has for many of his neighbours, fighting the quarry has taken over his life. And this spring, after The Highland Companies filed its official application to mine 2,316 acres of limestone in Melancthon Township, things went into hyperdrive. For Cosack, the battle essentially became an unpaid 50-hour-a-week job. Unanswered calls and machinery and fences in disrepair on his 1,200 acres are signs of the thousands of hours he’s spent researching, attending public meetings, speaking to media and writing midnight emails as vice-chair of the North Dufferin Agricultural and Community Task Force (NDACT) over the past two-and-a-half years.
Cattle rancher and agri-tourism entrepreneur Carl Cosack, 52, is the cowboy-philosopher of the Stop the Quarry cause and a late convert to citizen engagement. “You grow up and things sort of just happen to you. As you get to be a little bit older you see that if you engage you can actually make a difference – your actions and your words and your participation are meaningful. People are truly trying to reclaim some decision-making process here.”
Yes, on the surface things look bleak. The Highland Companies is a huge force in a small rural township that lacks a significant population to oppose it. In total, the company bought up close to 8,000 acres of prime agricultural land in north Dufferin, most of it in Melancthon with some in neighbouring Mulmur. It now owns the largest potato farming operation in the province, making it the most powerful player in the industry that some of its fiercest opponents depend on for their livelihoods.
The company is backed by the Boston-based Baupost Group, a $22-billion hedge fund. Its registered lobbyists in Queen’s Park include Dalton McGuinty’s former chief of staff and a former attorney general. And it is applying for a licence in a province whose policies and laws, notably the Aggregate Resources Act, are widely criticized as biased in favour of the industry – and poorly implemented at that.
It could be a recipe for cynicism and disempowerment. But Cosack remains positive and respectful.
“It’s all good,” he says of the fight and all he’s poured into it. The experience has been, if anything, uplifting – because everywhere he looks he finds support, offers of help, enthusiasm and affirmation of the worthiness of the cause. All signs, he insists, that the quarry’s opponents can and must win.
Consider Earth Day. On April 22, Cosack drove four of his 33 horses downtown to Queen’s Park for the Walk to Stop the Quarry protest. Curiously, you’re allowed to graze horses at the legislature, as long as you don’t ride – only police can do that. Getting permission to park a trailer in the reserved MPP parking spaces on a Good Friday proved difficult, however, and Cosack got the runaround until he mentioned to a security chief that he lived near the Pine River – one of the trout streams that originates deep in the proposed quarry land.
Then it was, “Oh, Pine River Valley! I ride my bike up all through there, that’s great! Of course you can park, no problem!”
And that’s what it’s been like all along.
Strangers become allies.
NDACT meetings always run out of chairs.
Downtown, farm animals attract attention, and Cosack was stunned by how many passersby who stopped to chat had heard of the quarry. They had heard NDACT representatives interviewed on CBC, or followed consumer advocate Dale Goldhawk’s repeated coverage on Zoomer Radio, or read about it in The Star.
The Walk to Stop the Quarry arrives at Jim and Marian’s Black’s potato farm in Melancthon. The walkers left Queen’s Park on their 120-kilometre trek on Earth Day and arrived at their destination five days later. Supporters joined them at various stretches along the way. Dr. John Bacher (in safety vest), researcher, Preservation of Agricultural Lands Society (PALS), walked all five days. To his right is Danny Beaton, Turtle Clan Mohawk, who initiated the Walk. And to Bacher’s left is Patricia Watts, who performed opening ceremonies at Queen’s Park, closing ceremonies in Melancthon, and water ceremonies at every creek, stream and river the walkers crossed.
So many people. That’s what Cosack finds uplifting. The issue is a natural attention-getter, he says, “because the overwhelming truth is that this is not a good project in a good area, and therefore it’s easy for people to join.”
It’s as if by dropping the spectre of a quarry on this place, this magical high point of southern Ontario from which rivers flow south and north to the Great Lakes, and deeming it to have a sparse rural population and no features worthy of protection, Highland started a wave of land-love and moral outrage that swept all the way to Queen’s Park and shows no sign of slowing down.
Cosack has been riding that wave ever since 2008, when the small group of farmers most directly affected by the quarry – “folks who had their head out of the sand early,” as Cosack puts it – organized and commissioned their own studies to find out what was behind all the suspicious tree clearing, well drilling and house demolition on Highland’s newly acquired holdings. In January 2009, they formed the North Dufferin Agricultural and Community Taskforce, inviting neighbours in next-door Mulmur to join them.
That was the pebble in the pond. From there the ripples spread, first through the networks of Mulmur’s well-connected and politically engaged weekenders, where it quickly drew the support of two established groups, CORE and (MC)2 (Conserve Our Rural Environment and the Mono Mulmur Citizens’ Coalition). Then it was onto the corridors of power and influence in Toronto.
Bill French (right) and son Brian grow rhubarb, peas and other vegetables for the Toronto market at Lennox Farm, beside the quarry site. Bill’s father farmed in Brampton and sold when subdivisions and golf courses moved in. A generation before, his grandfather farmed on Islington Avenue in what is now built-up Toronto. Bill feels lucky to have found this 3oo-acre patch of paradise near Reddickville in 1988 after combing the province for the best soil. Bill hopes Brian and his one-year-old son won’t be the next generation to pick up and move: “There’s no other place to go.”
The two Mulmur groups united with NDACT to create the Citizens’ Alliance for a Sustainable Environment (CAUSE) expressly to oppose the mega-quarry on a strategic, beyond-local scale. The list of Mulmur academics, lawyers, developers and business executives publicly backing CAUSE suggests a formidable counterpoint to Highland’s imposing PR and financial clout.
That list includes Harvey Kolodny, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and president of the Dufferin Arts Council; Diane Lister, former CEO of the Hospital for Sick Children Foundation and current president and executive director of the Royal Ontario Museum’s board of governors, and David Patterson, founder and CEO of the investment firm Northwater Capital.
From the beginning NDACT knew that they had to win supporters outside of Dufferin, and Patterson more than anyone provided an entrée to the city by hosting after-work meetings between NDACT and various “well-connected folks” in his company’s Bay Street boardroom. Picture Cosack in cowboy gear and Melancthon potato farmer David Vander Zaag eloquently presenting the threat to Melancthon’s land and water to downtown suits.
People were “just in awe, they had no idea of the size and scope. They left way better informed and pledging to do their thing,” says Cosack.
That thing, Cosack suspects, included spurring the wider media coverage just when the anti-quarry movement most needed it. The Highland Companies filed its official application on March 11. In more than 3,000 pages, the document attempts to lay out in scrupulous detail every aspect of the proposal as required by the Aggregate Resources Act.
For opponents of the quarry, it was a good thing, giving them something to sink their teeth into after years of anticipation. But the strict rules of the aggregate act gave them only 45 days to do so. And to Highland’s distinct advantage, day 45 was the Tuesday after the Easter long weekend, meaning any objections mailed within the last several days of the comment period would miss the cut-off.
Rallying the public to submit objections gained urgency in the face of the provincial government’s apparent complacency. In February, Melancthon’s mayor and deputy mayor had met with the minister of Natural Resources, Linda Jeffrey, to share the township’s extensive concerns. Her advice: get constituents thinking about rehabilitation, “because this will not be going back to agriculture, but maybe you could get a nice golf course.”
The minister’s careless response left Mayor Bill Hill with the impression “that the ink was already on the rubber stamp.” He wrote an open letter of complaint to Dalton McGuinty that became a call to action – even inspiring one Pine River resident, Dick Byford, to hand-deliver an old golf ball to Jeffrey’s Queen’s Park office.
“The water is the blood of our mother the earth,” says native environmentalist Danny Beaton, whose Six Nations of the Grand River reservation lies downstream of the quarry site. Beaton led the five-day, 120-kilometre Walk to Stop the Quarry as a callout to citizens everywhere that this issue goes way beyond the local: “Everything in creation has a duty and the humans’ duty is to be a voice for the earth… to give thanks. Only now, giving thanks is not enough. We need to defend the earth.”
One of the Bay Street meetings, on March 31, attracted First Nations environmentalist Danny Beaton, who has led several multi-day protest walks for water-related issues. “We need to have a walk right away,” Beaton declared. His friend Brian Danniels volunteered to organize it and within days the date was set for what would be a landmark media event.
On April 22, the Walk to Stop the Quarry kicked off with Maude Barlow and the Council of Canadians, and the Sierra Club of Ontario among the many farm and environmental organizations lending their support. Three hundred supporters – and Cosack’s four horses – saw the walkers off from Queen’s Park on their five-day trek to Melancthon.
The Walk held press conferences in every town, and by its conclusion at Jim and Marian Black’s potato farm on the Tuesday of the public comment deadline, hundreds of thousands of people had heard about it. Dale Goldhawk was there reporting in person. CBC Radio’s As It Happens started covering the issue regularly. Cheers rose up in the hills when CBC host Carol Off took Linda Jeffrey to task for her golf course gaffe.
The local landscape-loving painters, writers, musicians, radio and television hosts, producers and ad execs pitched in. TV host Dini Petty spoke at an NDACT meeting last year. In May, Homemakers magazine published an impassioned anti-quarry blog by freelance journalist and veteran radio producer Donna Tranquada.
And, as the social media universe lit up, Margaret Atwood tweeted to her 180,000 followers, “Mega-quarry in ONTARIO will blow up Escarpment, trash clean water… Yikes X 10! Write McGuinty!”
According to CAUSE, more than 2,000 letters of objection have flowed into the MNR from individuals, neighbouring municipalities, and organizations such as the Dufferin Federation of Agriculture, the David Suzuki Foundation, Lake Ontario Waterkeepers, and numerous members of the Unitarian Church, which operates a children’s camp near the quarry site.
The quarry protest started with those farmers whose land abuts the pit and whose water wells will mix with the pit’s 6oo-million-litre daily draw. Ralph Armstrong and his wife Mary Lynne have a 200-acre, old-style mixed farm that their family has worked since 1853; their five daughters are sixth-generation. Armstrong says, “We’re talking about two essentials of life here, the soil and the water. If they change the water in any way it will affect farming here.” The Armstrongs typify this fight’s unlikely activists, says NDACT vice-chair Carl Cosack: “Ralph is about as quiet a guy as you would ever find. For him to go out to council meetings and to become a board member of NDACT just blows my mind.”
Largely through the work of a dedicated fly fisherman named Rob Krueger, the issue also made its way onto online fishing forums and attracted the concern of yet another demographic, prompting an objection letter from the influential Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters. Stop the Quarry signs even popped up on lawns in downtown Toronto.
On April 21, local Conservative MPP Sylvia Jones introduced Cosack and a representative from the Council of Canadians to the legislature and she has called for an environmental assessment of the proposal (something that is not required by the Aggregate Resources Act). NDP leader Andrea Horwath presented the premier with a petition demanding an extension to the public comment deadline. And local Conservative MP David Tilson has weighed in with a letter to his party’s environment minister suggesting the impact of the quarry on freshwater fisheries may warrant a federal environmental assessment.
Avid fly-fisherman Rob Krueger frequents the Pine River, which rises near Horning’s Mills and bubbles over the Niagara Escarpment and into the Nottawasaga. When anglers learned that the quarry footprint covers more than half of the Upper Pine’s catchment, they thought of the river’s native brook trout and steelhead. Krueger rallied support on online fishing forums and prompted the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters to file an objection. He was also one of 300 attendees pressing Highland Companies consultants for answers at the public open house in Horning’s Mills last April, and wrote afterward, “I heard a lot of ‘we will do this’ answers, but when pressed on how…there was a troubling absence of details.”
Linda Jeffrey later announced a 76-day extension for comments on the Environmental Bill of Rights Registry (though these are distinguished from official objections). Dalton McGuinty sent letters to concerned citizens’ assuring them that, “We are still in the early stages of the licensing application process, and no approval has yet been given for a quarry to proceed in Melancthon Township.”
A message from Jeffrey now appears on the MNR’s home page acknowledging “the significant number of responses received so far regarding this application.”
Taken all together, says Cosack, it’s proof “that if you engage you can actually make a difference. Your actions and your words and your participation is meaningful. There is power in people.”
Now that the media blitz ignited by the Walk to Stop the Quarry and the intensity of the 45-day comment period is over, CAUSE and its supporters are girding for a protracted and multi-fronted battle.
The extended period for public comment ends on July 11. After that The Highland Companies has two years to review and respond to all the objections raised during the initial comment period, to which recipients must reply in just 20 days or else their objections will be considered resolved.
If unresolved objections remain, MNR may refer the application to an Ontario Municipal Board hearing.
More at home on his Melancthon potato farm than in front of the cameras during the Earth Day rally at Queen’s Park , Dave Vander Zaag has nevertheless become the unofficial spokesman for Honeywood loam – the area’s famed soil that drew him to purchase 1,ooo acres and settle his family here. “Is this good land-use planning?” asks the father of four. “Why place the largest quarry in Canada on precious agricultural lands only one hour from the largest urban centre and food consumer?”
Meanwhile, at the municipal level, Melancthon has deadlines to rule on requests for zoning bylaw and official plan amendments submitted by The Highland Companies. CAUSE and NDACT are filing requests for official plan amendments of their own. They are pushing for specialty crop designation for Melancthon’s famous Honeywood Loam soil.
They are also continuing to push the provincial government on the matter of an environmental assessment, as well as working to block Highland’s attempts to purchase the railway to Owen Sound from Dufferin and Grey counties.
And they are planning more events and outreach activities to sustain public interest, build momentum and raise funds, including a golf tournament and a “paint-in” at Carl Cosack’s ranch on July 3. Co-organizers of the latter, Sandi Wong and Martha Bull, envision a ’60s-style sit-in as a way to express a value of the landscape that tends to get lost in the scientific and policy jargon, namely the natural beauty that surely motivates many of the protesters.
Says Wong: “The paint-in is in reaction to the picture painted by Highland: that this area is a wasteland, devoid of culture, heritage, nature, or anything worth preserving. We want artists to show how wrong they are!”
Whether CAUSE, NDACT and their supporters will succeed in stopping the quarry remains to be seen, but with their successes to date, the snowballing media interest and popular support, the momentum appears to be on their side.
Still as anti-quarry activist Harvey Kolodny cautions: “Many a group has appeared before the OMB supremely confident in the righteousness of their cause – only to lose.”
For cowboy philosopher Carl Cosack, though, there’s no room for such doubts. In meetings and interviews he relentlessly shares his belief that all NDACT and its supporters have to do to win is tell the truth. Public opinion and people’s sense of what’s right will take care of the rest.
To support his confidence in that belief he points to what he calls The Highland Companies’ “utter failure” to win over the over the community with its slick public relations campaign. Cosack claims he could write a “how-not-to” book based on the company’s PR missteps.
But to be fair, there’s probably no right way to sell such a massive hole in the ground, or for a foreign company to properly demonstrate respect for a community whose land it wants to blow to smithereens and ship away, by the millions and millions of tons, for profit.