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“Protect Mother Earth, Don’t Settle for Less”

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Issue: 63 Section: Environment Geography: Ontario Guelph

September 11, 2009

“Protect Mother Earth, Don’t Settle for Less”

Direct action stops development at the Hanlon Creek Business Park

by Adam Lewis

The first morning meeting on July 27, after the site is occupied by land defenders. Photo courtesy of hcbpoccupation.wordpress.com

On July 27, 2009 more than 60 people occupied the Hanlon Creek Business Park (HCBP)in south Guelph, effectively halting all construction. These land defenders from Guelph, Kitchener, Hamilton, Kingston, London and beyond entered the site in order to stop construction on an ecologically sensitive area, adjacent to one of Southern Ontario’s last remaining old growth forests. The forest is home to trees estimated to be over 500 years old and the surrounding habitat may contain the federally protected Jefferson Salamander.

According to the group's blog, having “watched every legal process fail [them]”, the land defenders “wanted to take a stand and do something more to protect the land.” The use of direct action, in the form of blockading further construction, including all entrances, was seen as a last line of defense for the forest. The action was articulated, in the initial press release, as an intervention into the city’s “destruction of this vital land,” with previous city consultations with MNR and the public dubbed a “farce.” According to the blog, given that the city had begun construction on and destruction of the land, any consultations were thus meaningless as the city was not genuinely interested in the health of the landbase.

The site was made accessible to friendly visitors and media, and sought to steer away from militant confrontation. As soon as the land defenders entered the site, camp preparations began in order to hold off construction until September 15 (the deadline for the city to complete construction for this year due to environmental regulations), or stop the project altogether. Every detail was conceived of, including a composting toilet, tents and several communal shelters. I was fortunate enough to support this action from its beginning, having been asked to participate by folks from Guelph.

The solidarity and community spirit associated with the occupation group was clearly evident from the beginning of the action. Many of those gathered had strong pre-existing relationships, having collaborated on political action, lived in the same area, or met through actions of solidarity with indigenous struggles. A shared sense of openness, purpose and mutual aid was the basis of emerging solidarity that was a focal point for those involved.

Since the beginning of the direct action against the HCBP, there was a clearly agreed-upon conclusion that this occupation was first and foremost to be a space of resistance. This was to ensure a “safe and healthy space” focused on the defense of the land, and to forgo all reason for police intervention, such as substance abuse or partying. This was to define all camp activities. The point was to maintain a sense of purpose and direction for a potentially tense political situation that seemed inevitable and to continue to examine the place of action against the HCBP in a wider resistance movement.

There was no formal organization or ideological definition by members of the occupation. The three flags that flew atop the lookout tower permitted some speculation into the politics of the group but are hardly an exhaustive representation. The Mohawk Warrior flag was followed by the Two Row Wampum and finally by the Green Anarchist flag. The "Two Row" is comprised of two parallel purple lines, one of which symbolizes Indigenous peoples and the other the non-Indigenous with whom treaties have been signed. The two lines do not pass and represent the autonomy of both groups in their use of the land.

In recognition to the ongoing assault on Indigenous communities, this flag stands as a symbol of solidarity with Indigenous peoples, as does the Warrior Flag. The action began with the intention of engaging in solidarity with the Indigenous groups whose traditional territory we were seeking to protect. Formal support came from the Six Nations Hoskanigetah (Men’s Fire). The group issued a statement calling for “the Corporation of the City of Guelph to CEASE AND DESIST the development of the Hanlon Creek Business Park.”

The green anarchist flag is split diagonally, one half black for anarchism and the other green (in this case camouflage) for radical environmentalism. Perhaps a unifying point for the group is that this action is part of a broader struggle to challenge the supremacy of cultural modes and statist power. It is an exercise in confrontation, as well as part of a broader struggle for creating alternative spaces.

Three flags of unity fly atop the lookout tower at the occupation site. Photo courtesy of hcbpoccupation.wordpress.com

The processes employed by the group also served to exemplify an alternative to the current culture with decisions made using group input and a mode of consensus decision making. Eschewing hierarchy and oppressive practices, those assembled sought to put into practice a new mode of community and solidarity-based organizing. This included rotating tasks and responsibilities to ensure equal participation and to acknowledge the specific needs of different members of the group. This process included group decisions and input on everything from tactics to tasks to messaging and interaction with the broader public. In this sense the occupation camp came to be an example of autonomous organizing, against or as an alternative to the oppressive and hierarchical modalities of everyday capitalist/statist society.

The alternative politics of the group has allowed individuals to gain a connection to the land. Living with plants and animals and flowing water for over a week made a personal connection with the landbase possible. It reinforced the need to protect natural spaces from the onslaught of capitalist “progress.” Simply spending time on the land and interacting with it first hand goes a long way to forming a clear understanding of why such spaces must be saved from the unrelenting development machine. Stepping softly through the old growth and wetland areas, the usual drudgery of urban life and the banalities of capitalist economics were further from our thoughts.

We held plant and tree walks, expanding understanding of the very life systems at work around us. Modern societies sever their connections to the natural spaces that allow for their very existence, and Hanlon Creek is no exception.

The Hanlon Creek occupation stood for 20 days before a court injunction ordered the removal of the land defenders. The defenders may have vacated the site, but construction has yet to continue. A second injunction was issued against the city that would halt construction until September 13.

A further condition of the City injunction is that the Ministry of Natural Resources has final say over the future of the site. The ministry had previously stated its opposition to the development, indicating in a July 31 letter to the City of Guelph that it was “not in a position to support the continued construction of municipal services for Phases 1 and 2 of HCBP in absence of complete information regarding the extent of Jefferson Salamander habitat,” though city officials denied this. Despite this opposition, on Thursday, August 27, Donna Cansfield, Minister of Natural Resources, decided not to issue a stop work order that would prevent further construction of the Hanlon Creek Business Park. The very ministry that oversees natural spaces and habitats has now rendered this ecologically sensitive area insignificant, despite evidence to the contrary.

Interestingly, the city was attempting to extend the construction deadline by appealing to the rand River Conservation Authority, but as of now has postponed all construction until spring 2010. In a September 3 press release, the city stated that further work would be postponed as an extension would require de-watering of the construction area. The mayor also stated that the city had been held “hostage” by the protesters who “ignored democratic processes.” The city is still unable to grasp how it is failing the citizens of Guelph by demolishing vital natural areas, and does not acknowledge the inherent problems of the so called “democratic process." Despite this recent victory, the fight to stop the Hanlon Creek Business Park is not over yet and widespread public support, in the form of letters and emails, is still required to ensure that the development is halted indefinitely.

In the case of Hanlon Creek, direct action was able to bring about a turning point in the state of the development and force further action by the Ministry, but it seems the bureaucratic legalist means of engagement have failed yet again.

Without our landbase, we lose the crucial support systems that enable life to exist. In a culture with growth and increased consumption as its core values, it is direct experiences in alternative relationships in the social and natural realms that make way for community-based politics centered on mutual aid and free from hierarchy and oppression. It is these alternative spaces in which we may be able to begin to understand relationships to our lives and the life around us.

For more information on the occupation please visit the occupation blog at hcbpoccupation.wordpress.com or peaceculture.org.

Adam Lewis organizes with AW@L in Kitchener and spent 9 days at the Hanlon Creek occupation site as one of the land defenders. This is his interpretation of the events as they took place at the development site. He can be reached at lewis.f.adam@gmail.com.

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