© Guardian photo
Heavy equipment sits at the Plan B site in New Haven.
The Plan B protest may have failed to stop the highway realignment project, but it was a fight that needed to be fought and good things have come from it, says a spokesman for the Environmental Coalition of P.E.I.
“We thought that the very remarkable community that emerged from the Plan B opposition seemed to be a key feature of successful environmental action,” Don Mazer told a recent meeting of the coalition.
At the annual meeting in Charlottetown, Mazer introduced a panel of three guest speakers on the topic of building community through environmental action.
“We wanted to do something to keep all this positive energy going,” said Mazer of the Stop Plan B protest activity.
“What is it that sustains folks in fighting these kinds of battles? What are the things that are effective? We also thought about the fact that sometimes you might lose the battle but you win the war,” said Mazer.
“Even though we haven’t stopped the highway, we did build community,” agreed Chris Ortenburger, a Stop Plan B organizer and panel speaker. “That was people sharing their experiences and supporting each other.”
She said it was rather cheeky to say, but food and good communication was one of many ways of keeping people returning to the Stop Plan B process.
Ortenburger said the people who opposed Plan B will likely show up for other protests in the future “in a heartbeat, even if the result was going to be the same.”
She recalls advice from co-panellist Gary Schneider of ECO PEI and the MacPhail Woods project.
“He said we have to reach out to the community,” said Ortenburger.
That reaching out proved successful, resulting in community meetings, community walks along the proposed highway route, rallies, and petitions signed.
She said that her children and family were all but abandoned with the work and effort of the protest, but they became part of and were embraced by the growing community of supporters.
“It was a pretty unfair lesson for the young people to see that it was such a fixed fight, and to see the greed and the lies and misuse of institutions like police,” said Ortenburger.
Next on the panel was Wayne Corrigan, a member of Tracadie Area Residents for Resource Protection, or TARRP. It was formed in September 1998 to oppose the creation of a landfill dump in the Tracadie Cross area. The group still exists and meets occasionally.
After a campaign that grew in local support, then to national and international media, the group was successful in stopping the dump. Soon after the province introduced the process that became Waste Watch.
“Even though we haven’t stopped the highway, we did build community." Chris Ortenburger
“Right from the start, TARRP established a clear mandate and a message regarding the proposal,” said Corrigan during the ECO PEI meeting. “We stuck to that.”
They got the local government MLA Mildred Dover to break ranks and support them but the die was already cast within government, said Corrigan.
There was no environmental assessment and no public consultation about the dump. A government consultant’s report said the site was poor.
TARRP received donations, formed letter-writing groups, a media-relations group and got support from other groups like aboriginal peoples.
The group even confronted Premier Pat Binns late one night at the airport and took over what was supposed to be an announcement of business and economic developments.
“That’s when things started to turn around,” said Corrigan. “Government fought us to the very end and only changed their position when convinced that public opinion turned against them. It took us over a year and it took an inordinate amount of time.
“They are both success stories,” said Gary Schneider, the final member of the speakers panel. “The Plan B people deserve a huge amount of honour and support for the work that they have done.
“I remember talking to Chris and saying you have to be prepared to lose but you can’t give up,” said Schneider. “This isn’t the only issue. I’m used to losing. I still think it’s tremendously worthwhile.”
Schneider said the past year has been brutal to the environment. He said the federal government is “kicking the devil out of environmental assessment,” and there is “madness going on” with resource exploitation. Locally there as Plan B, watershed siltation, fish kills and a seal slaughter.
People are scared to speak out because of neighbour attitudes, potential political pressure or loss of government contracts or jobs, said Schneider.
People get courage, however, to speak out for the environment when there is support from a community, he said.
“If you going to put your life into something like this, even for a year or whatever it is, you better have people around who make you feel good about that, even if you lose,” said Schneider. “Once people are organized and prepared and have the support of their community, it’s a lot more difficult for people to marginalize you.”