Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

SITE 41 Add to ...

Once upon a time, it seemed nothing could stop the ugly garbage dump of Tiny Township.

Its opponents had created a fairy-tale narrative that pitted a heedless, uncaring county government against the cleanest water the world had ever known. In their version, the battle was about more than a dumpsite, it was a story of good and evil, of small-town people taking on small-town power in the quaint, rural county of Simcoe, about 150 kilometres north of Toronto.

After 25 years of fruitless opposition, it appeared as though the people would never vanquish the mighty defenders of the dump, a scarred parcel of land called Site 41. Until one day they did, in one fell swoop banishing the memory of disappointing protests past.

The dump had a twisted, complicated history: Originally rejected as environmentally unwise, it was later re-assessed and revived. After years of hearings and studies, it was finally approved by a narrow vote at county council in 2007.

It would be the most sophisticated dump the county had ever known, its backers promised. True, it would be built over a reservoir of water that scientists said was as pristine as glacier ice - an aquifer that stretches from Georgian Bay to just north of Toronto - but those claims of purity were overblown, according to the county. In any case, to protect the water, engineers devised the Mother of All Garbage Bags - a huge rubber lining intended to prevent toxic leaching, which would catch any contaminating juices before they hit the water.

Everything would be well, residents were told. The great garbage bag even had a five-year warranty, the county said. The rebels were skeptical.

The peasants were the first to raise their pitchforks in protest. Farmers worried that seeping garbage would wreak havoc with their cattle and crops. They were led by Steve Ogden, a flinty, determined gadfly who rallied other objectors to his side.

Over the years, Mr. Ogden and the farmers were joined by a disparate alliance of wealthy cottagers, local retirees, career environmental activists and First Nations people. They made for a bizarre coalition, but they transformed the sleepy dumpsite into a major destination for the celebrities of the environmental circuit. David Suzuki spoke against it. Ralph Nader darted in for a visit. Maude Barlow made it her movement of the moment.

On the other side, the pro-dump forces were led by Simcoe County warden Tony Guergis. Mr. Guergis became the protesters' fiendish cartoon villain. They employed all the usual techniques of denigration, waving signs demanding his resignation, chanting "Tony Guergis has got to go," and sporting t-shirts with his image crossed out. Short and bald with wide-set eyes and a flat nose, Mr. Guergis proudly stuck out his chin and faced the criticism with a smile. Like the heel in a wrestling match, he seemed to draw strength from their vitriol.

The Guergis family is the closest thing to royalty in Simcoe County politics. Tony is the mayor of Springwater and the thrice-elected warden of the county. His brother Dave is the mayor of neighbouring Essa Township, a member of county council and a loyal dump supporter. Their cousin Helena Guergis is the local MP, and her sister Christine is a town councillor in New Tecumseth. But despite his impressive local reach, Warden Guergis struggled to hold his own in the burgeoning public-relations war.

A turning point came this spring when the heavy machinery was ready to start digging on Site 41. A group of native women from Beausoleil First Nation set up camp in a cornfield across from the dumpsite, determined to protest until the dump was shut down. They called themselves Keepers of the Water, and their arrival lent an air of spirituality to the uprising.

Recently, native protests in Ontario have not been well received - take still-simmering Caledonia, for example. In this case, though, the uneasy alliance of natives and residents held firm. Their ragtag protest camp, with a skyline of tepees and tents, was the epicentre of resistance. Every morning a few dozen residents would join the campers and gather with their reusable coffee mugs outside the gates of Site 41. Some were arrested, including 82-year-old farmer Keith Wood and his 76-year-old wife Ina, a move that didn't win much sympathy.

The rebels ranged from Mike Harris-supporting, law-and-order types to soft-spoken, gentle anarchists. Tensions actually flared among them one day when a Legion member objected to the Canadian flag being flown upside down. It was a sign of distress rather than disrespect, a Christian peacemaker explained.

Peggy Breckenridge, the tiny mayor of Tiny Township, led the anti-dump forces on Simcoe County council. A former corporate president with a reddish-blond bob and tiny glasses at the end of her nose, Ms. Breckenridge said she was swamped by hundreds of e-mails opposed to the landfill. Similar pressure was building on her fellow councillors.

The beginning of the end came at the county council meeting Tuesday. Hundreds of protesters crowded the public gallery and hundreds more waited outside. Shame, they shouted at Warden Guergis. He sipped his coffee impassively, his great warden's chain draped around his chest. It had been a bruising battle, but he was unbowed. He provoked the crowd periodically by threatening to remove the unruly, eliciting boos and hisses.

Ms. Barlow sat in the front row, a documentary crew tracking her every move. It was her motion for a one-year moratorium on construction at Site 41 that Mayor Breckenridge was about to table. The moratorium would mean no construction until 2011 and would cost the council $500,000 in winterization costs - on top of the $11-million already spent on the site. It was a sop to those who were uneasy about the controversy but unwilling to stop the project entirely.

Ms. Breckenridge calculated she could win a razor-thin majority. But when the voting began, there were gasps as the Wasaga Beach mayor, a long-time holdout, stood to vote in favour of the moratorium. With his support assured, other dominoes started to fall, and soon the majority had ballooned to a 22-10 victory.

Afterward, even the die-hard supporters of the dump were changing their tune. It's time to move on and forget about Site 41 entirely, Warden Guergis said. An awkward celebration raged outside, as the strange bedfellows hugged and moved on. The Canadian flag at the protest site was turned right-side-up, and opponents gathered to wave goodbye as construction equipment rolled away from Site 41.

It was a victory, one that will be complete if the proposal is permanently axed at next month's council meeting. All that's left is to figure out where Simcoe County will put its garbage.

Follow on Twitter: @FriesenJoe

 

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories