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The Event That Started My Life in Politics

04/09/2013 08:13 EDT | Updated 06/09/2013 05:12 EDT
Charlie Angus

The following is an excerpt from the book Unlikely Radicals: The Story of the Adams Mine War by Charlie Angus (Between the Lines, 2013).

I am often asked the question "What got you into politics?" I always think back to a cold October night in 2000, when I stood on a makeshift barricade on the Adams Mine Road. Across the road, police were lining up for mass arrests. But the people who were holding the line weren't radicals, they were my neighbours --many of them senior citizens and farmers. Up until that moment, I had never considered a life in politics. I believed that organized politics was the domain of stuffy old men. I was the guitar player in the alt-country band Grievous Angels. I worked as a local freelance journalist and didn't even consider myself an environmentalist. But as I stood on that barricade, I realized that the people who should have been there to protect the public interest had sold us out.

The proposal to dump millions of tonnes of waste into the fractured pits of the Adams Mine was bitterly opposed by people in my region. The plan was full of risk. Throughout the planning process, local citizens attempted to have their concerns addressed. They participated in the public hearings. They trusted that officials would do the right thing. But they soon learned otherwise. At every step of the way, the men in the fat ties and the women in grey pantsuits flagged ahead a project that should have been rejected out of hand.

As a result, small-town Northern Ontario was forced to take the extra-ordinary step of putting up barricades to protect their right to be heard. This act of radical resistance would never have been necessary if public officials had done their job. This realization moved me from observer to activist, to organizer, and eventually to a leader in the fight.

All landfill proposals generate controversy, but the Adams Mine garbage proposal brought Northern Ontario to the brink of conflict. A rural region of 35,000 fought five separate campaigns against the Adams Mine proposal. Each campaign was an increasingly high-stakes affair that included mass demonstrations, blockades, and non-violent resistance.

In pushing the project forward, the provincial government of Mike Harris dismantled long-standing environmental protection measures in the Province of Ontario and opened the door to international PCB import schemes from Japan, the United States, and Mexico. The region of Timiskaming (locally also spelled Temiskaming) became ground zero for a waste battle that was international in scope. The fight against these projects started in small northern Legion halls and ended at an international NAFTA tribunal.

Gordon McGuinty launched this war. In his self-published memoir, Trashed, this former ski bum from North Bay suggests that the people who stood on that barricade were part of a "sophisticated form of political terrorism" bankrolled by a secret slush fund of $800,000 in "foreign" money [McGuinty, Canmore: Elevation Press, 2010]. There was no secret bank account, and the people who stood in his path were the furthest thing from terrorists. What made them radicals was their determination to have a say in whether or not the watershed of their region would be used as part of a massive experiment in waste dumping.

This is the story of how a dump fight morphed into a two-decade campaign of creative and determined civil resistance. Along the way, we trashed Toronto's Olympic bid in Switzerland, organized road blockades, and hired private detectives to track down backroom investors. Numerous political careers were burned up in this fight.

But the real success of the campaign was the effort to build bridges between groups that had previously been divided. And thus we came together -- First Nations people and farmers, environmentalists and miners, urban and rural folks, anglophones and francophones. In the crucible of a dump war, community was built and community won out. For me, the lessons learned in this fight have served as a roadmap for my life in federal politics. I learned that the democratic rights of citizens must be rooted in access to fair public process backed up by an uncompromised public service.

I decided to write the history of the Adams Mine war because I believe that accountable public process is under threat like never before. Under the Conservative government of Stephen Harper, basic standards for economic accountability are being stripped through omnibus legislation. Credible and independent bodies like Rights and Democracy or the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy have been shut down because they challenged the Conservative agenda. The ability of citizens' groups and First Nations to participate in the review of controversial environmental projects has been limited. The legitimate rights of citizens to speak up against the Enbridge pipeline has been undermined with jingoistic accusations against "extremists" and "agitators."

The implications of the Harper government's attack on democratic accountability are of a much greater scale than anything attempted during the Adams Mine war. And yet, there are lessons that can be learned. The Adams Mine project was driven by big money, backroom lobbyists, and a militant right-wing government. But despite holding all the cards, they still lost. They were beaten by an army of volunteers who out-researched, out-organized, and out-strategized them. This book tells the story of how a bunch of farmers, retirees, and First Nations people stood up to the Man and kicked his ass. For this reason alone, it is a story worth telling.

*Reprinted with permission from Unlikely Radicals: The Story of the Adams Mine War by Charlie Angus (Between the Lines, 2013).

Charlie Angus is speaking on the book in Toronto on April 11, 6:30pm at the Supermarket.