Over the holiday season of 2008, Premier Dalton McGuinty was having his now-famous Christmas existential crisis.
Back then, John Laforet was a U of T student, an active Liberal since he was 14, a young man who had grown up hearing his grandparents’ stories about their civil-rights activism in Windsor and Detroit in the ’60s, a chap so politically precocious he’d already served three years as a riding association president in Scarborough.
McGuinty emerged from his spell of yuletide stock-taking convinced that Ontario was wrenched by not just cyclical recession, but historic change, that the old days of easy manufacturing-based prosperity were gone and gone forever, that bold strokes were needed to lay the foundations for a new economy.
Over the next few months, a premier formerly known as a cautious incrementalist would announce the Green Energy Act and sweeping tax reform, including the harmonized sales tax, as his vision for preparing Ontario for the post-recession economy.
At the same time, Laforet was hearing about a local green energy controversy – a proposed wind-turbine installation by Toronto Hydro offshore of the Bluffs.
Laforet was worried that community concerns about the plan were being disregarded.
In a February 2009 speech in London, McGuinty said green energy was the future, and it was coming to Ontario communities whether they liked it or not. In particular, he dismissed those opposing wind turbines off the Bluffs.
“NIMBYism,” the premier declared, “will no longer prevail.”
As death notices go, it was one that has turned out to have been greatly exaggerated.
Far from presiding over the demise of so-called NIMBYism – the not-in-my-backyard acronym meant to describe small-minded selfishness – McGuinty seems, instead, to have been the unhappy inspirer of its golden age.
All around the province, local activists have organized against – and stopped – initiatives proposed for their communities.
In Elmvale, after a decades-long battle, the County of Simcoe bowed to local protest against a proposed landfill known as Dump Site 41 on the Alliston aquifer.
In Oakville, residents successfully beat back – against the premier’s initial dare to do their worst – a proposed gas-fired electricity plant to be built, they said, dangerously close to homes and schools.
And in Scarborough, the wind-turbine plan was put on hold.
It was McGuinty’s very remarks that turned Laforet against his premier.
He was studying political science and philosophy at the time, while raising the alarm about the Bluffs plan. He received a call from a Star reporter seeking reaction to the premier’s pronouncement. He had a moment of truth.
Was his chief loyalty owed to the party he’d joined when barely into his teens? Or to the community to which he’d been brought home from hospital when he was born?
Laforet chose the latter.
“I literally made the decision while walking down Broadview Ave.” As a result, his life changed. And it could well be that the premier’s does, too.
“If Dalton McGuinty hadn’t made that speech 400 kilometres away from the Scarborough Bluffs describing residents of my community as NIMBYists, I probably wouldn’t be the president of Wind Concerns Ontario today,” Laforet said. “That’s what did it for me.”
Now 25 , Laforet is an opponent of industrial wind development everywhere in Ontario, until – as he explained in a speech to the Empire Club of Canada this week – sufficient study is done on health consequences of turbines.
To date, his group has won a moratorium on offshore wind development.
When Laforet decided on Broadview Ave. to denounce the premier’s actions and attitude, he knew he was putting paid to any future he had in the Liberal party.
But what he found was that, when it came to concern about wind turbines, he was hardly alone. He also found that new technologies provided a way to turn dozens of local squawks that might otherwise have been ignored into one very loud, persistent voice.
How many other 25-year-olds, after all, have been invited to speak to the Empire Club?
At the moment, he’s a full-time volunteer in the middle of a province-wide tour taking him to 36 Ontario communities in 44 days.
In short order, he has come to know the province so well he can describe in detail the stock and species of trees on the highlands of Thunder Bay, has sampled the maple syrup from the northernmost maple trees in the province.
There’s nothing like knowing the people and the localities for understanding and identifying. But there’s nothing like technology for organizing.
“Wind Concerns Ontario is so much an electronic organization,” he told the Star. “You can’t overestimate the power of technology,” especially when it comes to connecting far-flung rural areas facing the same issue.
“Basically, I’m running Wind Concerns Ontario on a laptop, an internet stick and an iPhone.”
The various successes of local activists provide tip sheets for how other communities facing perceived threats can organize.
Kevin Flynn, the Liberal MPP for Oakville, essentially put his career on the line to fight his own government’s plan for the gas power plant in his riding.
Flynn has spent 26 years in elected office, so has seen such battles from both sides of the ramparts.
What he’s learned, he says, is that levels of government closer to the ground are the ones most open to engagement and persuasion.
“You can get through to the province if your elected rep is prepared to take on the government and lead the community in making a stand.”
He says it’s important to figure out who the key decision-makers are and to talk to them.
“My experience in the successful Oakville power-plant issue was that we were able to make cogent factual arguments instead of the emotional ones. Some people still think you can scream or protest an issue away, but I’ve yet to see it happen.
“I think being civil, professional, resolute and fair in our argument gave us a great advantage, and we won a fight that nobody expected us to win.”
Flynn also acknowledged that it helped him immensely as local MPP to have “high-profile citizens leading the residents group and approaching the issue in a professional way.”
And, no doubt, in addition to the PR know-how and the means to buy it, when you have a local resident like Mike (Pinball) Clemons speaking up and can afford to import icons of activism such as Erin Brockovich, the TV cameras are sure to follow.
Flynn also praised technology.
“Rumours spring up in the absence of facts, so we were able to keep the inaccurate information to a minimum. My office issued newsletters to interested residents on a regular basis so they were kept informed, and I know C4CA (Citizens for Clean Air) did the same.”
Frank Clegg , former president of Microsoft Canada, was chairman of C4CA. Being semi-retired, he devoted at least 40 hours a week to the campaign against the Oakville power plant.
Anyone who advised the group recommended keeping their message really, really simple. So, they did.
“Our message from the very beginning was ‘power plants shouldn’t be near homes and schools.’ We beat that drum for a year.”
Mostly, it was hard work, said Clegg. “We held community meetings at the local high school gym, we recruited volunteers, we had a core group of a dozen folks who met weekly, every Monday night for three or four hours. We had 300 street captains signed up.”
The group was sensitive to politicians who were “dismissive, yes, in not representing our right to protect our families and our homes.” But it countered allegations of NIMBYism by “saying, look, it shouldn’t be near homes and schools in any neighbourhood, never mind Oakville.”
The group is still pushing for legislation to set buffer zones around residences and schools.
“Toward the end of the year, we got pretty good at this stuff,” said Clegg. “We had a couple of engineers on our board. … We had one woman who said, ‘You’re attacking my family’s health and I won’t stand for it.’ She was unbelievable, she was at every rally … like a mother bear with a cub.”
in Dufferin County , another community battle is raging. This time, the opponent is not the government.
Carl Cosack, a local cattle and horse rancher and vice-chair of the North Dufferin Agriculture and Community Taskforce, is helping lead the fight against a corporate proposal for a mega-quarry on prime potato farmland.
He called it a “life-altering and invasive industrial development affecting both large and small communities.”
Cosack’s involvement illustrates that grassroots organizing – and its long, frequently thankless hours of unpaid labour – is the essential first ingredient. The next step is to raise public awareness, because the issue “deserves all the scrutiny a small community can muster.”
“We have public meetings, road signs, delegations to service clubs, business groups, politicians, various levels of government,” said Cosack. “We’re engaged with anyone who is curious.”
Like Clegg and Laforet, his group has cast the controversy as more than just a local grievance.
Farmers like Cosack are concerned about loss of farmland, more truck traffic and the impact on water. But the land in question is among the highest points in southern Ontario, a watershed for five river systems running in all directions.
“Everyone lives downstream from here,” said Cosack. “That makes it everyone’s business.”
And technology is key, especially in the country.
“You learn quicker who you are up against. The sharing of information is much quicker. Research is more detailed and pertinent. And word is easier to get out.”
Two years on from that day on Broadview Ave., Laforet finds himself on a “very different path than he was intending to be on.”
It is one, says the former Liberal riding president, that includes giving Liberal incumbents and candidates “a helluva time” in this fall’s election, especially in communities where there is similar outrage over turbine farms. Liberal MPPs may pay with their seats.
When he brushed off NIMBYism that day in London, Dalton McGuinty probably had no idea the whirlwind he’d loosed.
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