December 30, 2009

Shoppers have power to make a difference

As published in The Erin Advocate

After urging people to shop local recently, I was reminded that there are sometimes good reasons for shopping foreign.

It was at the Erin Rotary Club Pasta Dinner, held last month at the Hillsburgh Arena, an event to raise money for a big screen TV and a Wii Sports video game at the nearby Meadowview Place Seniors Home.

There was a display of hand-made jewelry from the Lacan Kwite group of women, who live in a refugee camp in Gulu, Northern Uganda. Proceeds from the sale were shared, with 25 per cent to Rotary, and the rest to Paper Bead Works, which imports the beads, assembles the jewelry and markets it under the name "KWITE essential BEADS".

It is difficult to imagine the stress of living in a society torn by 20 years of civil war: homes and farms burned, children abducted to become soldiers, widows caring for orphans, shortages of clean water and many people dying from diseases such as malaria, diarrhea and HIV/AIDS.

"They are a resilient group facing huge difficulties," said Toni Andrews of Guelph, who is helping the women find a wider market for their products. "The way that people just keep going is amazing."

She encountered the women while visiting the area with her husband Rick, who was working on a US Agency for International Development project. Sitting on mats under a mango tree, they were cutting discarded paper into thin strips, rolling them, then applying glue and varnish to create colourful, sturdy beads for necklaces, bracelets and earrings.

While inexpensive by North American standards – I bought a pair of earrings for $12 – the revenue is significant for people who are struggling to improve their lives. The money is managed as a trust fund by an aid agency, and the women decide how it is used – often it is for school fees or bus fares.

"Their main hope is for a better future for their children," says the brochure. "The Lacan Kwite group is not waiting for charity to bring them out of abject poverty, but rather they are eager to work and develop beading as an important source of family income."

The jewelry is available at Karger Gallery in downtown Elora and the Surroundings store on MacDonell Street in Guelph. More information is available via email:

The enterprise brings to mind the Fair Trade movement, which originated partly as response to Free Trade, with the goal of helping the people in developing countries who produce goods for the world's wealthier countries. Getting a fair price helps them develop their economies, reducing dependence on foreign aid.

"It makes moral sense," said Heidi Matthews, who helped get a Fair Trade project started at St. John Brebeuf Church in Erin more than 15 years ago. They sell coffees, teas, sugar and cocoa products at the church door once a month.

"It was a social justice initiative," she said. "It seemed like a really important way to ease some suffering in the Global South."

The Nova Scotia cooperative Just Us! that supplies the products had sales revenue of $6.5 million last year, an indication of the concept's growing popularity.

The product range through other channels has expanded to include wine, cotton, spices, soap, rice, fruits and flowers. For information on the criteria for certification, go to

December 23, 2009

Erin could be an oasis in Ontario landscape

As published in The Erin Advocate

Is resistance futile? Is the charming small town about to be assimilated by the urban monster as it stretches out its tentacles? Is it already too late?

The answer to all three questions is "No" – for now, at least. When people in Erin look to the south, they have good reason to be skeptical of development. High-traffic routes are plastered with fast-food joints, car dealerships, shopping centres and gas stations. The subdivisions seem endless.

Are there any role models we can look to, places that have preserved their small-town charm and local economy in the face of urban sprawl?

If you ask people why they moved here, whether it be to a small village house or a huge recreational farm, most will say it was to escape from that urban environment. Many define Erin by what it is not – in other words, not like Brampton, Milton, Georgetown or even Orangeville.

Some have told me they will move away if Erin village becomes more urbanized, which is sad perhaps, but not as sad as living passively in an uncomfortable environment. Maybe they will only have to move to Hillsburgh.

I've been reading up on highway development and attending community liaison meetings as part of the Town's Settlement and Servicing Master Plan (SSMP) process. Naturally, people have different ideas about how to resist the undesirable aspects of development.

One strategy is to oppose virtually all change. It will be too expensive, too disruptive for some residents and local businesses, too much of a threat to our white, middle-class culture. Are we willing to pay the price of doing nothing: polluted water, traffic congestion, an exodus of seniors, lack of local jobs and valuable land sitting idle? Do we accept, with resentment, only what is forced upon us?

Change will come – just look at the last 50 years. Wouldn't it be better to choose the changes we want, resist the negative trends we see in other towns, and create something special? It may seem idealistic, but if we come up with a vision that reflects the common values of the community, good things are more likely to actually happen.

That is what the Town is trying to do with the SSMP. After a series of consultations, our well-paid consulting firm is now going to write a proposed vision statement. They will be studying an environmental report from Credit Valley Conservation, and coming up with a Problem/Opportunity Statement that will be discussed at a public meeting in March. To find out more, and to add your views to the mix, go to and click the "Defining Erin" link.

Gone are the days of an unquestioned need for development. In 1864, 200 Erin residents packed the Sportsman's Hotel to demand that the county gravel the road to Guelph – better to pay tolls than be stuck in the mud. Back in the 1870s, did anyone question the value of running a railroad through Erin? Did anyone regret the transformation of our economy, or resent the flood of weekend tourists coming to Stanley Park?

Erin is a desirable destination, but not as a place for huge numbers to live. I do not think a 400-series highway east of Guelph will be justified in the next 30 years, but no matter what is done, traffic will always expand to fill the available capacity. We may need County Road 124 widened to four lanes, plus a four-lane route south on Winston Churchill, east on Olde Baseline and south on Mississauga Road. This would move traffic down to Mayfield Road without a fresh cut through the escarpment, linking it to the proposed "Halton Peel Freeway" that would go to Highways 401 and 407.

Now that Erin is a well-known destination, a bypass for through traffic will be beneficial, helping our tourist trade and industrial growth, while protecting key areas from excessive traffic.

In this century, if we are both smart and fortunate, Erin will become an oasis in the Southern Ontario landscape. Within the protected Greenbelt there will be no "urban sprawl", and our tightly limited urban areas will have the opportunity to become even better living spaces.

We need a small number of new homes (including the affordable variety), better shopping, better social services, better recreation facilities and more light industry to provide jobs and tax revenue. It is not too much to hope for, and certainly worthy of a concerted community effort.

December 16, 2009

Major highway would harm Erin and escarpment

As published in The Erin Advocate

Would you rather have a major highway cutting through southern Erin, or an expansion of County Road 124 to four lanes from Guelph to Caledon, including a bypass of Erin village?

Those are just two of many options being considered by the Ministry of Transportation (MTO), figuring out how to move people and freight between Guelph and Highway 400 as the population of Southern Ontario grows. It may be 10-20 years before any new highways are built, but preferred routes and strategies will be chosen in the next few months.

Erin is on the northern fringe of the GTA West study area. The third round of public information sessions was held recently, part of an Environmental Assessment looking at improved public transit, rail service and roads. There will be more sessions next year, after the preferred routes are chosen.

The road options fall into two groups. The first involves widening existing routes like County Road 124, Highway 7, Trafalgar Road and Mayfield Road, and building bypasses around urban areas. The second is "New Transportation Corridors" – major highways, complete with separate, dedicated bus lanes.

The planning at this stage is based solely on the forecast demand for transportation by 2031, without regard for impact on people and the land. Details about how to minimize the damage will be determined later, as will the exact routes.

One issue for planners is the volume of traffic that will flow from Kitchener-Waterloo to Guelph on an expanded Highway 7. Do they channel most of it south on the Hanlon Expressway, or build a major new highway through a Northern Corridor, between Acton and Erin village? The project would cut a new path through the Niagara Escarpment, allowing the highway to run east near Mayfield Road to join Highway 410.

Three other major highway corridor paths are being studied, all running south of Georgetown. They would link the 410-Mayfield route either with Highway 407 at Winston Churchill, with Milton, or with Highway 6 by running parallel to Highway 401 through Puslinch (see map).

I asked MTO Senior Transportation Planner Jin Wang what the impact would be on County Road 124 if the Northern Corridor is chosen for a major highway. He said there would be no need to upgrade 124 to four lanes. "We would do one or the other," he said.

My property lies within the fuzzy-edged potential Northern Corridor, but I can still say objectively that any benefits from a major highway through Erin would not justify the cost – in dollars, environment damage or social disruption.

As the MTO documents note, it would affect the rural character of communities, disrupt escarpment and Greenbelt lands, break up farms, destroy prime farmland, generate more noise and light in the countryside and have the "potential to impact cultural features near Ballinafad and Cheltenham."

If the Northern Corridor is chosen, the uprising of public opposition will make the multi-million dollar battle over the Rockfort Quarry seem like a minor skirmish. (Will the government be inclined to allow construction of a quarry, knowing that it could provide the material needed to build its web of highways?)

The loss of farmland south of Georgetown would be regrettable, but it would make more sense to forge a major highway link with the 407 or with Milton, and simply widen County Road 124 in the north. That would avoid a new cut through the escarpment, although it could mean expanding Highway 401 to 14 lanes near Milton. Lanes could be also added to other existing roads if more capacity was needed to move traffic between Erin and the Mayfield Road corridor.

As for a bypass around Erin village, it may not be a local decision if the government decides it is needed to serve the needs of the provincial economy. The MTO is well aware that bypasses "may reduce exposure for businesses in existing built-up areas", but eventually there could be so much truck traffic between Guelph and Alliston that a bypass will be a necessity.

If you want to stay informed or submit your comments to the MTO planners, go to

December 09, 2009

Piper mystery serves up light comedy

As published in The Erin Advocate.

Just like Macbeth, The Piper of Grimmgilliedhu takes place in a spooky Scottish castle. That's about it for similarities, since the new show from Erin Community Theatre careens through a series of comedic scenarios instead of an inexorable path of doom.

The energy of the cast translates into plenty of laughs for guests as they enjoy their dinner. There is a plot, of course, a lighthearted tale in the murder mystery genre (minus the murder, it being the Christmas season). It is more like a party, with the plot serving primarily to set up opportunities for funny business.

The recipe calls for ample portions of good old-fashioned motivators, like greed, lust, fear of undead bagpipe players and distrust of the English. Blend in an ancient mystery, some clan warfare and a gaggle of goofy Canadian tourists, and you have a quite a pot of stew.

It feels a bit strange to review a play that includes some cast members I know and have acted with in other shows. For me, reviews have never been about looking for things that are less than ideal, but about showcasing what has been achieved by people who are on stage for the love of it.

In dinner theatre style, the actors sit among the guests in the Wellington Room at David's Restaurant, doing their best to stay in character during the dinner conversation. It is as though we are all tourists who have arrived for a holiday at Grimmgilliedhu Castle, much to the regret of the Lord of the castle, Dugald MacDonald, played with bombastic blusteriness by Fred Bilton.

When he hears the ghost of the piper of Grimgilliedhu playing a warning on the wind, the hunt is on for an enemy who has entered the castle. I could tell you what treasure is stolen, the name of the villainous descendant of the McMean clan and where the treasure turns up, but I will keep it under my hat.

You could find out for yourself tomorrow or Friday (December 10-11), or on Friday, December 18. Tickets are $39.95, including a nice buffet dinner of salad, potatoes, pasta, chicken and prime rib roast beef. Call 519-833-5085 for reservations, or go to for more information.

It was real-life bagpipe playing by Steve Rossiter, who portrays the oafish Harold Payne-Lauden, that inspired Susanna Lamy of Hillsburgh to write the play, her third in this style for Erin Community Theatre. The creation was developed with the input of the actors, under the direction of Kathryn DeLory.

"It was interesting to see someone else take it, work it and interpret it – she has a good eye," said Lamy, who also plays the feisty, tightly-corsetted Aislynne O'Rourke. "It's more relaxing to just act in it."

The informal style of the show allows for some pleasant diversions, such as getting the audience to join in for a singing of Loch Lomond, and some lively Scottish dancing by Paulina and Eileen Grant.

The group should consider even more of that sort of entertainment in next year's production. The lulls when people are lining up for their food could be opportunities for live music or other ways to engage the audience.

On opening night, the cast was still fine-tuning their timing, and they need to pick up the pace overall. None of that took away from the many highlights, including the tipsiness of maid Bridget MacBean (Carol McCone), the frenetic energy of Lucille Payne-Lauden (Suzanne Rayfield), the scheming haughtiness of tour leader Janis Eager (Jeanette Massicotte), the guitar playing of Conall Sinclair (Robert Dodds) and the improbable tales of Randall Wylie (John Carter).

The audience tries to solve the mystery, submitting their guesses about the guilty party. In the end, it is Professor Theodore Booker, played with confidence by Jeff Davison, and his alluring assistant Constance Bright (who has a thing for young men in kilts), played with passion by Denise Wakefield, who get to the bottom of things. Just in time for a singing of Auld Lang Syne, for old times' sake.

December 02, 2009

Deer Pit storm water headed for Credit

As published in The Erin Advocate

Work has started on a project to drain storm water from Erin's Deer Pit into the Credit River at the Tenth Line, solving a drainage problem that dates back to construction of the railroad.

Located north of Centre 2000 near the Elora-Cataract Trail, the Deer Pit is a low-lying area of Town-owned land. Surface water from a 451-acre zone, including Main Street storm sewers, the industrial subdivision and farmland well north of County Road 124, drains to the Deer Pit, but has nowhere to go.

The ability of the pit to absorb the water is declining, so a plan to flow it east to join the Credit River system was made ten years ago, with a price tag of $800,000. The expenditure was never approved, and now the cost will be $1.21 million.

The Town is proceeding with the help of infrastructure funding announced this year. The federal and provincial governments will each pay one-third of the cost, and Erin will use money held in reserves to pay its share, said Town Manager Lisa Hass.

Long-known for its dirt bike trails, the Deer Pit is actually an old quarry. A spur line of the Credit Valley Railroad (later Canadian Pacific) was completed in 1879, linking Cataract, Erin, Hillsburgh and Elora. A short siding had been built into the Deer Pit to haul out ballast – stone and gravel needed to build the rail bed further down the line.

Local historian Steve Revell said a second siding was built on the other side of the rail line, through what is now Centre 2000, for a small quarry near the current baseball diamond. (The area beyond the outfield is another prime candidate for improved drainage – it is now a stagnant pond, covered in algae and strewn with garbage.)

The federal government website on this project (Google: Deer Pit) says it will "help mitigate flooding in neighbouring residential developments and recreational areas".

Hass said that while moving the surface water could reduce the risk of basement flooding in the May Street area, there is no guarantee it will help. Flooding has been due to underground water, not directly from water in the Deer Pit, she said.

The new Deer Pit will still have a natural appearance. The western half will have an improved ditch, but large storms could still soak the whole area. The eastern half will be carved into a more formal "pool" area, with a layer of clay trucked in to reduce infiltration of water into the ground. Water will flow into a forebay next to the school's sewage treatment plant, then through a wetland and into a deep pool (five feet deep). There will be no fencing.

This will "treat" the water, by allowing dirt from the industrial area to settle out before it flows to the river. If the industrial park were being built now, it would be required to have its own storm water treatment facility, said Hass. The sewage plant does not discharge into the Deer Pit; the effluent goes to a tile field back on the south side of the trailway.

From the Deer Pit, a controlled flow of water will go into a pipe buried 3-10 feet directly under the trailway, over to the Tenth Line. It will go south a short distance under the road and discharge into a tributary of the West Credit River. The outlet will disperse the water flow, reducing impact on the stream, which joins the main branch of the river near the Woollen Mills Conservation Area.

An access road has been built from Erin Park Drive to bring in equipment and clay. Roads Superintendent Larry Van Wyck plans to start the pipe work late this winter, before the spring thaw, with most of the project done by early summer and final landscaping / cleanup by September.

November 25, 2009

Stronger rural health network needed

As published in The Erin Advocate

Regional health planners are considering new efforts to improve the quality of rural health care for people in areas like Erin.

Recommendations from the current Rural Health Care Review were released at a public meeting at Centre 2000 last week, hosted by the Waterloo Wellington Local Health Integration Network (WWLHIN).

"Rural Canadians are not as healthy in two-thirds of categories," said Jim Whaley, who wrote the draft report. It recommends an array of improvements including fair distribution of community support services, based on need, especially for rural seniors.

The WWLHIN has a budget of $858 million, allocating funding to eight hospitals, plus nursing homes, mental health / addictions agencies, community health centres, home care, and community support services such as those offered by East Wellington Community Services (EWCS). It covers the 750,000 people living in Waterloo Region, Wellington County and South Grey County. Erin residents, including those in built-up village areas, are considered rural for this study.

"We are accountable to the public – it is taxpayers' money we are spending," said WWLHIN CEO Sandra Hanmer. Regarding the efficient coordination of services, she said: "Sometimes we get it right; sometimes we get it wrong."

The study recommends a Rural Health Network, with representatives of the municipality, schools and heath / social service groups, to work on details of how to achieve the study goals, and improved coordination of services.

"Rural health care service delivery is unique due to a variety of factors including location, recruitment and retention of health care professionals, low patient volumes and an aging population," said Hanmer. A good network of services is considered important in attracting doctors to the area.

Compared to city-dwellers, residents of Erin and other rural areas of the WWLHIN have poorer access to health care and lower use of home care service. We have higher rates of premature death, some chronic diseases (like diabetes), hospitalization and long term care institutionalization.

Erin has the lowest population growth and one of the lowest percentages of seniors among the WWLHIN rural communities. No new homes are being built, and few small, affordable ones are available, so many seniors are moving away.

The WWLHIN funds the Seniors Day Program and the Volunteer Transportation Program operated by EWCS.

"We are looking for more services to help seniors age within their homes, with dignity and respect," said EWCS Executive Director Glenyis Betts.

Erin's Primary Care health care organization is the East Wellington Family Health Team (EWFHT), which is now building a clinic in Rockwood. It is expected to announce very soon the details of a new facility for on-staff family physicians and its many other health services, to be built next year in Erin. While EWFHT is not funded through the WWLHIN (it gets its funding  directly from the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care), it operates within the regional planning framework.

EWFHT Executive Director Michelle Karker said the renewed focus on rural health is likely to create "opportunities" for better local service. From the new medical clinic in Erin village, they hope to offer satellite services in other centres such as Hillsburgh.

They are also developing a telemedicine service, a concept used extensively in Northern Ontario. Using an internet feed to transmit video and diagnostic information, local clinics are able to link patients with specialists in big-city hospitals. The technology also has the potential to monitor patients at home as they recover from illness or surgery.

The report also says hospitals should be obliged to have "specific provisions for serving rural communities" when it comes to access to specialists and regional centres for cancer and cardiovascular care. The report recommendations have not yet been approved by the WWLHIN board of directors.

November 18, 2009

New website tracks sewer saga

As published in The Erin Advocate

Erin finally has a website to help people keep track of what's going on in the Town's quest for a sewer system.

With a link on the home page of the Town website,, you can explore the "Defining Erin" site. It explains the stages of the Servicing and Settlement Master Plan (SSMP) study and has the results of "visioning" sessions, including a public meeting last May with 40 residents attending. Recently, there was a session with 55 local real estate agents and another with 10 members of the Business Improvement Area.

The website also includes comments from Erin students, who wrote 19 letters telling the planners how they would like Erin to look in the future. Comments can still be submitted, and you can provide your email address to receive reports when they are released. Comments so far show that residents do not want Erin to lose its small-town character.

"You like to cheat," said Project Manager Matt Pearson, at a Liaison Committee meeting last month. "You like the proximity to urban centres, but you don't want to be one."

A report is expected soon from Credit Valley Conservation on environmental aspects of the SSMP, and the Town may ask for additional technical studies. Two main public meetings are scheduled, one in March to review the problems, and one next fall to discuss solutions.

"A longer timeframe allows for more understanding of the solutions," said Pearson. "More of a bottom up approach, than a top down imposition."

Since 2007, there has been virtually no growth in the Town's urban areas, and little is expected until sewers and a treatment plant are built. The SSMP study will take until the end of 2010, and it will be at least five years after that before any service is in place.

Population growth would be moderate, even with sewers. By 2031, the County estimates Erin village would grow by 1,300, to a total of 4,400 people; Hillsburgh would grow by 700, to a total of 2,080 and the rural area would grow by 1,040, to a total of 9,050.

The sewer project will mean significant costs and disruption for the Town and property owners in the urban areas, but it also represents an opportunity to build a better community and safeguard the natural environment.

"You will need to chase grants – it's going to be expensive," said Pearson. There is no cost projection yet, but the failed plan from 1995 for Erin village alone was estimated at $25 million. Sewage facilities are prime candidates for infrastructure funding though. Grand Valley and Mount Forest have recently received substantial federal and provincial grants for their systems.

If no sewers are built, there will also be major costs and disruption in Erin. Pearson said it is estimated that 30 per cent of local septic systems are deficient. The average lifespan of a septic system is 25-30 years, but the average system in Erin village is 34 years old. Town records show only 23 systems replaced in a recent 8-year period.

"There are many failed systems in the community," said Pamela Scharfe, of the consulting firm B.M. Ross, making a presentation on septic systems to the Liaison Committee.

The Town has the authority to set up an inspection system that could force property owners to repair or replace deficient septic systems, but it has not done so.

The Ontario Building Code is stricter now than when most local houses were built. About half the septic systems in Erin village and Hillsburgh cannot be replaced with a standard tank and leaching bed, because the lots are less than 15,000 square feet (100' x 150'). They will require smaller systems that include an extra treatment phase, and cost $5,000 to $10,000 extra. Owners must pay for a maintenance contract, and problems may be reported to the health unit.

A 1995 study by the Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Health Unit also found that 94 Erin village lots were inaccessible for the equipment needed to replace their septic systems, due to large trees and the houses being too close together. If a system like this failed completely, the house could be declared uninhabitable.

Meetings of the SSMP Liaison Committee, which has representatives from local government, businesses and environment/social service groups, are not formal public meetings, but they are open to the public.

November 11, 2009

A challenge to stimulate Erin's economy

As published in The Erin Advocate

With all the government attempts to stimulate the economy these days, we should not forget that Christmas is an opportunity to give Erin businesses a boost.

Building the local economy by shopping locally is not a new concept, but it often requires a change in shopping habits, especially for people who work in nearby cities that have convenient malls and big-box stores.

Here is a challenge to every employed person in town: try to spend at least $50 at local shops this Christmas season. It is not a lot, and it is money you would be spending anyway.

A small change in shopping strategy could end up having a real impact throughout the year. These are the businesses that employ local people, pay local taxes and create a positive atmosphere and image for the town.

Tourists recognize the value. But we should not have to rely on tourists to drive our economy when we have the means to do it ourselves.

It is not a matter of charity, or feeling sorry for the small business owner. These people have to compete to survive, and they are out there working to earn customers' support. Erin and Hillsburgh have excellent shops that might have what you want. Or they might not. It is a matter of giving them an opportunity to meet your needs.

As an example, when I wanted to buy a guitar, I shopped around, but ended up buying one at The Village Music Store. I gave the store the opportunity to earn my business because it is local, but I bought there because it offered quality products, good service and competitive prices.

There is a campaign gaining popularity in the US and Canada called "The 3/50 Project". It encourages employed people to pick three small businesses and spend a total of $50 at them each month. Started by retail consultant Cinda Baxter of Minneapolis, it is a push to empower consumers and revive communities suffering due to the recession.

"For every $100 spent in locally owned independent stores, $68 returns to the community in taxes, payroll and other expenditures," she says on her website, "If you spend that in a national chain, only $43 stays here. Spend it online and nothing comes home."

When we "invest" with our shopping dollars, we help small businesses prosper, expand, offer more selection and hire more people.

Downtown Erin stores are holding their 7th annual Window Wonderland this Friday, November 13, starting at 6 p.m., to raise their profile for the Christmas shopping season.

Last year's event had a nice party atmosphere despite the rain, and this year's should be even better with the lighting of the Christmas tree at the new park at 109 Main Street. The name of the park will be announced.

BIA shops will unveil their window displays and stay open until 9 p.m. Santa will drop in for a visit. There will be horse and carriage rides, hot dogs, cookies, hot apple cider and hot chocolate to help folks stay warm.

I just got home from a rehearsal of the strolling Christmas carol singers preparing for the event, and we're sounding pretty good. We will be in pseudo-Dickensian attire – my first opportunity to wear a top hat this year.

So come out for some fun, but be on the lookout for investment opportunities.

November 04, 2009

Reconstructed sideroad shows signs of the times

As published in The Erin Advocate

After 24 years of turning left out of my driveway to go to work every morning, it is not easy to get into the habit of turning right. When I do remember to turn right, I am quickly rewarded with a trip on the newly-paved 5 Sideroad.

It means I can get out of town and over to Mississauga Road via Olde Baseline Road, without driving on the bumpy section of Winston Churchill Boulevard near Terra Cotta. The only local road worse than that was 5 Sideroad before it was paved.

Some residents of Terra Cotta have lobbied to keep that section of Winston Churchill unpaved to reduce commuter traffic, despite safety concerns with the current road. It will not be paved for at least four more years, so they are getting their way for now. I do not have to drive through Terra Cotta any more, and that is just fine with me.

The 5.5-kilometre project on 5 Sideroad includes new culverts, and elevation of the surface in low-lying areas. It is a continuation of Wellington Road 50, (the direct route from Rockwood) linking Trafalgar Road to the paved section of Winston Churchill.

Drivers are confronted with an array of signs on the new road. There is the common warning about Slow Moving Vehicles, and the No Trucks symbol – a relief to those who feared 5 Sideroad would become a gravel truck corridor.

There are four-way stops at the Eighth, Ninth and Tenth Lines, and the maximum speed is 60 kph. That may seem low for an open stretch of country road, even if many drivers treat it as a suggestion instead of a law.

Caution has become the norm for posted speed limits, and that is not a bad thing for a road like this. It still has a few hills, and there is only a three-foot shoulder of gravel beside some steep embankments. By such standards, the hilly section of Ninth Line just to the north should have a lower speed limit as well, even though its surface is a few inches wider.

Signs from the Road Watch organization are also prominent, urging people to report incidents of aggressive or dangerous driving. The local group has not been active lately, but there are plans to promote the concept throughout Wellington County.

You can file a report on-line at Your name is not revealed to the driver or owner of the vehicle, who will get a stern letter from police. On second report they will get a phone call, and the third time a personal visit from police. It is a way of educating and applying pressure without issuing tickets or laying charges.

The sideroad signs also proclaim the funding sources: "Building Canada: Federal gas tax funds at work in your community", "Creating Jobs, Building Ontario" and "Canada's Economic Action Plan". Last June the project got a boost of about $330,000 from each of the federal and provincial governments, with the Town providing a matching amount, allowing all the work to be done this year, instead of just half of it.

There has a tempest in the Ottawa teapot recently, after Conservatives printed their own logo on some infrastructure cheques. And there are accusations (denied by the prime minister) that Conservative ridings are getting a higher percentage of stimulus money for large projects.

It is hard to know what to believe, since a complete list of projects has not been made public, and not all the money has been doled out yet. The Liberals were accused of similar manipulations when they were in power – it seems like a Canadian tradition.

Still, when MP Michael Chong talks proudly in his fall newsletter about "Delivering Results" in the form of millions of dollars in funding for his riding, it is worth remembering that he has only delivered our money to us. It is not the result of any special skill or generosity on the part of the MP, his party or the government.

Chong says the new, huge federal deficit is "short-term". It will be interesting to see if that turns out to be a realistic assessment. As everyone knows, running up debt is easy. Paying it off is a real test of political skill.

October 28, 2009

Signs praise farmers' environmental efforts

As published in The Erin Advocate

Ontario farmers are reaching out to trail users with a series of educational signs, highlighting their efforts to make farms more environment-friendly.

The first of 60 signs throughout the Greenbelt was unveiled in Erin early this month, where the Elora-Cataract Trail crosses Dundas Street, to mark the launch of a public relations campaign called "Agriculture Hits the Trails". It is a project of AGCare, a coalition of crop-related farm groups, and the Ontario Farm Animal Council.

"Farmers are doing a great job of protecting and enhancing the environment," said Jackie Fraser, AGCare Executive Director. “The colourful and informative signs showcase a range of advancements.”

Erin's sign is mainly about Canada-Ontario Environmental Farm Plans, through which farmers get grants to defray the cost of improvements like buffer zones near streams to reduce erosion and fertilizer run-off, fencing to keep farm animals away from streams and better management of pesticides and manure. Wellington County and the City of Guelph fund similar measures through the Wellington Rural Water Quality program.

Farmers have invested about $600 million on such improvements, and reduced tilling has lowered greenhouse gas emissions more than 600 kilotonnes.

"The Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation (FGF) has granted millions of dollars over the past three years to support the many Greenbelt farmers who are taking on environmental projects," said FGF Program Manager Shelley Petrie.

The sign project is supported by trail organizations and conservation authorities, but funded primarily by the FGF. The Foundation provided $180,000, over three years, to produce six different 24" x 18" laminated wood signs on steel posts. A total of 60 are spread across the 1.8 million acres of the Greenbelt, from the Niagara River to Cobourg, including the Escarpment.

The grant does not cover staff time at any of the agencies, but does cover things like design, physical production, installation and professional PR help.

The signs are attractive and well-written, an example of your provincial tax dollars at work. The FGF is independent of the government, but received a one-time $25 million provincial grant in 2005 to help cover start-up and on-going costs.

Grant applications are assessed for relevancy and value. The signs are clearly within the FGF criteria, but at $3,000 each, they are quite expensive.

This year the Town of Erin, through its Trails Subcommittee, and Credit Valley Conservation (CVC) completed a similar project on a smaller scale, with five different educational signs for the Woollen Mills Trail, near downtown Erin village.

The town paid $1,200 each for these colourful, all-metal signs which are 37" x 25".

The project was spearheaded by Amy Doole through WeCARE (West Credit Appreciation, Rehabilitation & Enhancement), with support from the Ontario Trillium Foundation. It benefited from substantial staff time at CVC for research, design, writing and installation, while historical research was provided free by Steve Revell. An additional version of the mill history sign was unveiled last week at the 109 Main Street park.

Other FGF grants in the Erin area include $100,000 for the Hills of Headwaters Tourism Association, to "foster cooperation among tourism operators, to enhance their 'natural' marketing brand, while increasing visitors to the area and lengthening their stay."

The Caledon Countryside Alliance got $30,000 for a community map project, Conservation Halton got $75,000 to build "awareness of the Greenbelt" through signs and other communications materials, while Credit Valley Conservation Foundation got $12,000 for 15 signs promoting the Credit's "clean water and healthy watersheds".

You can get more information at,, and

October 21, 2009

Fair entertainment a great blend of old and new

As published in The Erin Advocate

It is always a pleasure to hear a singer you know perform their greatest hits, but it is even better to discover relatively new talent. It was this dynamic that made the Saturday line-up at the Exhibits Hall so entertaining at this year's Erin Fall Fair.

I first saw Murray McLauchlan more than 30 years ago, and have always enjoyed his edgy lyrics and smooth melodies. He looks a good deal wiser at 61, but he still seems to have the spark to stir things up with bluesy songs and stories about his journeys.

"Canada is so huge," he said. "It is one of the most divided places on earth that actually works."

The hall was packed to hear him sing classics like On the Boulevard and Whispering Rain, plus some fine new compositions, accented by his trademark riffs on the harmonica. Naturally, he finished up with Farmer's Song, which seemed to fit in nicely: giving thanks to farmers, at a Thanksgiving agricultural fair, with the roar of the nearby tractor pull as a backdrop.

It was actually the continuation of a theme from the previous act, the Murray Williams Band. This is Williams' third year at the Erin Fair, with a clean, hard-driving country sound that people seem to really enjoy. He has been in the business since the '80s, and made a name for himself with a debut single called Thank a Farmer.

It was all about farmers' struggles when he sang The Farmin' Life is the Life for Me, he had the feet stompin' with his version of the Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison Blues, and he did a nice rendition of Charley Pride's Crystal Chandeliers.

When he was singing Kenny Chesney's hit, She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy, the outdoor tractors seemed to chime in right on queue.

Much as I enjoyed McLauchlan and Williams, the highlight of the evening for me was The Gnomes, who played first. It is also their third year at the fair, with Amy Campbell on acoustic guitar and lead vocals, and Hillsburgh native Brad McIsaac on bass and backup vocals.

A few years ago, they won the talent contest at the Erin Fair. Now they live in Beaverton and play around the Orillia area. They have been featured on the CBC Radio 2 show Deep Roots.

The music is mellow and upbeat, leaning toward county in some of their own material, like I Do Believe, and more to folk, blues and soul in the tunes they cover, like (Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay, by Otis Redding and Steve Cropper, and the Aretha Franklin hit (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin.

The strong voice and energetic stage presence of Amy Campbell made the show something special. She has a light, evocative tone, with the power to soar and improvise when needed.

It often seems that the most passionate performances come from artists who are still early in their careers, still discovering what they can really do. I wish The Gnomes well, and hope their career becomes a long one.

For more information and streaming audio, myspace seems to be the most popular web source:
For a taste of the garden gnome liberation movement, check out:

October 14, 2009

BIA Chefs' Night a feast for the senses

As published in The Erin Advocate

It was a tough assignment, but someone had to do it. Advocate readers deserve to know just what it was like to tour through five magnificent homes and sample culinary masterpieces from some of Erin's finest chefs. So I made the sacrifice.

The Erin House Tour, a fundraiser organized by the Erin Village Business Improvement Area (BIA) on October 2 and 3, opened with a "progressive dinner". We travelled from home to home with about 60 fellow diners, partaking of a new course at each location.
It was a great column topic, and a fun night out for Jean and I to celebrate our 28th anniversary, so I knocked off two birds with one stone.

The appetizer was served at Someday Farm on Winston Churchill Boulevard, the home of Willa Gauthier. It was a flaky Ricotta Tart, with feta and goat cheese, and a touch of balsamic fig jam, made by Jim Devonshire of Tintagels, at 50 Main Street.

It was a fine social event, with familiar faces from around town, and new people to chat with. Now if I could only connect all those names and faces. It was also quite an undertaking for the hosts, welcoming a horde of dinner guests into their homes.

The next course was at Ashlar House, located on Main Street just past the stop lights at the south end of the village. It is not easily visible from the street, but it is one of Erin's oldest homes, an impressive stone farmhouse from 1850 that was once on the road to Belfountain. Now owned by Tim and Rebecca Sutherns, it can be rented during much of the year for corporate events, retreats, weddings, vacations or even as a film set (

Jo Fillery of What's Cookin', at 98 Main Street, served up a delicious Autumn Harvest Soup, created by Tamara Honiball. It included locally-grown pumpkin, parsnip and carrot, with Steen's cream (of course), and an ample shot of ginger. Some of the decorating highlights were provided by Decor Solutions and The Village Green.

The pasta course took place at Cattail Farm, on the Eighth Line, the home of Jim and Susan Clift. A superb gnocchi, fried with onions, was served by David Netherton of David's Restaurant at 20 Shamrock Road, and chef Dwayne Presley. It is soon to be added to their catering menu.

Next, we braved the mud of the Tenth Line to reach Hayven Farm, the home of Genie Hayward and Robert Venables. There we were treated to a creative and tasty variation on fish and chips. It was prepared by chef Thorntin Holdsworth, who with his wife Sonia Catino operates Bistro Riviere at 82 Main Street. The fish batter used crushed Miss Vickie's potato chips, while the fries were made from long, curly strings of sweet potato. Fantastic with beer.

The dessert finale was at Little Brook Farm, also on the Tenth Line, the home of John and Jennifer Rogers. Jeff Holtom, of Holtom's Bakery at 78 Main Street, stirred up an addictive mixture of custard, berries, chocolate and liqueur, topped with whipped cream. It went nicely with Joe Lafontaine's Turkey Truffles (in the shape of turkeys, not made with turkey), courtesy of Debora's Chocolates.

The guests were truly impressed as they toured these homes, not just with the decor, but with the architecture. The innovations used to expand older houses and make unique living spaces were a marvel to behold.

The dinner and tour was a great deal at $45 per person. The pace was more relaxed for the house tour only on Saturday, with tickets at $25. This idea looks like a winner for the BIA, so I hope they do it again next year.

This column reminds me of 1988, when I worked as a restaurant critic in Etobicoke. People always envied my job, not realizing that it is not always easy to come up with entertaining ways to describe restaurant food, decor and service. The thrill can wear off if you do it every week, even with an expense account. Speaking of which, I wonder if I can get one of those at The Advocate. [Editor's note: Forget about it.]

October 07, 2009

Farmland Trust donation blocks new development

As published in The Erin Advocate

When Deidre Wright gave up the right to sell her land to a developer, she did not view it as a sacrifice, but rather an opportunity to help stop the spread of subdivisions and quarries into Ontario's dwindling supply of good farmland.

"The land is being gobbled up by housing and gravel pits," said Wright, who has owned Belain Farm, on Shaws Creek Road near Belfountain, since 1965. "The land is precious. We should keep it rural."

She recently completed a deal with the Ontario Farmland Trust (OFT), a not-for-profit organization that promotes farmland preservation. She donated to them a "conservation easement" on her 97-acre property – a legal stipulation that prohibits a change in the land use. This is binding on her and all future owners of the property.

Various land trust groups have built up a network of nature reserves that now protect more than 60,000 acres across Ontario, primarily for natural areas such as forest and wetlands. Wright's property is mainly farmland, making it the first land securement for the OFT.

"Ontario is indebted to individuals like Deirdre Wright, whose concern for what the landscape will look like in the future has translated into action," said OFT Executive Director Bruce Mackenzie, who is working on three similar easements in or adjacent to the Greenbelt.

"Mrs. Wright's foresight and generosity will ensure that farmland and greenspace are protected in perpetuity – good news for agriculture and the environment."

Credit Valley Conservation (CVC) is a partner in this project and will monitor the property. With a donated easement, the owner keeps the land and is free to sell it or bequeath it, though subsequent owners cannot change the land use.

The land gets two market value appraisals, one with the easement, and one without it. The difference between these amounts is the dollar value of the easement, which can be quite high if the land has development potential. When the easement is donated to the land trust, the land owner gets an income tax receipt for the value of the easement.

For the Belain Farm donation, the costs for legal work, surveying and appraising were covered using a portion of a $75,000 grant from the Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation, a charitable group supported by the Ontario government.

Anyone with farmland can potentially get involved, even if there are no special natural features on their land. It is important to discuss the matter with children or others who may inherit the land. In some cases there may be capital gains tax to deal with, so landowners must find out all the details before they proceed.

Land trusts can also accept outright donations of land, as well as buy land and lease it to farmers. Land deals involving direct acquisition by trusts often occur when a landowner retires from farming: part of the farm may be sold for development, leaving the owner able to donate the remainder, or sell it at a lower price.

Municipal official plans already control development, and most of Erin is within Ontario's Greenbelt zone, as is Wright's property in Caledon. The conservation easement goes above and beyond both of those.

"It is an added level of protection," said Mackenzie, noting that the easement would remain in force even if future municipal or provincial governments were eager to encourage development of an area. "It is empowering for the landowner."

Imagine that – something substantial a landowner can do, which will have an impact long after they have died, standing up to commercial pressures and the whims of politicians. If many local farmers donated easements, it could make a huge difference.
"I'm trying to persuade my neighbours to do it," said Wright.

Ontario contains just over half of Canada's optimal class one farmland, but significant portions of it have been lost to urban sprawl. The Greenbelt is an attempt to control that sprawl, in a 1.8 million-acre band that wraps around Toronto, from the Niagara River to Cobourg. It includes the Niagara Escarpment, hundreds of towns and some 7,100 farms.

For more information, go to: and

September 30, 2009

A call for memories about new park site

As published in The Erin Advocate

I was reading again the series of columns published on this page by Harry Smith called "Gleanings from memories by paths of Erin". That was the title of the memoir written in the 1940s by Florence Baker, recalling what life was like in Erin village in the late 19th century.

Harry's excerpts from her writings are available on the Town website,, in the history section. As I read that elegant prose, I wondered what people will read many generations from now, when they want to know what life was like here in the 20th century.

Already it is starting to fade away. People are naturally busy with their families and jobs, so often it is only the highlights of a place that stand out in memory. As people pass away, many fine memories are lost. But when they are recorded and shared, memories build up the bonds that make a community unique.

Often the most vivid memories spring from growing up in a particular place. More people are writing memoirs now, some with the aid of fancy scrapbooking and photo software, but it is still mainly a private activity, intended to preserve memories for friends and family.

What if we could get more memories of Erin out into the public sphere, so that relative newcomers could get a better picture of what the place was like 40 or 50 years ago? How can we tap into that collective memory bank in a way that does not overwhelm readers with a huge flood of details that are difficult to absorb?

I was talking recently with Annamarie Holtom, who had been enjoying local talent at the gazebo in the new park at 109 Main Street. She was reminiscing with a friend about watching local folks perform at that same spot in the 1950s, on the stage at the old village hall. The "Erinettes" had put on "The Pirates of Penzance" and "HMS Pinafore" by Gilbert and Sullivan.

So I got to thinking about future columns. What if I could collect memories from lots of people about a specific place. It would not be an official history, but it would be interesting to read.

From time to time I will announce a local history topic and ask people to send me some memories that would be of interest to the general public. I will sort through them and choose excerpts to make into a column.

The first topic is 109 Main Street. Were you an Erinette, or did you know one? Did you attend any special public meetings there? What did the site look like? What other types of community events were held there? Did you see Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent when he visited?

I am expecting memories mainly from the 1950s and 1960s, but older ones are even better. Please include details so that readers can picture the scene, as well as your name, which I would like to include.

The Town has had many suggestions for a name for the new park at 109 Main. The new name will be announced at the Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony on Friday, November 13. I will have a column of memories ready in time to promote that event.

Just one or two paragraphs would be plenty. I cannot promise to include everything, but I will put in as much as I can. If you would like to write something a bit longer, please do – I will try to get it printed separately, like a letter to the editor. If you are already writing a memoir about Erin, or if you have ideas about future topics, please let me know.

Send memories or other messages by Friday, October 16 via email to: Or send a letter to: Phil Gravelle, RR5, Georgetown, ON, L7G 4S8 (it is in Erin).

I would also be glad to chat with people on the phone, or in person if they prefer. Call the Advocate office at 519-833-9603 if you want to leave me a phone message.

September 23, 2009

Downtown septic systems have "adverse impact" on Credit River, says MOE

As published in The Erin Advocate

Every community should deal responsibly with its own waste. This principle should be at the core of Erin's upcoming sewage debate. And since we are not dealing responsibly with our septic waste right now, the idea of doing nothing about it is unacceptable.

People may have various ideas and concerns about how to proceed, but the Town must decide on a plan of action. If there is no progress on a sewage solution, the Ministry of the Environment (MOE) promises to make the process mandatory.

Erin Village made a serious attempt at developing a sewage system in 1995, but could not get the necessary funding from senior governments. Only recently has the effort been revived, through the Servicing and Settlement Master Plan (SSMP) study.

If the study stays on schedule, there will be a draft final report to Town Council in November next year. The municipal election, however, will be held on November 8. Is council willing to change the timeline so that all the candidates can see the final report and state their positions before the election? Is there any good reason why the final report to council could not be ready next September?

There will be plenty of information coming out in interim reports and public meetings during the next year, but to get some background, I spoke recently with Gary Tomlinson, Acting District Supervisor for the MOE in Guelph. He has worked on Erin's issues for many years. I asked about the severity of impact caused by a large number of septic systems in a small area.

He said that if the soil conditions are good, and the septic systems are spread out, the impact should be minimal. Unfortunately, these advantages do not exist in downtown Erin village or Hillsburgh.

"The soil type is largely unsuitable, the depth of soil overburden to bedrock is inadequate, the groundwater table is high, the various systems are crowded together and, in some cases, there is essentially no separation distance from the various branches of the Credit River," he said.

"As such, there is an observable adverse impact on the river due to nutrient inputs as its tributaries pass through the former Village and Hillsburgh areas."

Back in 1995, the negative effect of septic tanks in the old part of Erin village was well-publicized. Those worries have not gone away. How many older septic tanks and holding tanks would be found acceptable if they were subject to inspection? Why have the Ontario and Town governments allowed the situation to drag on for so long? Yes, we have had the amalgamation of Erin Village with Erin Township, but is that enough of an excuse for waiting 15 years?

Now, we are facing some consequences. Steen's Dairy has been allowed to spread its dairy wash water on farmland, even during the winter (which is not allowed for regular septic waste). The MOE has informed them that this practice will be phased out, not just in winter, but year-round. As part of an expansion plan, the company has decided to relocate their plant to Guelph (though the Dairy Bar will stay in Erin). Lack of sewers was not the only factor, but it was one of them.

"The ministry has informed the Town of Erin on a number of occasions that, based on the observable impacts on the Credit River, a municipal sewage collection and treatment system is required to serve both the urbanized areas and the outlying areas that will continue to generate septage and untreated sewage after the construction of those facilities," said Tomlinson.

"The municipality needs to demonstrate on ongoing commitment and progress towards that goal, or pursuant to its authority under the Ontario Water Resources Act the ministry will make the process mandatory. To date the Town of Erin has shown acceptable progress in meeting this requirement."

September 16, 2009

Septage treatment could be a business opportunity for Erin

As published in The Erin Advocate

The Ontario Ministry of the Environment (MOE) is committed to ending the application of septage and untreated sewage on farm fields, but it has been saying that for a long time, and still no deadline has been set. It has, however, prohibited application during the winter months.

"It is quite likely that land disposal of septage and untreated sewage will be discontinued prior to the construction of a collection system and municipal sewage treatment facilities in the Town of Erin," said Gary Tomlinson, Acting District Supervisor for the MOE in Guelph.

Since Erin's septage (sludge and liquid from septic tanks) and sewage pumped from downtown holding tanks cannot be spread when the ground is frozen, it will likely be trucked to a sewage treatment plant in Collingwood. Plants that are closer do not have the capacity to handle outside waste, or refuse to accept it. As Collingwood grows, it too could decide to reject outside waste. Erin is studying its sewage options, but a plant of its own is many years away.

Since the Town has no current responsibility to provide a destination for hauled septic waste, haulers must try to find a place to take it. If it must go even farther away than Collingwood, or to a plant that charges more, costs will continue to rise for consumers and businesses.

Homeowners now pay about $250 every three or four years for septic tank pumping. Most downtown businesses, however, cannot have septic systems since they are so close to the river. Having their holding tanks pumped out regularly can cost many hundreds of dollars per month.

Spreading human waste on farm fields could have less impact than the waste from farm animals, but the idea still offends many people. Over the years, there have been complaints to the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (ECO), saying the rules are not strict enough, that MOE enforcement is weak or inconsistent and that land spreading should be banned.

Tomlinson said a total ban could be enacted if "adequate alternative facilities for disposal are deemed to exist, and/or the overall impacts on the environment due to land disposal are deemed unacceptable." He said the ministry has the legal authority to force a treatment plant outside Erin to accept Erin's sewage or septage.

Of course, sewage plants generate their own sludge, and huge volumes from city plants go onto farm fields. Debate rages about pathogens, heavy metals, industrial organic chemicals and antibiotics in treated sludge, but at least it has been treated.

In May, Environment Minister John Gerretsen was under attack in the legislature for a plan to shift sludge regulation to the Ministry of Agriculture, removing the need for Certificate of Approval permits.

The NDP's Howard Hampton accused him of ignoring the "human health impacts" of sludge, but Gerretsen insisted the government is relying on "the best science" and that public health would be protected.

Land application of untreated waste is inexpensive, and while it provides some fertilizing benefits, there are risks. The MOE tries to mitigate them, but is willing to tolerate them for now.

"The ministry is concerned about practices that could cause a significant risk to human health and the environment," said Tomlinson. "Run off from lands where untreated sewage and septage has been applied could potentially get into drinking water sources, such as rural wells, and expose people to serious health risks. The run off can also flow to water courses such as creeks and rivers and cause conditions resulting in fish kills."

Many sewage plants in Ontario are aging, and as the population grows, they are reaching full capacity. When land application of untreated waste ends, there will be a huge demand for treatment. So when Erin builds its new plant, perhaps we should see it as a business opportunity.

Build the plant with greater capacity than the town needs, and charge haulers from other areas who are willing to bring their waste here. I ran the idea past Mayor Rod Finnie, and he said it is a possibility, if council decides to adopt such a mandate.

A facility that serves a regional need might even qualify for higher infrastructure funding.

September 09, 2009

Don't stick your head in the septic tank

As published in The Erin Advocate

In the murky holding tank of septic waste disposal issues, words of wisdom naturally rise to the top.

"Never enter or stick your head into a septic tank," warns the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, in its home inspection checklist. "There is no oxygen in the tank for you to breath, and the tank contains deadly gases which can kill you in only a few seconds."

Even if you don't believe it, common sense will tell you not to try it. Making sense of Erin's septic waste issues is no easy task, so before we dive in, let us review some fascinating facts.

Bacteria do much of the work of waste disposal, starting in the human body. Septic tanks typically have three layers: the sludge at the bottom, the scum from fats and oils at the top and the liquid in the middle, where anaerobic bacteria digest some of the solids.

When you put water down your drains, liquid is forced out of the septic tank and into the perforated pipes of a leaching bed, where a slime layer of oxygen-based aerobic bacteria consume organic matter in the wastewater.

When the system works properly, virtually all of the harmful bacteria and viruses are gone by the time the water filters down into the aquifers that feed our wells. If you have a private well, there is free testing for Coliform bacteria, including the dangerous E. coli strain. Call the Health Unit at 519-846-2715.

Since Erin has no sewage system, most homeowners have their own miniature sewage treatment plant. Naturally, it makes no sense to put chemicals into the septic tank which could kill the bacteria, or objects that will not decompose. Download a PDF guide to maintaining your system, in the Forms & Documents section at See the section entitled "Toilets and Drains are Not Garbage Cans".

Septage is what is pumped out of the tank. The sludge builds up and needs to be removed every three to five years, depending on how much the tank is used. If sludge gets into the leaching pipes, it can cost thousands of dollars to fix the problem. A new system could cost more than $20,000.

The Town does not provide a destination for septage. It is not like garbage disposal, which is now a County responsibility. Facilities to treat septage and/or sewage are normally operated by municipalities, but when there is no sewer system, no treatment facility is required.

"It is an individual householder's responsibility," said Mayor Rod Finnie. Once you hire a company to pump out your septic tank, it is up to them to find an acceptable destination for the septage. That situation is unacceptable for some people, like Erin resident Debby Gear. She was surprised that haulers outside Erin would not provide service, since many treatment plants will not accept waste from outside their town.

"I think the County should have responsibility," she said. "With so many people on septic systems, there has to be something in place for the rural residents."

Erin's septage, and the untreated sewage from holding tanks at downtown properties near the West Credit River, is spread on farm fields when possible, according to Ministry of the Environment regulations. Several years ago, that practice was banned in the winter, since the frozen ground cannot absorb the waste.

The alternative is to truck it to a municipality willing to accept the waste, with a sewage treatment plant of adequate capacity. Hamilton had been the destination, but the city has decided to stop accepting outside waste. Erin haulers now have to drive to the Collingwood plant, not a pleasant prospect in the winter. The situation is unstable, with no short-term solutions in sight from the Town, County or Ministry of the Environment.

"They're going to have to do something," said Ed Peavoy, who has been pumping Erin septic tanks for more than 25 years. Higher costs have forced his basic fee up by about $100. Fall is a busy time for haulers, since it is best to give the bacteria time to re-establish themselves before winter.

Things will be simpler once Erin has its own sewage treatment plant. "If we're going to deal with sewage, we should look after septage as well," said Mayor Finnie. Erin's Servicing and Settlement Master Plan (SSMP) will include septage disposal, but a sewer system and plant could be more than 10 years away.

Well, here it is, the end of the column, and my holding tank of words is overflowing. Tune in next week to find out what the Ministry of the Environment is doing (and not doing) about Erin's septic waste problems.

September 02, 2009

What I did on my summer vacation

As published in The Erin Advocate

One of these years, I am going to have a truly relaxing vacation. It always seems that by the time I get finished all the things I have to do, and a few of the things I want to do, there is hardly enough time to sleep, let alone relax.

My vacation started with the Spirit of the Hills Family Fun Day, singing with the Young at Heart Choir. It was our public debut, in the attractive Hillsburgh Historical Park, dedicated to Nazareth Hill and his fellow pioneers, and we had a lot of fun. We are not professionals, but when the little kids start dancing in the park, you know you are doing something right. Thanks to the Hillsburgh Lions for the excellent peameal bacon on a bun and a friendly welcome.

Then I was off to a half dozen Doors Open sessions, which loaded me up with more Erin lore than my brain could hold, and left my feet tired and sore.

Then there's septage. I cringed recently when editor Joan asked me to consider a column on septage, a complicated issue that can really bog you down. I am not looking for sympathy, since the torture is self-inflicted, but I did spend a bit of my vacation digging into Erin's septage problem.

For those new to life in the outer reaches of the Greater Golden Horseshoe, septage is that sludge that is pumped out of your septic tank and spread on farm fields if weather conditions are right, unless the ground is frozen, in which case it has to be trucked to towns far, far away, until they decide they do not want it anymore, at which time we will be in some serious septage.

I will fill in more details in an upcoming column, but in the meantime, here is a tip for anyone whose septic tank is due for cleaning: do it sooner, not later.

Then it was time for camping, the vacation activity that last year I swore I would not be doing this year. Jean had bought an easy-to-assemble dining tent to replace the one we joyfully flung into the dumpster last year, and a canopy with a sturdy frame, so I would not have to climb into trees with ropes, trying to create a tarp ceiling for the camp site.

Still, it is a day of hard work to pack up the utility trailer, travel to Lake Huron, and assemble our new home, complete with bar fridge. The next morning, preparing for a day of relaxation, we got a phone call from my son Michael to whom we had lent our '97 Eagle Talon so he could join us camping.

The car had died on the 401 near Cambridge, so I ended up spending half a day to pick him up and Jean spent a half day getting him to work two days later. (It was the timing belt, so now we are vehicle shopping.)

Then there was the torrential rain, which created a small river that flowed through the bottom of our tent, forcing us to relocate it, then load most of our clothes and bedding into several dryers at the Goderich laundromat.

Before the full-day trek home, I did have time to read a collection of newspaper columns by humorist Dave Barry, which was fun, but a bit like work, since I kept wondering if I would ever be that good a writer. If I could get better, and find a topic other than Erin, maybe I could get myself syndicated.

Next, I spent a day in the pulsating blob known as Toronto. I saw the Dead Sea Scrolls at the ROM, took a tour of the legislature at Queen's Park (which is like a museum), checked out the grandeur of St. Michael's Cathedral (also museum-like), and caught a high-speed chess game on the lawn of Metropolitan United before heading to a Fred Eaglesmith concert.

The next day, I got back to my regular job, which was a good thing, because I needed a rest.

August 26, 2009

New booklet tells story of master mill builder

As published in The Erin Advocate

The recent Doors Open event in Erin was not only a great way for people to learn about the community, but an opportunity to start conversations about how we got here and where we are going.

In that vein, may I recommend a little booklet, just 16 pages, written and published by Tim Inkster of The Porcupine's Quill, called A Brief History of McMillan's Mills. It celebrates the work of Daniel McMillan, a "compulsive entrepreneur" who shaped the industrial design of Erin village between 1829 and 1849.

It is published to mark the third annual Hills of Headwaters Doors Open, a concept started in Europe, encouraging people to enter and learn about places they may not normally visit. The Ontario Heritage Trust – the agency that has replaced our aging historical sign on Main Street – now coordinates the Trails Open and Doors Open programs.

"Erin is one of the places it has been most successful," said Inkster. "It is a way to help the local populace appreciate what we have here. The historical walking tours have been hugely popular." A Brief History of Erin Village, by local historian Steve Revell, was published for the first local Doors Open. The booklets cost $2.

This year, people visited Century Church Theatre in Hillsburgh, the Pioneer Cemetery, All Saints Anglican, Burns Presbyterian, Erin United, Devonshire Guest House, Woollen Mills Conservation Area, the Mundell Mill and The Porcupine's Quill, where the booklet was actually on the press.

It should be required reading for local students and anyone who cares about the village. It brings together the story of McMillan's seven mills and places it in the context of Ontario's population growth and the evolution of industrial technology.

It includes historic photos, maps of the raceways cutting through the downtown, and photos by George Beshiri of the mill-driven nineteenth-century woodworking machinery used to make windows and doors in the Mundell Planing Factory.

The 1838 mill is not being used now, but is still operable, the last intact mill in the Credit Valley watershed. It uses water diverted from the Charles Street dam, built with a sawmill in 1826 by Henry Trout, eight years before the first house went up. The water drops seven metres and generates 30 horsepower through a horizontal waterwheel.

Conducting the tours at Mundell's was Brian Oates, who once operated the mill. When I introduced myself, he asked me if I was the one who had suggested that Erin's dams should eventually come down. We had a good conversation.

He said the mill ponds create an environment that people enjoy, with plants and animals we would not otherwise see here. He values the heritage aspect of the dams, and their usefulness for flood control. He sees the dam and mill not only as an educational resource, but as a potential source of energy.

He agreed that sometimes the pond water is not very attractive, but would like to see it improved, not drained away. The lower pond has 183 years of sediment, which traps nutrients from waste, and who knows what else we have dumped in there. I am sure the folks downstream do not want it.

Tim Inkster, who enjoys the view of water lilies and turtles where his back yard meets the pond, said that even a slight lowering of the dam could create huge mud flats in the shallow areas outside the centre channel. That could lead to an expanse of bullrushes, like those in the upper pond near the Dundas Street bridge. He said water quality has improved since farmers were encouraged to stop grazing cattle near the river.

What else is being done, or could be done to improve our ponds? Is there a long-term strategy for the dams? Trout's 1826 sawmill was already in ruins by 1880, a reminder of the temporary nature of human endeavour. The Credit River flowed a long time before we started building dams, and will flow a long time after we are gone – or at least until the glaciers return, re-organizing the hills and scouring the land clean once again.

August 19, 2009

Forks of the Credit Park combines hiking & history

As published in The Erin Advocate

Just a few minutes east of Erin is one of the most interesting places to learn about the Credit River, and how its power was harnessed to build up the local economy more than 100 years ago.

Forks of the Credit Provincial Park is a protected oasis in a section of Caledon along Charleston Sideroad that has been virtually stripped bare by aggregate mining.

Quarries are part of the local history, since they were key to the settlements at Credit Forks and Brimstone, east of Belfountain. The maroon sandstone used to build the Ontario parliament buildings and Old City Hall in Toronto was extracted in this area.

A drive along Forks of the Credit Road will take you past the south end of the provincial park, where the West Credit, flowing from Erin, meets the main Credit River, flowing south from Alton, then on to Inglewood, Cheltenham and Terra Cotta. The main entrance to the park is at the north-west corner – along Charleston, just past Cataract Road (Coulterville), turn south on McLaren Road.

Forks of the Credit is a "natural environment" provincial park, open all year, covering 282 hectares. There are no staff at the gate, but parking will cost you $3 for two hours, $5 for four hours, or $11 for the whole day. There is no camping or intensive recreation – just picnicking, fishing, cycling, hiking, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.

The network of trails takes you through rolling hills, past Kettle Lake (created by glaciation), and into wooded areas near the river. It can take an hour to hike to Cataract village, including some steep grades.

The most direct route to the park from Erin is the Elora-Cataract Trailway, part of the Trans-Canada Trail, the remains of a branch rail line of the Credit Valley Railway from 1879. It was later bought by Canadian Pacific, and the main track still runs up the valley to Orangeville.

You can also enter the park from the south along the Bruce Trail. It winds from Belfountain, past the Forks, up Dominion Road through Brimstone, then along the river to Church's Falls – one of the region's scenic highlights, where the Credit tumbles 45 feet down from a rocky shelf.

Originally developed in 1820 as a salt mine and saw mill, the nearby village was originally called Gleniffer. It lay abandoned for 20 years before Richard Church re-established it as Church's Falls in 1858. The name was changed to Cataract when the railway arrived. The village is just outside the park, to the west of the river.

In the late 1800s, Cataract had a saw mill, grist mill, a woollen factory, barrel-head manufacturing, a large general store and two hotels. In 1885, John Deagle bought the mill at the top of the falls, and converted it into an electrical generating station that powered Cataract.

Eventually, he approached Erin (eight kilometres away) with a business plan, and in November 1899, the village enjoyed the glow of streetlights for the first time.

A Boston Mills Press book called Cataract and the Forks of the Credit, by Ralph Beaumont, tells of Deagle's pioneering electrical design work. He was also building a huge tunnel from Cataract Lake (his mill pond), to a point downstream, in hopes of doubling his energy output.

That project was abandoned after heavy rain and melting ice burst the Alton dam on April 6-7, 1912, sending a surge of water and debris down the Credit that destroyed the dam for Bell's Flour Mill (near Charleston Sideroad), and not only wiped out Deagle's Dam, but a section of Dominion Road that has never been replaced. The Erin Advocate reported that another dam and a bridge were destroyed near Credit Forks.

Deagle rebuilt his dam, and sold the operation in the 1920s for $50,000. Ontario Hydro eventually bought the plant, power lines and rights-of-way in 1944, then closed the plant as uneconomical in 1947. There were plans to make Cataract Lake a tourist area, but the CPR feared the water might undermine its rail bed, so the dam was dynamited in 1953 and the lake disappeared.

The ruins of the mill were heavily fenced off after a number of hikers lost their lives in the falls. It is just as well, for while the ruins may be interesting, they are not attractive. The grafitti-decorated plant walls and the reinforced riverbank below the rail line are concrete scars on an otherwise spectacular landscape.

August 12, 2009

Yoga helps focus energy for busy Erin artist

As published in The Erin Advocate

Emma Bramma Smith has cast a wide net in her quest for inspiration and enlightenment. She brings together many influences in her paintings, blending images of nature with symbols from Celtic, Christian and Buddhist traditions.

Using India ink, watercolour, oils, acrylics and pencil, she creates a surreal quality, infused with a mysterious energy.

Merging with this work is her passion for yoga, which helps people discover and take advantage of energy within themselves. For Smith, that has helped both her spiritual growth and the channeling of ideas onto paper.

"Everything I am is in these pieces – I love what I do," she said. "Yoga has helped me become a better artist."

She exhibits at various shows, but the best way to get an idea of the range of her work is to visit her on-line gallery and store, at She is also in the process of moving to a new home at 176 Main Street in Erin village where she will be leading a new series of yoga classes on September 22.

Y'OM – Yoga on Main includes Kundalini Yoga, which focuses on channels of energy through the spine and employs mantra and meditation throughout the postures. She also does Tibetan Yoga, which promotes relaxation and letting go of burdens, and Flow Yoga, which develops graceful movement between postures. There are also meditation and youth classes. Email her at for more details.

Her art swirls with feminine imagery, and has echoes of medieval illumination. She is influenced by Romantic and Pre-Raphaelite painting from the 1800s, which embraced the exotic and rebelled against realism, scientific rationalism and the restrictions of classical art forms.

While positive energy dominates, there are dark hints woven into many pieces. "I feel sorry for evil," she said. "Love is a much stronger power."

In the fall of 2007, she completed a painting called Universal Heart, which combines many strands from her life. It is based on a vision she had in 2000, and on the spiritual connection she has experienced with Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet.

It has a Celtic border and elements of plant and animal life, including lotus flowers, fish, doves and a heron, which represents the Dalai Lama. At the centre is a Buddha figure in a seated meditation posture, merged into a Christ figure with outstretched arms. The two opposite triangle shapes of these figures combine to make a six-pointed Star of David.

When the Dalai Lama visited Toronto's Tibetan-Canadian Cultural Centre in 2007, Smith was there, hoping to present the painting as a gift. She happened to meet the Indian Ambassador to Canada as he was going in to see the Tibetan leader, and persuaded him to take the painting in and present it to His Holiness. She was not able to meet him in person, but she hopes to be able to travel to India to make that dream come true.

In the meantime, as if meditation, painting and teaching yoga were not enough, she is designing costumes and sets for the InMotion Dance Company in Oakville and for the pilot of a CBC TV show. She has just finished teaching art and self-awareness at Olympia Sports Camp in Muskoka and will be teaching Tibetan chanting as part of a weekend workshop in Alton on August 29. She does illustrations for Mandala Magazine, an international Tibetan Buddhist Journal, is working on two yoga books for children and developing a sketchblog for her website.

She feels fortunate to have had friends of many different faiths when she was a child. With support and encouragement from her parents, she was able to develop a broad range of interests. Her father, Ron Smith, who Emma calls "my first hero, artistically", has a show of his own coming up. His striking landscape photography will be on display at The Teak Barn near Ospringe, as part of the Hills of Erin Studio Tour, September 26-27.

For more on the 21st annual tour, with 30 artists at 15 locations in the Erin-Hillsburgh area, go to

August 05, 2009

New trail signs reveal history of Woollen Mill

As published in The Erin Advocate

It may be hard to imagine downtown Erin as an elaborate industrial complex, but in the mill-driven economy of the 1800s, that's exactly what it became. A new series of signs being erected on the Woollen Mills Trail is designed to bring that part of Erin's history to light.

The trail starts at the end of what was originally called Factory Lane. Now it is Woolen Mill Lane, off Millwood Road, just across the West Credit River behind Mundell Lumber. The trail runs between the river and the St. John Brebeuf schoolyard, which in the 1850s was the Erin Fairground.

As the trail enters a thicket of eastern white cedar, it crosses a large ditch. This is one of three major flumes, also called millraces, built between 1838 and 1849. They enabled millers to divert water from ponds, created with dams on the river, to the drive wheels of their mills.

The first was a flume from the Charles Street Dam to the Oat Mill, which later became the Mundell Planing Mill. The longest flume in the county runs from the Church Street Dam (behind the current Busholme Inn) to the Grist Mill (behind the current Budson Farm & Feed).

The West Credit flows south, then turns sharply north, where it would receive water back from the two upstream flumes. Then it flows into Woollen Mills Conservation Area, and turns east. The modern trail loops through this bend, where a dam, flume and grist mill were built in 1840. Ten years later it was converted to a carding or woollen operation, where wool was combed and prepared for spinning.

Daniel McMillan, with his brothers Charles and Hugh, was the driving force in this series of ventures, with seven mills serving the rapidly growing farm community in Erin Township. Before 1852, the village was known as McMillan's Mills.

"It was a wild and woolly time," said Erin history buff Steve Revell, who helped write the text for the trail signs. "I am amazed at the strength and ingenuity of our pioneers."

Also working on the signs was Amy Doole of the Credit Valley Conservation Authority (CVCA). She coordinates WeCARE (West Credit Appreciation, Rehabilitation & Enhancement), a project to clean up and restore the river, and educate the public about it.

On Saturday August 15, as part of the Erin Doors Open event, Revell and Doole will be conducting guided walking tours of the Woollen Mills Trail, at 11 am and 2 pm. Meet in front of The Porcupine's Quill, 68 Main Street.

The Town has spent $5,000 on the five signs, while the CVCA is providing labour, including trail pruning and cleanup by students with the Credit Youth Corps. The signs, created by As the Crow Flies Cartography, are also sponsored by the Ontario Trillium Foundation.

The project has been promoted by Bill Dinwoody of the Town's Recreation and Culture Advisory Committee, and the Trails Subcommittee. If you would like to be involved in trail planning and improvement, call the Town office at 519-855-4407.

Revell is hoping that the success of the Woollen Mill project will spark interest in improving other village trails, such as the Height of Land (Water Tower)Trail.

The Mundell mill was still in occasional use up to the 1980s, but as technology and the economy evolved, most water-driven mills were left behind much earlier. The Woollen Mill was abandoned before World War I and the dam removed. Many Erin residents had hoped that the ruins of the mill could be preserved, but in October of 1995, with the walls disintegrating, the Village decided to bulldoze the site. It had become a safety hazard, and restoration was considered too costly.

The land around the mill, which had been stripped bare in the 1800s, is now forested, but the natural river ecology has not fully recovered from the damage caused by milling. Through WeCARE, sediment traps have been placed in the water, to narrow the channel where the Woollen Mill pond once was.

Sooner or later (probably later) the other dams in the village should come down too. How much benefit do we get from our mill ponds? Should we preserve them forever, as historical artifacts from the Victorian era, or should we return the river, as much as possible, to its natural state?

Send me your comments:

July 29, 2009

Artist explores dreams and myths at Main Street studio

As published in The Erin Advocate

Before Paul Morin paints, he charges himself up with the sights and sounds and smells of the environment he wants to capture – whether it is an Erin forest or an African tribal ceremony.

With an established reputation for dramatic paintings, award-winning book illustration and eclectic music, he continues to pursue new inspiration for his work.

"I rely on dreams, as gifts," he said. "I am a sponge...I like to be inside the forest, or the dance. That's where I am inspired to paint, to grasp the essence of it."
Morin moved to Erin Township 21 years ago, but he has now opened a storefront art gallery in the village, at 110 Main Street. He had a gallery for several years in Rockwood, near his home and studio, but he was impressed with Erin's busy downtown and decided to move his retail location here.

"The market was right, due to the recession, but when there's a crisis, that's the time to take a risk," he said. "If people see the paintings, they're going to fall in love with them."

Despite an international career, he says it makes good business sense to have his own local gallery. The time and expense of mounting a major show can make it hard for an artist to break even. Morin found he sold most of his paintings at shows when he was there in person to promote them, so he finds it more practical to do that in his own space, close to home.

The gallery is open Wednesday to Sunday, 11 am to 5 pm, or call 519-833-9906 to arrange a viewing anytime. Most of the paintings on display are landscapes (the most popular with the public), but his overall work also includes abstracts, animals and explorations of symbols from primitive cultures. His books and CDs are also available. To see a broader sampling, go to

The paintings combine high contrast with subtle details and unique perspective angles, and he is able to create powerful lighting and shadows within the art.

Morin was born in Calgary and grew up near Montreal. He got interested in art during a high school placement at an advertising agency, where he saw that the sketch artist had the most interesting job; but he was not able to get into any art schools in Quebec. He ended up studying a wide range of arts at Grant MacEwen College in Edmonton, illustration and photography at Sheridan College in Oakville, then painting at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto.

As a young man he visited Guinea, the former French colony in West Africa where his father worked for a few years, and was moved by the rhythms and exotic imagery of the native culture. He has since travelled to study cultures in China, Australia, Africa and the Americas, and now does multimedia lectures on mythology, anthropology and biodiversity at conferences and schools. He plans to lease his Erin gallery out to other artists for three months each year so he can continue his travels.

For his first book illustration, he took the risk of going to Africa at his own expense to find material. Then he had to persuade the publisher to accept richly painted images that were totally unlike the watercolours often used in children's books. The result was The Orphan Boy (1990), a commercial success that also won him a Governor-General's Award for Illustration.

Early in his career he worked for ad agencies, which he concedes could have influenced his ability to "clobber people over the head" with bold paintings. Eventually, he grew tired of other people getting credit for his work, so he switched to freelance pursuits.

Along with his artistic skills, he seems to have mastered his business skills. A painting he might sell to the public for $1,000 could go for $20,000 if he sold it to a company for a product label or ad campaign. "I know the value to them. I have learned to defend the value of my art," he said.

He has exhibited in museums across Canada, including solo shows at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa. His local shows include several at the Burdette Gallery in Orton and the Wellington County Museum.

His work has appeared in Newsweek, Maclean’s and in the Society of Illustrators annuals, and his 14 book projects have earned more than 25 national and international awards.

July 22, 2009

Erin residents selling solar power to Ontario Hydro

As published in The Erin Advocate

Now that Joe and Frieda Leenders have retired from farming, they are getting into the power business. An array of 24 solar panels, installed last month on the south-facing roof of Joe's workshop, is now feeding "green" energy into the electrical grid.

They are among the first to take advantage of Ontario's new Green Energy Act, which was approved in the spring. A key part of the plan is to offer small producers such as homeowners, industries, farms and communities a guaranteed rate of payment for solar or wind power that they generate.

On a traditional electricity bill, by the time you include GST, debt retirement, regulatory charges and "delivery", you pay about 11 cents per kilowatt hour. If you generate power yourself, the Ontario Power Authority will contract to buy it from you at up to 80.2 cents per kilowatt hour for the next 20 years.

"It's the coming thing," said Frieda, referring to the need to conserve electricity and reduce reliance on fossil fuels. "This may entice other people to do it."

In the past ten years, the cost of solar equipment has dropped about 90 per cent, but even with government rebates and a guaranteed price, it is still a costly venture.

"Some people have told me I'm crazy, but I've been crazy all my life," said Joe, who has always been interested in the idea of power generation. "This is an investment in the future."

They are spending $52,000, and it will take about ten years to make back that amount in savings and revenue. Unlike "back-up" systems that are ready in the event of a power failure, their direct link to the grid does not require an expensive bank of batteries to store electricity.

"Some people use it for retirement planning," said Steve Eng, an energy engineer at Enviro-Energy Technologies Inc. of Markham, which is installing the equipment. "If you are getting a return on your investment of 10-11 percent per year, that's better than what the bank will pay you."

He said Ontario is willing to pay a good price for the power, because the small producer bears the capital cost. "The government gets more green electricity on the grid and won't have to build as much generation capacity, such as natural gas, and even nuclear plants. We are all subsidizing it," he said.

The new Ontario incentives are now the most generous in the world, according to an article on the website: This could attract serious investment from energy companies looking to expand into North America. The approval process for wind farms and solar parks will be streamlined, making it difficult for municipalities to block development.

The Green Energy Act is part of a $5 billion commitment by the Ontario government to encourage the growth of renewable energy, stimulate the economy, and create an estimated 50,000 jobs over the next three years. An energy audit will also be mandatory when selling a house, unless it is waived by the buyer.

Premier Dalton McGuinty said the plan will boost electricity bills by one percent. "It's a new green tax," said Kevin Gaudet, Ontario director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, quoted in The Ottawa Citizen.

Despite this "green" initiative, the government continues to come under fire from groups like the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, Greenpeace and the David Suzuki Foundation, because it intends to build more nuclear reactors. That plan has recently been delayed, due to uncertainty about costs.

A major push to bring small producers to the grid is long overdue. Germany, for example, gets less sunlight but has ten times more solar generation than all of Canada. Some US states have been doing this for years. If we had started earlier, we wouldn't be so reliant now on coal-fired and nuclear power plants.

July 15, 2009

Smoke alarm inspections planned for every Erin home

As published in The Erin Advocate

The Erin fire department will be checking every home in town to make sure that smoke alarms are installed and working properly. If firefighters discover a problem, they plan to fix it on the spot.

The new inspection program was launched this month, a stepped-up effort to ensure that homeowners and landlords meet the minimum legal requirements: a working smoke alarm on every level of the home, and outside every sleeping area.

"If there are no smoke alarms, we will put them in for free," said Kevin Gallant, Chief Fire Prevention Officer for Erin Fire and Emergency Services.

It is going to take six years to cover the whole town, including rural properties that may never have been inspected before. A team of three firefighters will come to your home and ask if they can do an inspection. Two will come in, and one will stay with the fire truck.

The program is voluntary – you are not obliged to participate. If you let them in, they will check the placement and operation of the smoke alarms, and look for other fire safety hazards. They do not intend to charge people, but they do intend to deal with any issues right away.

"We're not going to leave a home unprotected," said Fire Chief Steve Goode. He is particularly concerned about safety in older farm houses.

Previously, the department was inspecting about 200 homes per year, in the urban areas. (The 2006 census reported 3,960 private dwellings in Erin.) This year, Town Council allocated $9,500 in the budget for increased inspections. The Fire Protection Act mandates the Town to have a smoke alarm program, but Erin is going beyond the minimum requirements with the current plan.

If you refuse to allow the firefighters to install smoke alarms, and you later have a fire without working detectors, you are likely to be prosecuted. The ticket carries a fine of $235 for each missing or non-working unit. Landlords can face penalties up to $25,000. The same protection is required in mobile homes, boats and cottages.

Smoke alarms became mandatory outside sleeping areas in 1998. The death rate from residential fires in Ontario declined about 24% from 1999 to 2008, according to the Fire Marshall's Office. About half the fatal fires were in homes without proper smoke alarm protection. About 17% of those had no smoke alarms and 28% had smoke alarms that did not work, usually because the battery was dead or missing.

Newer homes have the alarms wired to the power supply, and linked so they will all sound in an emergency. Ideally, they should have a battery back-up, in case of a power failure.

The law was changed in 2006 to require alarms on every level, not just outside sleeping areas. Despite intensive public education efforts, many people are not getting the message, so fire departments are resorting to charging those who do not make the effort to comply.

It is important to test your alarms once a month and change the batteries every year. Replace units that are more than ten years old. Never remove batteries if you are getting nuisance alarms – move the device farther away from cooking or wood stoves, or get ones that have a "hush" feature.

If anyone in the household sleeps with the bedroom door closed, there should be an alarm installed in the bedroom. Make sure everyone knows what to do if an alarm sounds – develop a home fire escape plan and practise it with everyone in the household.

Over 90 per cent of residential fires are preventable, but if they do occur, your opportunity to safely evacuate your family is often a matter of minutes, or even just seconds. Smoke alarms tip the odds in your favour, so don't wait for the firefighters, make sure you have the protection right now.