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Activism in the Valley, part II

Part I of this series on environmental activism in the Chateauguay Valley focussed on how a few rural people altered the tire-dumping waste industry. But before they had caught their breath, they were targeted again – this time by organic waste dumping.

Not very long ago, industrial hog production was a major economic driver in rural Quebec. There are still 4.6 million hogs in the province; such large animals create tons of waste every day. They do provide some fertilizer, like cows, but hog waste has a high level of sulfur and phosphorus. Over time, this overwhelms soils and pollutes water tables, resulting in the blue-green algae blooms that have destroyed so many lakes and beaches.

Smaller pig operations are manageable, but thousands of sows and piglets in one confined area, called a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO), is another thing altogether. At the industry’s height, eight major rivers in Quebec became too polluted to support fish and other life because of drainage from industrial-scale hog farms.

Hogs need clean water, three to five gallons daily each. The industry had destroyed watersheds especially in the Beauce and around Sainte Hyacinthe, and it had to expand into areas that still had good water—like this Valley.

Such a huge industry had tremendous influence on provincial governments, which, by the early 2000s, began to claim the Chateauguay Valley was deficient in phosphorus. It was, slightly; but such soil is needed to grow apples, a mainstay of the region. There was already more than enough manure being spread on local fields from the thriving dairy industry. Confined hogs are also fed copper and arsenic, which stimulates growth, along with hormones to stimulate appetite and antibiotics to ward off the mass infections favoured by their confined conditions.

These substances are secreted in pig urine and manure, and can kill or sicken anything in the water, air, and soil around them. Industrial hog farms are a major source of antibiotic-resistant “super-bugs”; the widespread presence of antibiotics in soil and water is mainly due to industrial agricultural overuse, especially in CAFOs. Plus, many swine diseases are zoonotic and can jump to humans – a major concern.

Local dairy producers realized that a large influx of hogs could destroy their access to clean water and overwhelm the soils with too much of the wrong kind of manure. So, in 2001, many joined a new grassroots group that had formed here, the Haut-Saint-Laurent Rural Coalition, to try to resist the spread of this industry. This environmental group was predominately female, and this fight became even worse than the tire fight, with threats from those hoping to sell land or enter the industry. This resulted in police attention, and it wasn’t unusual to see the SQ parked outside town hall meetings.

These Valley activists, coming from around Elgin, Franklin, and Hemmingford especially, eventually realized many other people in Quebec were trying to defend their properties and livelihoods from the effects of this type of hog farming. They reached out to those closest, around the Richelieu River, already surrounded by too many hogs. Some members also had contacts with the Mohawk community of Kahnawake.

This First Nations Reserve is in a basin, with all the runoff waters of Valley farms draining onto the land – and into the drinking water intakes for the city of Montreal. When the Rural Coalition first reached out, members discovered they didn’t have to spend much time explaining the situation in Kahnawake: unlike many citizens and officials, the Native groups immediately understood about upstream poisons. This meeting resulted in the first formal coalition of French, English, and First Nation environmental activist groups in Quebec history. Their umbrella group, called “CommunEauTerre,” met regularly in Kahnawake, which was central for people from as far west as Dundee and as far east as the Richelieu.

There were no social media groups then; organization had to be done in person, via potlucks on the Reserve. The Mohawk alliesd – who had a lot of experience in resisting government—were asked by the French and English members to take the lead in strategizing. There were letters and petitions, but CommunEauTerre also blocked then-Quebec Minister of the Environment Tom Mulcair’s offices in Montreal. There were marches, with hundreds of protesters recruited from many Montreal universities and CEGEPs.

CommunEauTerre even blocked traffic going onto the Mercier Bridge – just long enough to hand out flyers and get some attention. It was well-covered by the media and surprisingly well-received by the commuters getting onto the bridge. They had never seen a group quite like it: French, English, native, old folks, little kids, all smiling while explaining the seriousness of the situation to the drivers they’d managed to stop.

 

Demonstrators from CommunEauTerre protest in 2004 PHOTO The Gleaner

 

Years later, Beyond Factory Farming, a national umbrella group headquartered in Saskatchewan, commissioned a historical study that analyzed the hog industry’s internal papers. Although it seemed at the time that protesters were just a handful of citizens pounding helplessly on the government’s door, this report made it clear they were actually shaking it loose.

In an effort to have “social peace,” successive Quebec governments enacted the moratorium on more hog farms, and when the newly-elected Liberals tried to cancel it and experienced pushback, they started asking the operations to perform tiny, ineffectual changes: keeping the huge lagoons of pig manure in some kind of repair and covered to keep the stench down, or to not spray the liquid waste quite so close to rivers or on top of snow – measures that were inadequate to protect the watershed. However, even this amount of regulation enraged the industry. In the middle of this volatile situation, and due mostly to outside industry forces, hog prices plummeted.

There followed a sizable exodus from the industry in 2006. First, projects were withdrawn from the Chateauguay Valley, followed by some hog industry giants like Olymel leaving Quebec for Saskatchewan and Manitoba. There, new rivers of hog manure quickly killed off all fish and other life in huge Lake Winnipeg. With new laws coming in to control these practices, the industry is now largely headquartered in Mexico, the Philippines, and China.

In the Chateauguay Valley today, dairy, apples, and blueberries, as well as field crops and maple, are still the foundation of the economy. That’s because all the actorsd – farmers, homeowners, First Nation neighbours, and city students–fought to protect their homes by keeping hog numbers down to livable levels. It was just one of many victories as the Valley and its citizens have continued face more challenges.

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