How did it come to this? Ontario anti-wind power activists, so dissatisfied with conventional ways to drive home their point, they’ll put their credibility on a precarious dotted yellow line this weekend, hoping officialdom will finally see their version of reason.
From scattered concerns about wind turbines a few years ago, to confrontations at council meetings and legal appeals and mass protests, wind turbine opponents are pulling out all the stops now as they plan to jam one of Ontario’s busiest highways.
Anti-turbine activists are organizing a slow-moving rally Saturday along the Hwy 402 from Forest to Strathroy, deep in the heart of a rural region where the high-rise-sized industrial power turbines have sprouted like in few other areas of Ontario.
A desperate act, the protesters will admit. A Hail Mary pass. It could win them the attention and policy changes they want, but just as easily alienate them from those they most need on their side.
“It’s our way of saying, ‘(Premier) Kathleen Wynne, we’re here and we’re on the highway and we’re going to speak,’ ” says Esther Wrightman, who’s become one of the familiar faces of protest against the industrial turbines.
“We’ve held back on doing any protest like this, because we hoped common sense would prevail. This kind of protest is our last resort,” she said.
It means taking a risk, she said, but they’re running out of options to stop what they see as a whirling dervish of health hazards.
This follows four years of steadily mounting opposition from many rural residents, especially in Southwestern Ontario where many of the turbines have sprouted, who cite health, environmental and economic concerns.
Four years of their experts doing battle against wind companies’ experts, who say that turbines – properly designed and operated – have no negative effect on human or environmental health.
To this point, the overwhelming edge has gone to wind companies and policy makers.
Wrightman, part of the Middlesex Lambton Wind Action Group, first raised concerns as she learned 37 turbines would be built near her Strathroy-area home, part of the Ontario Liberals’ strategy to entice companies to invest in renewable energy.
Back then, there was little anti-turbine buzz. But that was then. The scattered voices of protest became an outcry, a key reason, some say, the Liberals were all but swept from rural areas in the last election.
The disaffectation has grown longer by the day: Opponents say the province, municipalities and bureaucrats aren’t listening.
Wrightman and her group were thrown out of a township council meeting after loudly voicing their objections to that process.
They’ve ridiculed and worked to sabotage presentations by wind companies. They’ve shown up, unwelcome, at Liberal gatherings. They’ve launched appeals, and lost repeatedly.
This week, they’re arguing before an environmental tribunal that the province was wrong to approve wind energy giant NextEra’s Adelaide wind project. It would be almost miraculous if that approval is reversed, they concede.
They couldn’t even persuade the tribunal to let them record the proceedings (although, apparently unnoticed by the adjudicator, one woman did defiantly record part of Wednesday’s session, first with a video camera and then with her cellphone.)
And so, they prepare for Saturday’s step, blocking a roadway, hoping the attention will more than offset the risk of arrest.
“It gives people some sense of slight power, which they aren’t feeling right now,” Wrightman said.
That kind of protest trajectory isn’t uncommon, said Eric Shepperd, one of the original members of the Occupy London movement.
“It does seem to be a common thread of protest movements, that the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” he said.
If successful, an escalated protest builds networks, community and collaboration. It also attracts media attention and wider message dissemination. But the risk is such protests can backfire, annoying drivers who see them as highway hijackings and prompting authorities to react to the protest instead of the message.
In Ontario, 71 of its 444 municipalities have declared themselves “unwilling hosts” for wind turbines.
More than 30 citizens’ groups have formed from Tobermory to Sarnia alone.
The ruling Liberals have steadily tweaked their green energy policies, reducing the subsidies for solar and wind power and adding clauses that give priority to places where community support is highest.
But when such policies have made it possible for turbine makers to employ hundreds of Ontarians, it’s perhaps optimistic for protesters to expect that same government will erect new obstacles for companies willing to buy, install and operate that product.
Muriel Blair, one of the organizers of the rolling rally, holds out optimism.
“We’re hoping hundreds” of Ontarians in tractors, trucks and manure spreaders will take part in Saturday’s event, she said.
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When: Starts at 10 a.m. Saturday
Route: Begins from the Hwy 21 (Forest) on-ramp of the Hwy. 402 and moves westward to Strathroy, ending at Hwy. 81 (Centre Rd.); followed by a rally in Strathroy.
CAN CHARGES BE LAID?
“Can charges be laid? Yes. Will charges be laid? I can’t speculate about that,” said OPP Sgt. Dave Rektor.
Ontario’s Highway Traffic Act bans “unnecessary slow driving.”
“No motor vehicle shall be driven on a highway at such a slow rate of speed as to impede or block the normal and reasonable movement of traffic thereon except when the slow rate of speed is necessary for safe operation . . .”
“At this point, it’s our hope that the demonstrators or protesters will find another route.” said OPP Sgt. Dave Rektor. Police have been working to encourage the group not to use the 402 for protest, he said. Safety – of protesters and drivers – is a key concern. There will be a police presence. “Our goal is public safety and security. It does get complicated when people are intent on doing something that is illegal.”
THE POLITICAL SCIENTIST
While opponents haven’t halted any wind farms outright, they’ve forced the province to tweak energy policy, said Western University’s Andrew Sancton. “I think the opponents of the wind turbines have been very effective in raising all kinds of issues about health and effects on the environment . . . I would say this is a prime example of a grassroots movement that did very well, quite quickly.”
“The megaphone politics of protest isn’t working,” said Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley. “There’s a sense of desperation. Ordinary people cannot get a change in government policy and they’re taking this (rally) as a last step of opposition.” And municipalities are miffed they can’t decide where turbines go or don’t, since the province took away that control.
“We can zone Walmart. We can zone methadone clinics. We can zone everything out there but we can’t zone industrial wind turbines.” Bradley said.
Other notable highway protests
Idle No More: First Nations and supporters across Canada call for a new deal with the federal government and dismantling the old Indian Act. In Southwestern Ontario, that included protesting along an approach to the busy Ambassador Bridge, Canada’s busiest border crossing.
Farmers: In January and December, 2005, tractors and heavy equipment slowly move along the Hwy. 401 near Tillsonburg, creating hours-long traffic back-ups.