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SUDBURY, ON—At the end of a summer of activity, a 675-acre tract of land in the south end of Guelph rests relatively quiet. It has won a one-year break from development. It remains, however, a proposed construction site for what the City of Guelph is calling the "Hanlon Creek Business Park" (HCBP). The land itself is home to a rare Old Growth forest; a Provincially Significant Wetland, the Paris-Galt moraine; a vital drinking water recharge zone; and a threatened species called the Jefferson Salamander.
A three-hour drive north of Guelph, another piece of land has seen a lot of action this summer. This place, in Simcoe County, is called Site 41, and is the location for a proposed garbage dump. It sits directly above the Alliston Aquifer, an important source of drinking water in the area, one which international scientists claim provides some of the cleanest drinking water in the world.
The two sites have seen comparable public outcry over the respective proposals for their development; the resulting protests have also brought people together to successfully oppose the developments.
The HCBP in Guelph has been met with much grassroots opposition over the fact old growth trees would be cut and meadows that surround the forest would be paved over, stopping rainfall from percolating into the groundwater.
An old growth tree is one that is 150 years or older, and an old growth forest is one that has been left undisturbed for a similar period of time, allowing for the ecosystem to mature. On the site grows a Hop Hornbeam that is estimated to be between 500 and 600 years old, meaning it likely predates colonization of the western hemisphere. Beyond remaining one of the few forests of its kind in Southern Ontario, the site also provides the exact conditions necessary for the threatened Jefferson Salamander to breed.
As for its impact on water, the HCBP would be built alongside Tributary A, which runs into the Speed River and eventually the Grand River. Any sewage or industrial waste that leaches into the water in Guelph would be passed on to communities downstream, including Cambridge, Brantford and Six Nations, the largest Native reserve in Canada.
After months of city hall meetings, rallies and education campaigns, opposition to the HCBP was not heeded by the City of Guelph and it looked like construction of the HCBP was going to go ahead. This was thrown into question on July 27 when, in the early morning, about 60 people set up an occupation camp on the site, complete with a kitchen, shade structure and composting toilet system.
Meanwhile, in Simcoe County, the Site 41 protest camp had been set up since May 8, initiated by a group of Anishinabe Kweag (Anishinabe women) from Beausoleil First Nation. Vicki Monague was part of the initial group of campers and describes how the weekend camp-out turned into a permanent protest camp:
"May 8, 2009 was the day that we started the camp, and we lit a sacred fire there. At the end of the weekend, we were going to pack up and go home, but it was channeled to our fire keeper that the fire was lit in protection of the water and that purpose had not yet been completed, so we stayed. The fire has been burning now for 112 days (as of Aug 31)."
The Site 41 protest camp drew farmers from the surrounding area who joined with the Anishinabe people. The camp evolved into a blockade later in the summer when the warden of the township announced that trucks hauling garbage would arrive within a couple of weeks.
Local government bodies at both the HCBP and Site 41 have been pushing the developments. The City of Guelph owns about 60 per cent of the proposed HCBP lands and Simcoe County owns Site 41. Each has engaged aggressive legal means to bypass grassroots opposition and to see construction through.
In Guelph on the afternoon of July 31, a group of city representatives, employees, police and an intelligence officer delivered the files the city would use to support its motion for an injunction against the occupation and its lawsuit against several named and unnamed persons.
"You can't submit an injunction without a lawsuit, so the city filed for an injunction as well as a lawsuit," explains Sam Ansleis of the occupation. The lawsuit included allegations of "conspiracy, destruction of property, intimidation [and] extortion." The city was seeking $5 million in damages.
The lawsuit was quickly classified a SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) by the occupiers' lawyers.
“The people we showed this [to] were pretty disgusted by the fact that the city would use a SLAPP suit [to discourage public participation] against its own citizens,” said Ansleis.
Guelph City Council had agreed unanimously to launch the lawsuit and injunction following an in-camera council meeting. The suit named a local group, Land Is More Important Than Sprawl (LIMITS), which has been organizing around the HCBP. The group, however, has never been involved in the occupation.
"I don't think that it is unreasonable to assume that the city's intention in naming LIMITS was to create a rift between LIMITS and the occupation, since LIMITS was being implicated in a $5 million SLAPP suit arising from an occupation that they were not involved in," said Ansleis.
Accidentally, it seems, documents accompanying the lawsuit contained copies of correspondences from the Ministry of Natural Resources imploring the city to stop the construction of the HCBP and copies of gag orders against a researcher and a local neighbourhood group. These documents assisted the defendants in winning a counter-injunction against city construction on the lands.
Karen Farbridge, the mayor of Guelph, has come out in active support of the HCBP project, despite being elected on a "green" platform, where she names “clean water, clean air and clean parks” and “encourag[ing] public involvment” as being among her priorities.
Delays caused by the occupation, and the resulting injunction, have led the city to postpone construction until spring 2010. In its press release, the city and Mayor Farbridge are quoted as saying, "A handful of protesters have held our city hostage and ignored democratic processes."
Similarly, in Simcoe County, Tony Guergis was elected mayor of Springwater County in 2006, and during the election stated clearly that he would oppose Site 41. Upon later election in 2007 as Warden to Simcoe County, he oversaw waste management and became a proponent of Site 41. He claims that Site 41 would be a more technically sound site in comparison to the other landfills in the area that are equipped with "inferior engineering."
In response to the blockade and protest camp, some County Council executives launched a lawsuit naming two of the Anishinabe Kweag, seeking damages of $80,000 per week in lost time. "[W]e were estimating that they were going after us for about half a million," said Monague.
On August 25, county council voted to drop the lawsuit and to instate a one-year moratorium on construction at Site 41.
When questioned about whether or not construction would continue at Site 41 next year, Guergis pointed to the cost of renewing permits and winterizing, along with the considerable public pressure, as reasons for not going ahead. "It seems an impossible situation to get approval to reopen the site 12 months from now."
He also pointed out that "100 per cent" of the houses in the county put garbage at the curb every week, implying that those in the community are to blame for the need to open a new dump site.
"I think we have to stop and say we are going to wait for direction from those dealing with the issues. So we will look to the people on the ground and see what their decisions are regarding their own garbage," he said.
Guergis claims that Site 41 would be used almost exclusively for residential garbage, but when pressed further about corporate waste, he stated, “Anyone could pay to dump there.”
Guergis has made statements characterizing people at Site 41 as simply not wanting a dump being constructed “in their backyards.” However, the people themselves cite different reasons for wanting to protect the site.
"I was raised traditionally, raised to do ceremonies for the water, and raised with the inherent responsibility and duty to protect the water for the seven generations to come," Monague explained. "I did what I did for the water. Not just for me, but because we could all use a little less contamination."
On September 22, county council voted to permanently cancel the plans for Site 41. Only then was the sacred fire at the protest camp extinguished.
In Guelph, Ansleis sees the delayed construction of the HCBP as a victory. "We were successful in our goal; our goal was to stop construction of the culvert for this summer. The project will continue in the spring, so resistance will continue in the spring."
She added: "This resistance has not only been about the the Hanlon Creek Business Park. It is about this kind of development that is taking place all over Turtle Island."
Monague also recognizes that, while a victory at Site 41 has been achieved, the issue is not resolved. "The important thing now is that, even though we got the moratorium, the work definitely is not done. I know that many of us will be working to make sure that the water is protected.
"This partnership [that we have experienced around Site 41] between native and non-native communities is pretty much historic. I don't remember a partnership like this ever happening around here and i think it is going to last for a long, long time."
Shailagh Keaney is from Sudbury, in occupied Atikameksheng Anishnawbek territory.
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.