It would have been the biggest quarry in Canada, but it was stopped in its tracks by an unusual coalition of farmers, urban foodies, artists, environmentalists and native bands, one that suggests a model for organizing opposition to resource projects.
The movement against the Ontario quarry was launched with nothing more than a basic story. An American company had convinced local farmers it was buying up chunks of land for a potato farm. Potatoes were only part of the plan, however. It soon made an application to build a massive quarry that the opposition said would threaten the groundwater and soil in one of the most fertile land belts in the country.
The plan seemed outrageous to many locals. But how could anyone else be convinced to care if it wasn’t happening in their backyard? The rest of the province had to be persuaded that the fight was about them, too. That meant mobilizing people in the cities. The best way proved to be through their stomachs.
On Wednesday, the Highland Companies withdrew its controversial application to build a limestone quarry in Melancthon township, about 100 kilometres northwest of Toronto, citing a lack of support in the community.
It was an unexpected move that capped a two-year battle for a diverse band of citizens.
What began with local farmers afraid of a potential threat to their land soon became a broad coalition, whose clout grew through the political motivations of urban foodies. Among the first and most influential was Michael Stadtländer, renowned as one of the country’s great chefs, who has a farm and restaurant in the area of the proposed site. He rallied the Canadian Chefs Congress to the cause and in 2011 was part of a massive festival called Foodstock, that brought nearly 30,000 people to the area to sample locally grown foods prepared by dozens of celebrity chefs. This year he also helped organize Soupstock, bringing the protest to Toronto through an even larger food festival. He tried to convey the importance of protecting local food sources.
“We mobilized a lot of people,” Mr. Stadtländer said. “We had people come to the country and experience the land. This farmland grows food for the city. … For me it was a nice strategy.”
Another important strategic point to capture foodies was at Toronto farmers’ markets, where signs saying Stop the Mega Quarry were distributed along with pamphlets and petitions. Mark Calzavara, Ontario organizer for the Council of Canadians, said the movement really harnessed the emerging enthusiasm for food as a political tool.
“Food was a new message and really important,” Mr. Calzavara said. “They really mobilized in every way they could, from food to music to popular culture. In my neighbourhood, they were at the farmers market in High Park every week with signs and literature.”
The opposition also drew on the experience of the protest that stopped the Site 41 landfill project in Tiny Township. As in that case, the anti-quarry group made sure people from as many walks of life as possible were involved. Divisions between locals and those with weekend homes, between natives and non-natives, young and old, country and city, all had to be set aside for the greater goal.
Artist Sandi Wong, who has a weekend home in the area, organized paint-in events that drew artists to the movement. Rancher Carl Cosack was a tireless advocate in the media. Musicians such as Sarah Harmer and Jim Cuddy played benefit concerts. An Avaaz.org petition was organized that garnered nearly 130,000 signatures, one of the largest ever handed to the Ontario government. And the David Suzuki Foundation lent its heavyweight environmental credentials.
Jeff Monague, a councillor at Beausoleil First Nation, said about 50 members of his band were regulars at protests and other anti-quarry events. He said this model of a broad coalition of non-violent resistance can be a model for protests all over the country, particularly for land and water issues that affect natives.
“It was a grassroots effort. It really came from the people,” Mr. Monague said. “One of the things we’re trying to show is that we can do these kinds of things without any direct conflict, that it can be non-violent all the way through. The young people can really learn from that.”