It was the summer of 2009. The weather, for the most part, was pleasant and warm, but not too hot; everyone was hate-watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen at the multiplex; and a small group of protesters gathered in the south end of Guelph to protest the development of a new business park. They made an impression, and even won a stay from the courts when the city wanted them removed. They were eventually order to vacate the future site of the Hanlon Creek Business Park, but the point was made.
Several months later, as the Olympic Torch made it's way across Canada to Vancouver, it came through Downtown Guelph. A small group of protesters were there too, making a case that the expense of the Winter Games could best be applied elsewhere, but as these things go, a kerfuffle along the parade route resulted in one of the protesters accidentally tripping a torch-bearer. Considering the time and place, the message got lost amongst the patriotism-based outrage; Olympic critiques are a tough enough sell without it seeming like you ploughed over a fine, upstanding young person in order to make your point.
Why do I bring this up, because those events were right before the last municipal election, and it really seemed like the last great outburst of civic action in our city. Sure, there's been protests and demonstrations since - the January 2010 prorogation protest comes to mind, as do demonstrations to raise the minimum wage, or against the oil sands - but nothing that's felt uniquely Guelph, nothing that's re-certified Guelph's politically rowdy reputation as a Mecca for the far left curmudgeons and the disenfranchised. There are people everywhere who aren't fond of genetically modified foods, or Monsanto, or Line 9, but the most brazen thing associated with Guelph in the last four years was a U of G professor's son who photobombed a carefully choreographed Stephen Harper event at the Board of trade in Vancouver.
Yes, all this preamble is to say that I think Guelph's activist community has been far too quiet lately, and really that's got to stop. It's not like the problems went away, although I fear a lot of the people did, and as a result, our national reputation as rebel-rousers and malcontents of the first order is at stake. There are practical reasons for that of course. One was outlined in a rabble.ca article about the loss of solidarity following the G20 protests in the summer of 2010, and the other also came from the summer of 2010, the SLAAP suit filed against five of the organizers of the Hanlon Creek Business Park protest. If the activist community shied away from direct action on either accounts, or both, it's understandable. SLAAP suits are meant to intimidate with claims so large that the defendants, who are definitely not the one per cent, would have to win the lottery to pay them. As for the G20, the surveillance state was so far up in their business for months prior to the meeting, anyone even tacitly involved will be bookmarked in law enforcement till their 100th birthday.
Here's the thing though, the activists were right. As reported last month, the businesses of the HCBP only employ 315 people, a far cry from the some 3,700 jobs the first phase of development was supposed to yield. Meanwhile, development of the land itself sits at a measly 37 per cent nearly four and a half years after breaking ground. This is hardly the beacon on the hill that city officials said the Hanlon Creek protestors were standing in front of in the summer of '09. The HCBP was supposed to bring in new companies with thousands of jobs and brand new opportunities, but one of the biggest tenants is Granitworx, who already had offices in Guelph to begin with. "We're not tracking well against the (employment) targets," said Peter Cartwright, Guelph's general manager of economic development, in what had to be a deadpan, Pythonesque response to the situation.
Of course this is politics, so I don't expect a contrite "My bad," coming from anyone from City Hall, but back in '09 this result was pretty easy to prognosticate. Remember 2009? Nearly a year after the financial crash, Guelph's northwest industrial sector pretty much had one big vacancy sign, and there was no surefire guarantee of job creation since no one was 100 per cent sure that there'd be a tomorrow let alone a way to fund it. Still, the City of Guelph ploughed ahead with a 15-year-old plan in an economy that was more than year past its best-before date and expected that the loftiest of goals could be achieved. By any stretch of the imagination, that was more than ambitious.
The economic argument is the most persuasive, but it wasn't the only reason to be against the Hanlon Creek Business Park. Indeed a lot of people were worried about sprawl, or the loss of habitat and other untoward environmental effects, either way, there were a great many reasons to think twice about the project, and the HCBP protesters were right to raise those possibilities. The thing is, I don't remember a lot of hype about the project before the occupation, but afterward it became a point of pride for the city, a chance for the powers that be to shut down dissenters for besmirching the idea that Guelph wasn't for sale, a perception that City Hall wanted to build upon. Nothing was going to get in the way, except, as it turns out, everything.
So keeping that in mind, is it not time that our activist culture came in from the cold? Despite what some people want you to think, our current city council is not a pillar of off-kilter, left-wing ideologues, but a pragmatic, left of centre political body that strives to find the happy middle from the point of view of what might work best administratively. In other words, there's room on the left to paint council as villains, or at the very least as not-representative of a proper progressive agenda, and the Hanlon Creek Business Park is emblematic of that.
Nearly five years after Guelph's last great stand for direct action, it's time for Guelph's left flank to find their voice again. Yes, the risks are great, but so are the stakes, and if there's one thing that politicians generally count on it's apathy and/or the fear of reprisal to keep certain voices quiet. GrassRoots Guelph is making noise from the other end, that the current administration is a spend-thrifty scion of liberal indulgence, but we need another voices now to tell a different story, that sometimes you built it, and not nearly enough people come, which is otherwise known as "I told you so."