"They think they can ignore it and it'll just go away. Well, it's not going to go away."

 
From the...


 

'Rural revolution' takes to the road

Lanark farmers joined counterparts from southwestern Ontario in a blockade of Highway 401 to bring attention to growing anger at a host of issues affecting rural life. Andy Lloyd reports.

Andy Lloyd
The Ottawa Citizen

Saturday, January 22, 2005

TILLSONBURG, Ont. - It was 5:30 a.m. when the bus came to an abrupt stop outside the darkened windows of the Putnam Community Centre, just east of Ingersoll, Ont.

A golden sliver of light was growing on the horizon, silhouetting the grain silos that dot the landscape. A regiment of 36 people, some farmers and some rural residents, disembarked from the bus they had boarded in Carleton Place exactly eight hours earlier. They had travelled through the night on a cramped coach to take part in the latest incarnation of the "rural revolution," a cause championed by the Lanark Land Owners' Association to which they belong.

 
 
"There's a growing sense that rural Ontario, and indeed the rest of rural Canada, is under attack."

..."Governments and bureaucrats are killing rural Canada with excessive regulations and intrusive legislation."


 
 

Yesterday, more than 250 farm tractors blockaded Highway 401, shutting down both the eastbound and westbound lanes for hours at a time between Putnam and Ingersoll. The protest was initiated by area tobacco growers who feel the provincial government's anti-smoking legislation is hurting their business. Impressed with the Lanark association's previous demonstrations, Tillsonburg area tobacco farmers asked the organization for help. And the Lanark group answered the call. These self-appointed rural revolutionaries carried placards reading, "This land is our land. Governments back off."

Their message was clear: Governments and bureaucrats are killing rural Canada with excessive regulations and intrusive legislation.

According to the organizers, the protest was a sign of things to come.

"I think you're going to see a very strong, united rural movement throughout Ontario and across Canada," Randy Hillier, president of the Lanark association, said after the blockade. "People are recognizing they can make a difference if they just step up to the plate."

Mr. Hillier says the bureaucracy in this province is bullying farmers and rural people. "Bullies count on people to be fearful. We don't have fear."

 
 
"I think you're going to see a very strong, united rural movement throughout Ontario and across Canada. ...People are recognizing they can make a difference if they just step up to the plate."
                                                            
                                                            -Randy Hillier, President of the Lanark Landowners' Association


 
 

Rural Ontario is a diverse expanse of pastoral landscapes, ancient stone farm houses, rusty wire fences that run along lonely roads, quiet villages where everyone knows everyone else, grazing cattle and sprawling fields. Coffee shops and corner stores. It may seem idyllic, but beneath it all tensions are simmering. There's a growing sense that rural Ontario, and indeed the rest of rural Canada, is under attack.

Increasingly stringent government regulations are provoking unrest among farmers and their neighbours. Some accuse politicians of pandering to big-city interests, leaving their rural counterparts in the dust.

The Lanark Landowners' Association says it's tired of waiting for action from governments and interest groups.

The association's emphatic president, Randy Hillier, is leading what he calls the "rural revolution." Ruthless in its accusations and emboldened by a large following, Mr. Hillier and his organization have launched a campaign of civil disobedience to bring attention to the plight of rural Ontario. It's not a strategy everyone favours, but it's one the Lanark group says is necessary. Despite critics who say inconveniencing the public won't garner support for the cause, the revolution is pushing forward.

 
 
"The fact that they keep getting people out speaks for itself. If they were totally without basis, you wouldn't get so many people going out on a cold day to make a statement like this."
                                   
-Doug Clark, Editor of the FREE PRESS ADVOCATE

"We're encouraging our members to contact their MPs and MPPs, the people responsible for the legislation that is causing us problems. ... If they don't listen to some of what's being said, they might not be re-elected."

                                    -Gary Struthers, a spokesman for the Ontario Federation of Agriculture

 
 

It started last March when 800 people blockaded a busy Ottawa intersection with farm equipment. Then in April, thousands of farmers and rural residents converged on Parliament Hill, with their livestock and tractors in tow, grinding traffic to a halt. In June, the association staged an illegal deer hunt to protest regulations that prevent farmers from killing nuisance animals on their property. In the fall, it held two food strikes in Pakenham, accompanied by more road blocks. The association even staged a mock trial in Perth, acquitting farmers who sell unregulated meat, produce and dairy products, and convicting government bureaucrats of impeding their freedom.

It seems the protests have the attention of at least one high-profile politician. Ottawa Mayor Bob Chiarelli has called for a special summit this spring to address the discontent that has been festering in the city's rural sections since amalgamation in 2001.

Yet yesterday's massive blockade of Highway 401 was the first in a series of threats, made directly to federal and provincial politicians, including Prime Minister Paul Martin and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty.

The Lanark farmers set Jan. 14 as a deadline for the politicians to respond to demands. Evidently those demands weren't addressed, and the protest went ahead. Along with yesterday's blockade, the association is threatening to block international border crossings and major highways every Friday, culminating with a demonstration at Queen's Park in Toronto on March 9.

It's not exactly clear just what would pacify the rural revolution. The Lanark group has asked for an amendment that would enshrine rural lifestyle and property rights in the Canadian Constitution. But that's hardly a short-term goal.

It also cites grievances with a variety of legislation, including the Nutrient Management Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Amalgamation Act, the Environmental Protection Act and the Fish and Wildlife Act. Certainly all of this legislation has a major impact on rural communities. In particular, after the Walkerton water tragedy, the Ontario government began developing a litany of stringent regulations to safeguard the province's water. Yet many farmers and rural businesses say they're paying for these regulations, suffering financially and emotionally.

Calling bureaucrats and politicians incompetent, ignorant and cowardly, Mr. Hillier and the Lanark association say civil disobedience is the only option left.

Yesterday, followers echoed that sentiment. Among them were Bert and Marion Timmins from Almonte. They run a small beef cattle operation. But when they talk about their life's work, they speak with an air of sadness, of resignation.

"I like to think of farmers as a visible minority," Mr. Timmins said. "We just don't get as much attention as the other ones."

When the BSE crisis hit, their livelihood fell through the floor. The Timmins are still holding on to 45 cattle, unwilling to give in just yet. Even as he approaches age 70, Mr. Timmins dreams of better days ahead for the farm.

Like his friends, he's frustrated that governments aren't interested in addressing rural issues. "They think they can ignore it and it'll just go away. Well, it's not going to go away."

Mr. Timmins' cattle are virtually worthless as long as the American border remains closed to Canadian beef. It costs him more to feed them than he'd get for selling them. And he's hardly seen any of the much-anticipated government assistance packages for beef farmers.

The Black family of Stittsville shared Mr. Timmins' concerns at yesterday's protest.

Laura Black came home after four years of university to find things very changed. "The family farm was not the same as I left it," she said.

Her family's steers that once sold for $1,200 a head were only worth $40 after the BSE crisis.

"You get a nice steak for that price in a restaurant. But you can buy the whole steer for the same price," she said, baffled by the absurdity of the situation.

She thinks most urbanites don't have any understanding of the issues facing rural Ontario. And she hopes high-profile protests, like yesterday's, will change that, even if it inconveniences the public.

"We hope people can see we wouldn't be doing this if we didn't have to," Ms. Black said. "I think we need to have these rural strikes just to let people know we're completely up against a wall. Imagine being told you no longer make $50,000 a year. You now make $10,000 a year. Don't you think there'd be a strike the next day?"

And beef farmers weren't the only ones with grievances yesterday. Sawmill owners complained of being shut down because the Ministry of Environment deemed large quantities of sawdust to be toxic. So they are angered when they see sawdust used in Ottawa's public gardens in the summer.

A landfill employee from Lanark Highlands said he no longer recycles glass because the same ministry decreed his simple sorting system wasn't up to code. But without sufficient resources, he had to abandon glass recycling altogether.

Others are upset about smoking bylaws. Some say they're treated rudely by Ottawa city officials. And the list goes on and on.

Yesterday's protest was about rural Ontarians coming together to express their discontent. Decked out in jumpsuits and balaclavas to combat the frigid temperatures, they formed a convoy of tractors several kilometres long on Highway 401. The OPP diverted vehicles onto detour routes, out of sight from the protesters. But the rural revolution did command a heavy media presence.

So, do these high profile protests work?

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture decided not to participate in yesterday's protest, but rather to take a neutral position. Like most established organizations in the agriculture sector, the OFA advocates dialogue and negotiations with governments, not radical protests. "We appreciate some of their concerns, but this type of activity is against the law to begin with," Gary Struthers, a spokesman for the OFA, said.

"We're encouraging our members to contact their MPs and MPPs, the people responsible for the legislation that is causing us problems. ... If they don't listen to some of what's being said, they might not be re-elected."

But Doug Clark, the editor of the Free Press Advocate newspaper, isn't so quick to question the Lanark association's methods.

"The fact that they keep getting people out speaks for itself. If they were totally without basis, you wouldn't get so many people going out on a cold day to make a statement like this," Mr. Clark said.

"If I was the government of Ontario, I'd be looking at this very carefully. I think anything that draws attention to the rural plight, that harms no one, is acceptable dissidence. We have the right to dissent, and they're exercising the right to dissent."

 The Ottawa Citizen 2005


 

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