Frustrated Farmers Take Over Ontario Freeways

Commentary, Agriculture, Robert Sopuck

One of the endearing features of rural communities is the great lengths people take to achieve harmony. In Ontario, some overregulated country folk are breaking that tradition, and for good reason.

Rural “niceness,” after all is itself a survival strategy, one the anthropologists call “generalized reciprocity.” When the chips are down, we’ll be there for each other. We depend on an intact social structure. But when the value of comity projects itself into the larger society, we leave ourselves vulnerable to uncaring bureaucracies, remote governments and ruthless activist groups. Sometimes you have to fight back.

Public policy decision makers will always follow the path of least resistance. If it’s a choice between offending groups who will not fight back, versus offending those who will raise a fuss, the choice is obvious. Farm and rural interests tend to concede the battle at this point. We have our farm organizations, rural councils and rural secretariats but they have not been able to stem the persistent tide of anti-rural laws and regulations.

A group of Ontario farmers and landowners from Lanark County west of Ottawa simply won’t take it any more. They’ve taken their frustrations to the streets. Well, to the freeways is more like it. January 21’s National Post reported the story. The Lanark County Landowners Association (LLA) had blockaded one of the busiest freeways in Ontario, Highway 401 with 250 tractors.

Their message was clear. Intrusive government policies and regulations were killing the family farm. Many protesters carried placards that read, “This land is our land. Governments back off.”

Lanark County epitomizes rural Ontario. It’s a land of lakes, rivers and small farms set amid a beautiful, rolling landscape. Beneath this bucolic charm simmers resentment directed at senior governments. Rural Ontario is in great turmoil. Not only are expanding urban areas encroaching on what once were farm communities — and bringing all kinds of urban “baggage” along with them — but federal and provincial regulations are slowly strangling the ability of farmers to survive. Throw in BSE and a general collapse in farm prices and an ugly picture emerges.

The City of Ottawa has annexed huge swaths of the region’s countryside, in the process eliminating formerly independent local governments and making the rural inhabitants subject to urban by-laws. The Lanark protest succeeded in one respect; the mayor of Ottawa immediately called for a “summit” to discuss the causes of rural discontent. While I would not necessarily recommend such acts of protest, this one seems to have worked.

Direct actions like highway blockades are fraught with risk, since they carry the danger of alienating public opinion. On the other hand, raising such a fuss leads people to ask questions about what drove people to extreme measures. Once a dialogue begins, then change can happen. One thing for sure, a big cannon has just been fired across the bow of the Canadian ship of state.

“I think you’re going to see a very strong, united rural movement throughout Ontario and across Canada,” Randy Hillier, president of the landowners’ association, said after the blockade. “People are recognizing they can make a difference if they just step up to the plate.” Mr. Hillier said the bureaucracy in Ontario is bullying farmers and rural people. “Bullies count on people to be fearful. We don’t have fear.”

Watch this one.