Grass-roots Activism: Changing the Course of History

This article by Environment North board member Scott Harris was originally published in the Chronicle Journal on January 5, 2015.

Is democracy still alive? Can ordinary citizens still make their voices heard? A look at initiatives in recent decades here in Northwestern Ontario strongly suggests that the answer is yes.

In 1980, when Atomic Energy of Canada Limited proposed a High-level Nuclear Waste (HLW) storage facility in Atikokan, Environment North and other citizen organizations studied the proposal and believed that not enough was known about the safe transport and storage of HLW to justify the risk it posed.  A petition that called for public hearings had 24,000 signatories. Test-drilling was halted and the hearings were eventually held in the 1990s.

The nuclear waste disposal issue has returned to the Northwest with a number of communities participating in the site selection process. The group Citizen’s Against Nuclear Waste in Nipigon engaged their community through a survey and petition, demonstrating significant opposition to a disposal site – a contributing factor to Nipigon city council’s withdrawal from the site selection process.

In 2004, Citizen’s Concerned About Synfuel (CCAS) raised concerns regarding the toxic waste and greenhouse gas emissions that would be produced by a proposed petroleum coke gasification power plant on Thunder Bay’s waterfront. Petroleum coke is a by-product of the oil refining process.

The CCAS encouraged the community to ask the Ontario Ministry of Environment to subject the project to a full environmental assessment. The Environment Minister at the time agreed. CCAS presented a number of suggestions to improve the environmental aspects of the power plant.  Eventually the company abandoned the Environmental Assessment process and the project.

In 2011, the Federal government announced the closure of the Experimental Lakes Area, (ELA) a whole-lake aquatic research station south of Vermillion Bay. A young doctoral student by the name of Diane Orihel put her life on hold for many months as she helped form the Coalition to Save ELA with key support from citizens in Kenora. She criss-crossed the country explaining why the ELA should remain open. Here in Thunder Bay, the Council of Canadians and Environment North rallied behind Diane. Supported world-wide, the campaign was a success and the ELA is back in business, now managed by the International Institute of Sustainable Development. Important research on the impacts of climate change, industrial mercury and algal blooms is continuing.  A recent experiment demonstrated the feminization of male fish due to synthetic hormones in our municipal sewage. The effects of nanosilver particles, flame retardants and genetically modified fish, are now being explored. Their research helps us to understand, and to solve the problems we humans have created.

As we woefully contemplate the $90 million cleanup of mercury-contaminated sludge in the North Harbour, don't we wish there had been environmental activism back in the early 20th century. 

Here we are once again on a cusp of history. Energy East is a proposal by TransCanada Pipelines (TCP) to repurpose a natural gas pipeline to carry primarily tarsands bitumen from Alberta to the East Coast through Northwestern Ontario. This brings the issues surrounding the expansion of the oil industry to our doorstep. 

There are transportation risks from both rail and pipeline. The United States Department of Transportation Data from 2005 to 2009 shows that for every billion tons of oil moved one mile 3,504 gallons is spilled by rail transport and 11,286 gallons is spilled by pipelines. Oil transport to eastern Canada crosses nearly 1000 lakes and rivers, many of which are here in our own backyard.  

Construction of an Energy East pipeline would commit Canada to decades of increased oil production from the tar sands in order to fill the pipeline at a time when climate scientists tell us we must back away from fossil fuels. Research from the IISD and the Canadian Energy Research Institute show that expansion of the oil industry would almost certainly prevent Canada from honouring its greenhouse gas reduction commitments.

Can citizens rally once again? There are a number of ways for your voice to be heard. The Ontario Energy Board which will hold a community discussion on the TCP Energy East proposal January 14th 2015 at the Valhalla Inn.  You can also contact your member of parliament with your concerns. A coalition of local citizens groups will be asking Thunder Bay City Council to oppose the project. You can support this initiative by learning more about the risks, and signing the petition at, or