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SIMCOE COUNTY, ON—It has been nearly four months since a group of Anishinabe women from Beausoleil First Nation set up a protest camp across the road from a construction site where a new garbage dump is being built. More than 20 years have passed since members of the local agricultural community started the fight to protect what has become known as the world’s purest water.
Tomorrow, August 25, Simcoe County Council will meet, and the agenda includes a vote on a one-year moratorium on development of Dump Site 41. Many Canadians outside the county are familiar with Site 41 because of recent public protests.
Mark Calzavera, the new Council of Candians (COC) organizer for Ontario-Quebec, says, “Ninety-nine per cent of the work that I’ve done has been on Site 41.”
"We’ve really been putting a full court press on the issue because the time frame on the issue is very, very critical," he adds. "The construction is happening now and the people that were there needed support right away.”
The proposed garbage dump is located a few kilometers from the town of Elmvale and barely 30 kilometres from the Beausoleil First Nation reserve on Christian Island in Georgian Bay. The location covers 20.7 hectares of land, is surrounded by productive farmlands and sits directly above the Alliston aquifer. Site 41 has been a contentious development since 1979, when the North Simcoe municipalities started researching garbage dump development options. The county has been dewatering the aquifer as part of preparations for the site, which is slated to receive garbage as soon as possible.
The COC, like the local community, is focused on fighting Site 41 through the system. “From our perspective, what we wanted to do, and what we’ve always said, is that we were looking for a political solution bringing a vote back to council...on whether the dump site should go ahead or not, or whether to issue a moratorium until some of the outstanding questions could be answered,” says Calzavera.
COC lawyers discovered that the site had only received authorization for preliminary work, not for the cell construction. In other words, they had permission to start developing the site, but not to dig the hole the garbage would eventually go in. “They were never authorized to do that, in fact, they were specifically told not to do it by the folks in [Simcoe County] council.” Cell construction began anyway.
During a two-week stay of court in which COC lawyers were awaiting a ruling on the legality of the site, the courts and the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) put on the pressure at Site 41, arresting 10 people between August 2 and 10.
The resulting publicity means that “far more people...understand what is going on,” explains Calzavera.
Police were once again used to clear the shoulder-to-shoulder protesters from in front of the access gates on August 18, and six more people were arrested.
The initial environmental review for Site 41 ended in 1989 with a provincial Environmental Review Board rejecting the project. According to Steve Ogden, a local farmer and member of the Community Monitoring Committee (CMC), in 1990 the Peterson government forced re-opening of discussion on Site 41, leading to a provisional Certificate of Approval (CoA) being granted for the project in 1998. Ogden claims that political pressure led to the project being approved, despite known environmental impacts.
One of the provisions of the approval required the CMC to “serve as a focal point for the collection, review and exchange of information relevant to both county and local concerns in connection with the landfill site.” By the end of 2001, two applications for review of the CoA, based on groundwater concerns, were dismissed by the MoE, and in 2003, hydrological consulting company Jagger Hims Ltd (now owned by GENIVAR), which the county hired, created a hydrogeological evaluation of the site using open source computer software Modflow.
The CMC has been denied access to data from the computer model that alleges that Site 41 is ecologically sound. Ogden filed a freedom of information request in 2006 after the final approval that year, despite concerns from Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner. Jagger Hims Ltd argues that the models contain “proprietary information” and still refuses to release the information—which Ogden points out is "a violation of the CoA, and unfortunately the OPP can’t force the MoE to follow the law. I’m not sure who does, because from what I have witnessed, they are not following the rules.”
Vicki Monague, a single mother from Beausoleil First Nation and spokesperson for the protest camp, says of the MoE, “Ultimately, I think the issue is that they are looking more at economy rather than ecology or environment.”
Monague, who was arrested and charged with mischief and intimidation, was banned from returning even to the legal protest camp. She links the direct action taken by herself and others, action considered illegal by the state, to positive social change: “This is actually a really great thing that has happened... the fact that we are able to impact and expose [the corruption] for what it is, and hopefully promote change within the system.”
Mohawk environmentalist Danny Beaton is one of five First Nations people who have been charged in connection with Site 41—he is the only non-local arrested thus far. However, it is not only Indigenous people who have been targeted for arrest by the OPP. Members of the local agricultural community have also been charged in connection with attempts to stop Site 41.
Keith and Ina Wood are 82 and 76 years old, respectively. Calzavera describes Ina Wood as “a saint.” Monague describes the couple as “people who have never even had a parking ticket... law abiding citizens who had lost their faith in the legal system and the political system.”
The Woods—like Monague, Beaton and the 12 others—are facing charges of mischief and are living under bail conditions. Monague says that the example set by the Woods “should inspire people to stand up and use their voice, and to protect what is theirs and to protect their heritage.”
On the eve of the hundredth day of the protest camp, Monague emphasized how their fight has highlighted the extent to which taking action to protect the land and water is not only a fight for First Nations.
“This is also a heritage territory for those families out there that are fighting Site 41 as well. Some of their farmlands have been there for up to 250 years, so this is now a land that we all share.” She continues, “It has gone beyond land claims and treaty rights and aboriginal rights... To protest, to protect the world’s purest water is a right that everybody has and that everybody should stand for.”
Corporate industrial giant GENIVAR also owns Henderson Paddon, the firm that provides landfill design and operations services to Simcoe County. This clear conflict of interest was highlighted recently in court when it was revealed that county officials defied a provincial Privacy Commissioner’s order to release the groundwater model, and have now been compelled to take actions to make the data public.
The information from the Freedom of Information inquiry, and issues around the criminalization of protesters, will also be discussed at the council meeting on August 25. It appears that through direct action, communities have come together to force local politicians to at least consider taking environmental protection seriously.
Monague notes that “this is really the first time ever in this area that non-Natives and Native people have stood together side-by-side.”
Calzavera adds, “I think one of the key reasons that the two groups have gotten along so well is that there is a tremendous amount of respect for the hard work that each [has] done and are doing, and the commitment that each group has shown.”
Calzavera says that part of the reason COC has fully engaged with the Site 41 issue "is actually that relationship between First Nations and the local agricultural community.” He emphasizes that “we often support fights like this, but this is a particularly important one because of the quality of the water—it is the purest groundwater that has ever been tested.
"The fight over Dump Site 41 is a metaphor for, and a link to, all the other fights to protect source waters and water sources in Ontario and across the country. They’re all under threat from bad development choices... and Site 41 is the one that is threatened the most right now.”
For more information about the Site 41 protests, including background information and resistance updates, go to www.stopdumpsite41.ca.
Alex Hundert is a community organiser and a founder of AW@L, Journalists for Human Rights - Laurier Waterloo Chapter, and the Earth Justice Initiative.
Dan Kellar is a PhD student at the University of Waterloo, undertaking research in the failure of environmental laws and policies in actually protecting the environment, and an organiser with AW@L
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.