After the protest is over

The people of Pickering stopped an airport, and it felt wonderful, but along the way they lost their middle-class faith in the system, and that doesn’t feel wonderful at all

Angela Ferrante May 17 1976

After the protest is over

The people of Pickering stopped an airport, and it felt wonderful, but along the way they lost their middle-class faith in the system, and that doesn’t feel wonderful at all

Angela Ferrante May 17 1976

After the protest is over

The people of Pickering stopped an airport, and it felt wonderful, but along the way they lost their middle-class faith in the system, and that doesn’t feel wonderful at all

Angela Ferrante

Four years ago Anita Fisher decided to fight the government, and won. She still looks the same, a quiet housewife with wispy blond hair and an apologetic voice, but she has changed, and it worries her. She has slipped out of the old values she used to wear like comfortable worn-out shoes. She doesn’t believe in governments anymore. Politicians are liars and selfseekers to her now. She’s heard her usually reticent teen-age sons talking about doing a “little sabotage” on government machinery. “We’re not violent people,” she says of her family, “but that’s what they do to you.” “They”—the federal government, with their planners, consultants, appraisers, ministers and bureaucrats who have trespassed so carelessly over her life and land.

The Fishers, like the other families who fought the Pickering airport northeast of Toronto, were strangers to protest. They believed in the system and its institutions. They saved their money, paid their taxes and isolated themselves in the cocoon of middle-class affluence, trusting to God and government to protect their own backyards. They shared only a passing sympathy for the urban protesters they read about in newspapers. They could never see themselves fighting the same kind of battle. Nine years ago the Fishers bought 20 acres in Pickering, complete with forest and creek. Ed Fisher, a machine adjuster in Don Mills, designed and built his own house on the property, sacrificing five years of weekends with his kids for “his only hobby, his only love.” But in March, 1972, the federal government moved in to build an airport in Pickering, expropriating or threatening to expropriate 43,000 acres, and the first property appraisals barely covered the cost of being displaced. That’s when the Fishers banded together with other property owners in a group called People Or Planes and fought, until three years later the project was stopped. (By that time, $100 million had been spent expropriating land.) But victory has changed the group almost as much as defeat might have done, and that’s what worries Mrs. Fisher. If it was their middle-class faith


that made it easy for politicians to exploit them, it was their middle-class power, not the rightness of their cause, that eventually enabled them to win. As Toronto lawyer William McMurtry puts it, “If you didn’t have highly educated, highly intelligent articulate people, it wouldn’t have worked. If they had been average intelligent farmers

they wouldn’t have got anywhere.” The fields of Pickering are still silent, but the jets roar over the belated protests of the farmers displaced by Mirabel airport outside Montreal. The Pickering protesters realize this. They are cynical. They won the battle, but they lost their innocence.

Though the Pickering airport will never be built, it still hangs in the air like a bad dream over the rich farmlands of Pickering. “I have no faith in the system or in the people who perpetrate the system anymore,” says POP member Mrs. Pat McClennan. “I’ll never have the blind faith I used to have.” As the elation of winning recedes, there is time to feel the pain,

count the wounds. Twelve buildings were demolished before the federal government backed off. Hundreds of properties are still in limbo. The Fisher property is registered as owned by the Public Works Department, but they continue to pay taxes and pretend it is still theirs. Says Mrs. Fisher: “Ed has never accepted it. Every spring he still goes out and plants trees. He’s never given up hope.” There are people who still cry quietly when the airport is mentioned. And there are the children—“Poppers” they were called—who were born just before or during the fight. Children who have never heard one good thing about authority. Children and teen-agers who watched their parents burning government pamphlets. “Mothers used to tell their children that if they did anything wrong the government would get them,” recalls Anne Howes, a magazine writer who did publicity for POP. “If anything went wrong in the house, mothers would say it was the government’s fault.” Kids would go home daily to ask, “Has the government got our house yet?” Howes remembers a five-yearold boy instinctively picking up a ball of mud and hurling it at passing Ministry of Transport trucks. Says Margaret Godfrey, wife of POP’S chairman, Dr. Charles Godfrey, “You didn’t look at your children in horror when they said ‘sabotage.’ You said, ‘When willyou be able to get it done? Just don’t give your name and address. Do it at night.’ ” Adds Mrs. Rhoda Almack, wife of a Toronto consultant and engineer, “When you have moments of reflection you think, this is morally wrong. We are condoning dishonesty. But this is what it has done to you.” Concludes Howes: “We all grew up assuming that the government was fairly solid. Somewhere there was someone reasonable. That democracy was a functional


viable process. These kids will never have the benefit of that assumption.”

People Or Planes started out thinking it could win by being reasonable and sane. It took a long time to finally break down that assumption. The group was launched the very night the airport was announced. It was a frantic group of people who met for

the first time in a century-old farmhouse to plot their battle. There were farmers, but also a healthy colony of artists, commuters, professionals, doctors, lawyers, consultants, politicians, advertisers and journalists. The airport had unintentionally cut into a rather powerful little group. “The first meeting was just a riot,” recalls Jane Buckles, a young artist. “There were farmers, hippies, nouveaux riches, businessmen, a whole combination. Nobody was talking to anybody else. They were all standing in little groups.” That broke down very quickly as the fight progressed. Under the direction of Godfrey, head of rehabilitation medicine at Toronto’s Wel-

lesley Hospital, committees were set up to prove the airport was not needed.

Amateurs though they were, they started immediately to niggle away at the government machinery. They learned quickly how to grab public attention (“At first we were so scared we passed the phone around to see who would be the first to make a call,” remembers Howes) by holding spring festivals, country fairs, publishing pamphlets, making films showing city people what country people were trying to protect. They exploited to the fullest the talent within their ranks. When they needed a drummer to lead a contingent to Queen’s Park, they didn’t get just any drummer, but one from the Toronto Symphony. And they learned some very effective methods of harassment. Mrs. Pat McClennan, who would normally rather write children’s books, recalls how she played havoc with the Ministry of Transport policy of replying to all complaints about the airport. At the Canadian National Exhibition Sportsman Show in Toronto, she obtained thousands of signatures on coupons asking the government to stop the airport. One day she mailed 15 to the MOT. Next day 50. Next, 2,500. Next 3,000. Then back to 10. “They never knew when to hire Office Overload,” she laughs.

POP eventually attracted 6,500 members and raised $120,000 (some of it donated anonymously from sympathetic but careful government consultants). Members scurried about, at their own expense, persuading anyone who would listen that the airport was not needed. They were successful to a great degree. The eight Torontoarea city councils affected by the airport voted against it. POP’S technical “experts,” some of them volunteers who didn’t know anything about airports, flew to Washington and London to confer with aviation people and anti-airport groups elsewhere. > But no matter how much sympathy they stirred up, their constant badgering to get a meeting with federal authorities was to no avail. They watched helplessly as a commission set up to inquire into the Pickering problem failed to question the need for the airport. When the commission recommended that the airport be built, the protesters gave up hope that the reasonable approach would work.

That was two years ago. Not long afterward, the women who usually hatched the group’s publicity stunts sat around a kitchen table. “We got to the point where we thought we had really lost,” recalls Isobel Thompson. “There was only one step we could take and that step was physical.” Why not enlist a plethora of women to sit in front of the bulldozers? Women all dressed for tea, with hats and gloves? Would it stop the bulldozers? How would the government react? So they held a symbolic bulldozer tea party and invited the Junior League set. To their astonishment they got 1,300 names of women willing to help. To show they meant it, three women occupied the century-old farmhouse of


farmer Ernie Carruthers for 13 days (cut off from electricity and running water) to stop its demolition. Luckily, it never got to confrontation. Says Mrs. McClennan: “I don’t know how much soul searching I would have had to do to stand in front of those bulldozers. I was sincerely glad it wasn’t taken to the test. I’m just so dead set against violence. But intelligence doesn’t seem to do any good. I suppose if everything had depended on my being there in front of those bulldozers, I would have been there. But I’d be a wreck.” Adds Anne Howes: “I’m afraid it would appear that two weeks of being relatively nasty won the day, when in fact it was really three and one half years of being nice, reasonable, middle-class, sensible types that won it.” The anti-Pickering forces consisted of professionals who knew where to go to get things done, people who were mildly surprised when the government wouldn’t give them a hearing, who were shocked when their enclave was threatened. Their strength lay in their expertise. Lome Almack, consultant at the prestigious Price Waterhouse Associates management consulting firm, and Brian Buckles, a vicepresident at Manufacturers Life Insurance Co., headed the technical committee. They compiled an impressive report on the airport. They showed that the noise problem at Toronto International Airport will be solved, not through a second airport but through the retirement and modification of noisier jets; that passenger traffic forecast by the MOT was too high and had to be

revised; in fact, international flights across the North Atlantic in 1974 showed a decrease from 1973. Was a second airport really needed? Copenhagen shelved a new airport after it had been designed. London had started construction on a new airport and then abandoned it. Second airports in Paris, Washington and Tokyo were proving uneconomic and impractical. But still they were unable to get through to the government.

That’s when they decided they needed a good lawyer with contacts, credibility and some interest in protecting the environment. William McMurtry, younger brother of Roy (Ontario’s new attorneygeneral and good friend of Premier William Davis), suited their needs perfectly. He recalls how, when the anti-airport forces (regrouped into an umbrella organization called the Metropolitan Toronto Airport Review Committee (MTARC) first came to him “they were sitting in the middle of a field, screaming at everybody—the federal, provincial and municipal governments.” He was astonished at the wealth of technical information they had amassed and at how badly they had got it across. He suggested a course of action; attack the weak link in the chain, the government of Ontario. After all, the province could back down without losing face. It had not made the original decision to build the airport and it had never been presented with “the other side of the story.” The province’s Resource Development Committee, with 12 cabinet members, allotted the anti-airport spokesmen one half hour. They ended up listening for two hours. McMurtry pointed out the size of the project (the airport and the town the province proposed to build nearby)— 105,000 acres if they counted areas af-

fected by zoning and noise, or more than two thirds the size of Metropolitan Toronto. He pointed out the airport had never been debated in either federal or provincial legislatures. Eighty percent of the property involved was prime agricultural land. The federal government had never demonstrated, not even to the province, that a second airport was needed. And the most telling argument: wouldn’t that two billion dollars (estimated.cost of the airport) be more useful elsewhere? McMurtry says the cabinet members were shocked. “They were a little bit staggered. They felt that they had been misled by Ottawa.”

That started the province backtracking. Transport Minister (at the time) John Rhodes headed off to Ottawa to get some answers and came back dissatisfied. In May, 1975, the province was telling the federal government that a minimum airport without guarantees of further development was not sufficient reason to spend the kind of money required to service the area (estimated at about $275 million in highways alone). In June, the province said it would not be realistic to spend that kind of money at a time when inflation was rampant and there were more pressing priorities in housing, energy, health and education. In August, when the federal government was proceeding with demolition, the province asked that all work be stopped until a committee to study a costsharing formula for roads, sewers and support services could meet in early September. Finally, on September 24, the provincial government announced it would not service the airport because “the decline in passenger traffic calls into question the need for a second airport.” Someone had listened at last. The project, with its army of consultants and bureaucrats, was deflated like a pricked balloon. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau responded with his characteristic shrug. He’d use the money elsewhere. Toronto would regret it.

The people of Pickering won, but when you talk to them, even today, there is still a residual anger. “It made a lot of people, including myself, separatists,” says lawyer Doug Turner, MTARC head. “The federal government doesn’t represent anyone except the bureaucrats in Ottawa.” Adds Godfrey: “You begin to understand what’s going on in Ireland and you can sympathize with them.” How long will this feeling last? As long as the battle continues. People are still renting houses and fields they once owned knowing they could be thrown off at any time. Farmers and villagers, caught in a 10,000-acre land freeze imposed by the Ontario government, are still not allowed to build on their properties or make substantial alterations. In April, a group of them launched a legal challenge to the freeze. These people are not given to exaggeration, so when Mrs. Fisher says they will not rest until the land is in private hands again, the government had better listen.^