Skip to main content

Lyn MacMillan helped create Ontario’s modern greenbelt.

With formidable presence, steely resolve and British-flavoured elocution, conservationist Lyn MacMillan led the successful effort to preserve the Niagara Escarpment, and made history along the way.

Although the Ontario Ministry of Tourism vaunts the attractions of the Escarpment today, its beauty and wildlife were in danger in the 1960s and 70s. The swath of land stretching north from Queenston, Ont., on the Niagara River, to Tobermory, at the tip of the Bruce Peninsula, was being mined for sand, gravel and limestone, while developers schemed to exploit its prime real estate. Ms. MacMillan decided to put a stop to further interference, and through her activism and her generous donation of land on the Oak Ridges Moraine, she helped create Ontario's modern greenbelt. In 1990, the Niagara Escarpment was recognized as a UNESCO World Biosphere reserve.

In 2012, the Niagara Escarpment Commission (NEC) gave Ms. MacMillan its Lifetime Achievement Award. She died on Aug. 8 at her farm in Vaughan. She was 94.

In the spring of 1978, as a volunteer with the Federation of Ontario Naturalists (FON), Ms. MacMillan joined hundreds of citizens who gathered outside Queen's Park to voice support for a strong Niagara Escarpment planning act, long promised by the province. FON anticipated that many battles lay ahead and approached Ms. MacMillan to organize a coalition of groups to fight them. She readily agreed. The new umbrella group met in the kitchen of the spacious Toronto home that Ms. MacMillan shared with her husband and five children. They called themselves the Coalition on the Niagara Escarpment (CONE). Through meeting with MPPs, holding press conferences and organizing a letter-writing campaign to Ontario Premier Bill Davis, they were able to stop the development of a resort at the Forks of the Credit River. It was the first of many victories, which included, later that year, the opening up of NEC meetings to the public.

In 1980, through her extensive network of connections, Ms. MacMillan led a delegation to meet with the Ontario Premier to secure funds for the acquisition and preservation of environmentally sensitive Niagara Escarpment lands. She left the meeting with a commitment for $1-million.

Ms. MacMillan's weapon of choice was resolute determination cloaked in politeness. She used it effectively against bureaucrats who tried to stonewall her. John Riley, a family friend and retired scientist with the Nature Conservancy of Canada said, "For example, she would go into the various offices of the Ministry of Natural Resources up and down the escarpment. She would say things like, 'I'd like to look at your files on aggregate operations.' They would say, 'Why don't we set up an appointment?' She would say, 'Why don't I wait right here while you get them ready for me?' She would sit down and start knitting until they let her look at the files. It drove them nuts."

Ms. MacMillan frequently encountered hostility from local residents and proponents of industry and real-estate development. She remained undeterred by shotgun shells sent anonymously to supporters of Niagara Escarpment preservation, by effigies of Mr. Davis burned in parking lots, or by elbows jostling her at community hall meetings. She simply carried on. Public hearings on the proposed plan for land use lasted 26 months. Through CONE, Ms. MacMillan brought matters to a head by instigating a judicial review. The Ontario cabinet finally legislated conservation in 1985. Ms. MacMillan was then appointed to the NEC, where she made sure the new conservation law was implemented and upheld.

"She was brilliant at matching the politics of the escarpment with law," said Rob Leverty, executive director of the Canadian Historical Society, who succeeded Ms. MacMillan as the head of CONE. "She made environmental history in this country. We wouldn't have had Canada's first land use and environmental plan if it hadn't been for Lyn's leadership and commitment," he said.

The art of persuasion came naturally to Ms. MacMillan, who came from a family that produced a number of politicians. Her maternal grandfather was David Lloyd George, prime minister of Britain from 1916 to 1922. She took walks with him, listened to his stories and found him charming because he treated her as an equal. She also had fond memories of gardening with her grandmother in northern Wales. Both of Ms. MacMillan's parents had Welsh roots, so she was christened with the Welsh name Eluned (pronounced EE-lin-id). Tired of mispronunciation, and being called "Lunie," she shortened her name to Lyn.

Eluned Jane Carey Evans was born on March 3, 1921, in Bangalore, India, the second daughter of Sir Thomas and Lady Olwen Carey Evans. Her father, a distinguished doctor and surgeon, joined the Indian Medical Service when Britain ruled India during the days of the Raj. He completed his final military posting as physician to the Viceroy of India, a service that earned him a knighthood. When Lyn was three, her family returned to England where her father headed up London's Hammersmith Hospital. As soon as they were old enough, the Carey Evans children, including two more boys, were sent to boarding school, a common practice for those whose parents could afford it. Lyn graduated from Roedean, a prestigious girl's school in Brighton, Sussex. Tall, athletic and possessed of leadership ability, she captained the lacrosse team and became head girl of the school. In August, 1939, she travelled with some schoolmates to Canada. The trip was a graduation present. Her grandfather assured her that talk of war was exaggerated, but a month later, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared war against Germany. Eighteen-year-old Lyn found herself stranded in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. Family friends came to the rescue, arranging for her to stay at St. Hilda's, the women's residence at the University of Toronto's Trinity College. Based on her British academic qualifications, the university offered her free tuition to attend medical classes. She eventually switched from medicine to general science, graduating with a bachelor of science degree in 1942.

One day, emerging from the university library with an armful of books, she collided with Robert MacMillan. The medical student, who went on to become a professor of medicine and co-founder of the world's first coronary care unit at Toronto General Hospital, captured the romantic heart of Lyn Carey Evans. By way of an apology, as he helped pick up fallen books, he invited her for a milkshake. She agreed, not realizing that the milkshake would necessitate a 50-kilometre drive north to Aurora, Ont. Mr. MacMillan insisted it was the only place to get a good one. They married three years later on Valentine's Day, 1942.

By then, Robert MacMillan had enlisted in the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve. The couple made their first home in Victoria, B.C., but returned to Toronto when he was posted overseas as a surgeon lieutenant-commander on a convoy crossing the Atlantic. His missions were nerve racking for Ms. MacMillan who waited anxiously at home.

One distraction was to pursue her interest in amateur dramatics and the arts. She was strikingly attractive, so much so that while working as an extra on a film set, she was invited to go to Hollywood for a screen test. She declined because she was married and had a child. Eventually, she would have five children, all of whom became accomplished professionals; Margaret, a historian, author, and the first female warden at St. Anthony's College, Oxford; Ann, CBC bureau chief based in London; Tom, a banker; Robert, a urologist; and David, an energy consultant.

After retirement, Ms. MacMillan and her husband kept busy with travel, whitewater rafting and beekeeping at their 120-acre farm in Vaughan, just north of Toronto. It was an idyllic life, save for one worrying concern: The fingers of Toronto's concrete sprawl were creeping increasingly closer, and their farm was in the Oak Ridges Moraine, an ecologically sensitive region stretching 160 kilometres from the Niagara Escarpment to Rice Lake. Their land happened to be on the 8-per-cent of the moraine where development was allowed. So the MacMillans decided to donate their land to the Nature Conservancy of Canada in 2003. At that time, the land, worth $12-million, was one of the largest conservation donations in Canadian history. The only proviso to the donation was that the couple was to retain a lifelong residency. Dr. MacMillan died in 2007. Ms. MacMillan continued alone, tending to her garden, assured that their property would be a legacy.

"In future, the MacMillan farm nature reserve in the city of Vaughan will be what High Park is in Toronto, a green space surrounded by development," Mr. Riley said. "Lyn MacMillan was a warrior who laid low the anti-preservationists of her day. She is a hero."

Ms. MacMillan leaves her brothers, Robin and Benjy Carey Evans; her five children, Margaret, Ann, Tom, Robert and David; 12 grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren. She was predeceased by her husband and her sister, Margaret.