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.