Unlikely Radicals: The Story of the Adams Mine Dump War

By Charlie Angus
Between the Lines, November 30, 2012, $24.95

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Everyone loves a good David vs. Goliath story and Unlikely Radicals: The Story of the Adams Mine Dump War by Charlie Angus is as good as it gets. Centred on the campaign to keep Toronto’s garbage from being dumped in a decommissioned Northern Ontario mine, Unlikely Radicals isn’t just a story about the rural north vs. the urban south, it’s a story about the politicization of ordinary people — including Angus himself.

In the late 1990s Charlie Angus, NDP Member of Parliament for Timmins-James Bay (and current Official Opposition Critic for Ethics), “believed that organized politics was the domain of stuffy old men.” The former Toronto activist and punk rock musician was living in Cobalt, a town of fewer than 1,500 people in the heart of Northern Ontario’s historic Mining District. It was also part of the Timiskaming District, “ground zero” for the Adams Mine dump war, the fight to keep Toronto’s garbage from being dumped in the environmentally sensitive region.

Backgrounder: How Toronto reached critical load

In 1989 Dofasco, a steel company based in Hamilton, announced the closure of the 8000 acre Adams Mine site. For the mining-dependant local population, the closure spelled economic disaster and as a community facing massive job loss they were tremendously vulnerable.

By the 1980s Toronto’s garbage problem had reached a crisis point. The city was looking at having filled its existing landfill sites years earlier than predicted and was desperate to find a community that would accept their garbage. Following a U.S. model, City Council looked for an economically depressed rural community desperate for jobs. 

As Angus describes it, “the process of choosing a community for waste export is by its very nature predatory … communities aren’t chosen because their land is ideal for landfill, they are chosen because they aren’t deemed to have the political or financial resources to fight back.” 

By the time dump venture shill Gordon McGuinty (who Angus describes as a “former ski bum from North Bay”) jumped on the bandwagon and proposed the abandoned Adams Mine open pit complex, Toronto City Council thought they’d hit the motherlode. So to speak. The decommissioned Adams Mine looked like a dream come true, the perfect solution to Toronto’s garbage problem.

The Adams Mine community seemed to fit the bill as “an internal Third World,” a community both vulnerable and seemingly unprepared to put up any significant resistance to such a project.

But resist they did. With five separate campaigns and through numerous provincial governments, “a bunch of farmers, retirees and First Nations people stood up to the Man and kicked his ass.”

It’s all about the water (and the people too!)

Angus, the author of five previous books on Northern Ontario, chose his subject matter well. As Council of Canadians’ Maude Barlow puts it, “the world is running out of accessible clean water. Modern humans are polluting, mismanaging and displacing our freshwater sources at an alarming rate.”

Water is a major environmental issue and the need for it is universal, which is one of many things that makes Angus’ telling of the Adams Mine story so compelling. Angus makes it abundantly clear that opposition to the Adams Mine project wasn’t nimbyism, it was a deep concern about the land and water from those who were closest to them.

But beyond the environmental issues and the politics of this story, it is the people who stand out. From a 17 year old Megan Leslie who, having her high school environmental group lobbied by the President of the dump consortium, said, “he was lobbying us and we were teenagers,” to Temagami First Nations Grand Chief Charles Fox who declared, “they don’t give a shit about the North … they’re throwing garbage on you for crying out loud,” the cast of characters in this fascinating story are vivid and memorable, and the resulting renewed relationship between the farmers and the First Nations people of the region, both stewards of the land and the water that flows through it, reveals the wonderful human capacity for putting aside differences to achieve a common goal.

The beginning of the end of the struggle against the Adams Mine proposal came, finally, in 2003 after the election of Dalton McGuinty (no relation to Gordon). As one Ministry of Natural Resources put it confidentially to Angus after meeting with Temagami First Nations representatives, “we were fucked as soon as we saw the documentation you guys had.”

And fucked they were. By 2004 the Ontario Liberals finally realized, after intensive meetings with farmers and First Nations leaders that the Adams Mine issue was “politically radioactive.” The Adams Mine Act, legislation that effectively prevented the mine from ever being used as a dump site, was passed in April of that year, and two months later a newly politicized Angus began his successful bid for the Timmins-James Bay Federal seat.

A useful tool for any activist

Exhaustively researched and written with wit and passion, Unlikely Radicals serves as a primer for ordinary people desperately looking for ways to successfully fight big business and government against seemingly impossible odds.

We’re still seeing one environmentally catastrophic project after another proposed (we need look no further than Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline project), but more and more often organized resistance provides real results, giving us all hope that maybe our future won’t be quite so bleak. In the real world, Goliath kicks David’s ass more often than not, but sometimes David really does end up on top.

A great read and a useful tool for any activist.

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Meg Borthwick is a freelance writer and moderator for rabble’s discussion forum, babble. 

Meg Borthwick

Meg Borthwick (aka Rebecca West) is a babble moderator and has been a member of since 2001. She has a decorative liberal arts degree in Quoting Chaucer at Dinner Parties (English/Drama double...