"Will our children looking back, upon all that we have done/ find clean water in a bottle, and denounce Site 41?" -- Marg Raynor, Site 41 Drum Song
Beginning in May 2009, in the small community of Tiny Township, Ontario, the Beausoleil First Nations and local farmers came together to protest a proposed landfill, which would have received waste from a variety of smaller towns in the area, such as Midland and Penetanguishene.
The opposition to the landfill, which included notaries like Ralph Nader, Maude Barlow, Dr. William Shotyk, Elizabeth May, Peter Rosenthal, David Crombie and David Suzuki, argued that Site 41 was above the Alliston aquifer, which was tested and found to contain some of the purest water in the world.
The highly publicized and non-violent blockade of the landfill site was ultimately successful in stopping its implementation. The plan was shelved in September 2009 and permanently closed on May 25, 2010.
Five years after the September 2009 moratorium, those involved in the protests, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, came together at Perkensfield Park to celebrate, remember and reflect on lessons learned and future directions.
"At the time, I had not heard of any kind of protest that had this collaboration of Native and non-Native to the degree it was here," said Marg Raynor, a Metis singer-songwriter and artist. "And I felt that my greatest contribution could be through music."
Indeed, her Site 41 Drum Song is at once a haunting tribute to the land and the water as well as a moving celebration of what can be done when people come together for a common purpose.
Site 41 had a long history, and by 2009, the residents in Tiny Township had already experienced multiple decades with the consequences of the polluted E. Pauze Landfill.
The Ontario Ministry of the Environment approved the Site 41 development in 2006, and in June 2007, the Simcoe County Council allowed initial construction to begin.
Indigenous involvement in the Site 41 opposition began when Mohawk environmental advocate and elder, Danny Beaton of Six Nations, Turtle Clan, and long-time Site 41 opponent Stephen Ogden took part in a peaceful, collaborative walk from Site 41 to Queen's Park in Toronto.
The summer of 2009 was pivotal for the Site 41 opposition because local residents, the Anishinaabe Kweag and their supporters began to engage in collective action. A plan was initiated to construct a more permanent camp site on the Parnell family farm near the planned dump site.
John Hawke, a young activist in the community, attended this weekend camp to act as a Fire Keeper to support the women in their efforts. At the end of this initial weekend of camping, Elizabeth Elson explained that she felt the "pulling of her heart strings," urging her to remain at the camp and continue the vigil. John Hawk also stated that the "fire has told me to stay until the dump is stopped." And so, the women decided to stay.
The decision to establish a permanent vigil camp, which lasted for over 100 days, had a significant impact on the outcome of Site 41.
"The minute I heard they were doing what they were doing, I was there," recalled Don Morgan, chair of the planning committee for the 5th year celebration. The Site 41 protest was important for Morgan because it helped him gain an appreciation for the Native understanding of the environment. "We have to listen more closely to our Indigenous people," he said. "If we don't listen to them, we're toast."
Reverend David Black, of the Ebenezer United Church, was similarly enthusiastic about the collaboration between Native and non-Native activists. When Native activists invited him to be a fire keeper, he was humbled. "I just found that so powerful, and so moving," he said. "I am deeply indebted to the First Nations people for caring enough to take the time to help me learn how to become a better human being."
The Site 41 experience was a pebble, thrown into that water, with ripples that have also gone out to assist with the creation of AWARE Simcoe, the termination of the Melancthon Mega Quarry, the creation of Camp Nibi (meaning water) at Springwater Park, and the continuation of environmental awareness among multiple generations and cultures within the County of Simcoe.
This kind of collaboration, one of the long-standing legacies of the Site 41 protest campaign, is destined to spill over into different causes as well. At the commemoration event itself, there was talk about organizing against the plan to build several thousand new homes in the village of Midhurst, known as the Midhurst Secondary Plan. Similar concerns about environmental damage to farmland and water were discussed.
"This is the new Site 41," remarked Marg Raynor, "I see the event today as taking all that collective knowledge and experience gained from Site 41 and starting to focus it towards new campaigns." For activists like Raynor, Site 41 was a process of initiation into a new lifestyle of sorts, one dedicated to protecting the environment. As Indigenous women, she says, it is their job to be keepers of the water.
Amarnath Amarasingam is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow at Dalhousie University's Resilience Research Centre and Sarah Morgan is an independent scholar and wrote her MA thesis on the Site 41 demonstrations.
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