December 28, 2011

On-line fiction project breaks new ground

As published in The Erin Advocate

Instead of retiring after a long career in publishing, John Denison has been writing the books he's always wanted to write. And this Sunday, January 1, he is launching an on-line project that challenges the traditional concept of a book.

"I just wanted to have fun," said Denison, who operated Boston Mills Press on Erin's Main Street for many years, specializing in books about Ontario's heritage. He's out of that field now (Firefly Books now has the Boston Mills brand), and has turned to fiction for teens and young adults.

Occam's Razor is the story of a comic book author nearing retirement who is kidnapped by one of his arch-evil characters. The tale swings between the "real" and fantasy worlds (with a different typeface for each) as the author's daughter dresses up as the comic book heroine Major Occam and crosses over to rescue her dad.

The publishing industry has seen the rise of e-books, to be read on computers or portable devices, and of sophisticated graphic novels from the comic book tradition. Digital presses can now produce high quality books very quickly, at low cost, and in very low quantities if necessary.

Denison's venture builds on these trends, combined with an old-fashioned serial technique – a new short chapter will be released every day for 120 days. He pushes the definition of a book by allowing readers to contribute illustrations, music, video and games, which will appear with the text. When the story is over, readers can order their own customized e-book or paper copy, with the illustrations they choose. Artists can order a version with their art alone.

"I think I'm the first one to do this," he said. "The book world I knew is flying away and whatever's next is arriving like a subway train. Hop on or go home seem to be the only choices."

The project is happening world-wide at, with the help of Forsefield, a young design team from Newmarket. They have also created downloadable apps and an Occam's Razor video game, available on iTunes.

Denison always liked the sound of "Occam's Razor". It's the name of his comic book universe, but also the real name of an ancient scientific principle that favours simple theories. Einstein is said to have summed it up thus: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."

The story has lots of visual imagery, including a young dragon, that provide starting points for illustrators. And because the characters live in each person's imagination, they do not have to look the same in each picture. Denison says that all submitted images (screened only for good taste) will be posted with the chapters – everything from sophisticated illustrations to crayon drawings by little kids.

Go to the site's Artist Portal to find out about submitting your work. Or just check out the art that has already arrived, from as far away as Indonesia. Registered artists will get the chapters five days before the public, giving them a chance to create something related to the text. Music, video and games are also welcome, along with recordings of the text that could become part of an audio book.

Following the story or being a contributor is all free, but Denison is hoping to recover some of his investment through an on-line store that sells his other novels on a linked website, The home page there has previews of Fartboy and Booger (aimed at the adolescent male reader), along with Hanna The President's Daughter and Unlock Holmes Space Detective.

These books are available through the "print-on-demand" business model, which reduces traditional publishing risks and costs. There is no inventory, no expensive equipment and no chance of book stores returning the product. When you order a book on-line at a site like, it can be printed, bound and shipped in just a few days, and the publisher/author makes a better profit margin than they could ever hope for in the traditional model.

Denison's stories have brisk plots, prose that is easy to read (but not dumbed-down), engaging characters, believable emotional interactions and a range of modern issues. After reading a few preview chapters of the Occam story, I was left with an important question: "What's going to happen next?"

Major Occam probably won't be the next Harry Potter (but you never know). And maybe others will come along and take this new genre to new heights. That's all fine with Denison, as he gets ready to fling his creation out to the world.

December 21, 2011

'Tis the prime season for waste generation

As published in The Erin Advocate

How shall we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Blue Box Recycling Program in Wellington County? A big party might be fun, but perhaps a bit wasteful. Maybe we could just kick our recycling efforts up to the next level. You know, like, go for the gusto, or the whole nine yards, or maybe we could give 110 per cent.

Actually, since only about 85 per cent of recyclables are being captured in the curbside programs, even a small increase would be good news.

Recycling fans will be glad to learn that three new types of material will be accepted in blue boxes as of January: milk and juice cartons (remove caps, but do not flatten), drink boxes (remove straws, but do not flatten) and frozen food boxes (flatten, and put in an unflattened box). I'll bet some people didn't even know these items were previously prohibited – or perhaps some were sneaking them into their blue boxes.

Of course, being responsible with your waste involves a lot more than dutifully filling the blue box. It requires an effort to reduce the volume of trash and recyclables we generate. County residents sent 12,800 tonnes of garbage to landfill last year, and recycled 5,000 tonnes through blue boxes. It is most important to reduce the first figure, but desirable to also reduce the second one.

It may require an occasional trip to the Belwood Transfer Station – think of it as a scenic drive and a chance to re-live the good old days of lining up at the now-closed Hillsburgh Transfer Station.

You might start with your natural Christmas tree. Urban curbside collection of trees will be done in the week of January 9, but all residents can bring them to the transfer station until January 31. There is no charge, but food bank donations will be accepted.

"Holiday celebrations and gift packaging dramatically increase household waste," says Solid Waste Chairman Don McKay, in the department's current newsletter.

Remember that wrapping paper, gift bags, ribbons and bows cannot be recycled, so it is worth trying to re-use them. Greeting cards can be recycled, as long as there is no plastic, fabric or metallic surfacing.

If you get new clothes for Christmas, consider donating some of your gently-used older ones at the Thrift Stores operated by East Wellington Community Services. Or, if you are going to Belwood, drop them at no charge in the transfer station textile bins. Other items like footwear, stuffed animals and linens are also accepted, and picked up by the Canadian Diabetes Association for reuse and recycling. Find out more at

Belwood also has a Reuse Centre, where you can leave household items like furniture, toys, luggage, dishes, electronics, books and sports equipment. You pay a small fee, the same as you might pay to dump the items in the waste bin. Instead, they go to a building where people can browse through the goods. It's like a garage sale, but everything is free to take.

The main website for waste services is at, where you can get lots of tips on diversion programs. There is also an online re-use service at, where items are also free.

For metal, tires, appliances, electronics, large batteries and motor oil, it may be most convenient to drop them at Erin Auto Recyclers on 17 Sideroad – all at no charge, except for freon appliances. But if you have to make a trip to Belwood with bulky material, you can save some money by bringing your regular garbage with you as well. Pack it into plain garbage bags and you will only be charged $1 per bag, as opposed to the $1.75 cost of the county's yellow pre-paid curbside pick-up bags. It's also $1 per bag (or equivalent) for wood, brush and scrap metal.

Some people save up their household hazardous waste for the once-a-year drop off day at Centre 2000, to be held in the spring instead of the summer this year. But you can reduce that collection by bringing household batteries to any county library. Belwood accepts some hazardous material, specifically motor oil and filters, antifreeze, household and automobile batteries, aerosol cans and propane cylinders, at no charge.

Don't mix hazardous materials with regular trash, or dump them down the sink or toilet. Old medications and vitamins are accepted at many pharmacies, and old paint is accepted by some retailers. Medical sharps require special precautions – check with your pharmacy or the county website for instructions.

December 14, 2011

1911 Christmas in Erin strikes a familiar chord

As published in The Erin Advocate

Christmas in the village 100 years ago was not all that different from what it is today. Browsing through issues of The Advocate from December 1911, the vocabulary seems strange, but the themes are the same: food, parties, concerts, Santa, hockey, church and shopping.

It had been 25 years since Karl Benz received the first patent for a gas-fueled car and three years since Henry Ford released his Model T ($950), but in this part of the country, motoring was still a fair-weather activity for the well-to-do. In December, a rural shopping trip for most people was dependent on good snow conditions.

"The sleighing of the past week has made business in all lines brighten up," said publisher Wellington Hull in the News Notes column. As always, it was interspersed with snippets of humour, such as, "Money isn't of any use to a man if his wife finds out he has it." Of course, the publisher was always ready to unite couples: "Marriage Licenses – Private Office – No Witnesses Required – Issued at any time – The Advocate Office".

At the Town Hall, a Union Sunday School Xmas Tree Entertainment was held on Dec. 21, with adults paying 25 cents to see a "splendid" musical program by students. This was Erin's first "Union Xmas Tree", a community party that was popular in many towns in Canada and the US in that era, often with presents from Santa for kids in attendance. It appears to be the precursor of today's "Tree Lighting" event.

At the R&R Store (Ritchie and Ramesbottom) the "Fresh for Christmas" advertised specials included mixed peel at 20 cents a pound and mince meat at 10 cents a package. Johnston's offered "Xmas Dainties" like navel oranges at 20 cents a dozen. In the "Notes of Particular Interest to Women Folks" there were instructions on how to pickle a mix of cabbage and celery.

In celebrity news, the nation was all aflutter with word that Princess Patricia, granddaughter of Queen Victoria, was moving to Canada now that her father Prince Arthur had been appointed Governor-General. She would be named Colonel-in-Chief of Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry when the First World War started. She was described in The Advocate as "the only princess in Great Britain who is really pretty, clever and witty, as well as young. She has a little atmosphere of romance...and a most unroyal sense of humor."

It was the one (and only) year in which Ontario issued car license plates made of porcelain. In December, Norwegian Roald Amundsen led the first successful expedition to the South Pole, and the Royal Canadian Mint, in existence only three years, responded to public outrage over "Godless coins".

The newly-crowned George V had been identified on Canadian coins as: DEI GRA:REX ET IND:IMP, a Latin abbreviation meaning "by the grace of God, the King and Emperor of India". The mint removed the grace of God words (dei gratia) in July, but was forced to restore them in December. Today's coins have a shorter version for George's granddaughter Elizabeth: D·G·REGINA.

In church news, Presbyterians were preparing to vote on uniting with Congregationalists, part of the decades-long turmoil that led to partial union with Methodists and creation of the United Church in 1925. The congregation of Burns Presbyterian in Erin rejected the union and remained with the Presbyterian Church in Canada.

In village news, councillors couldn't decide whether to provide a loan to the Woollen Mill. The Advocate said, "Council have shown the grossest negligence over this matter, which is one of vital interest to the community". Council also got a letter from H. Murdoch, complaining that his cellar was being flooded by water backing up on his premises from B. Mundell's planing mill flume being raised. Council decided it was a private matter and took no action.

In hockey news, home town Erin defeated Acton 10-4 before a large crowd on Christmas Day. Admission was 15 cents, but for ladies, 10 cents. "The Erin boys made a very natty appearance in their new suits, which were worn for the first time."

There were about 60 social notices in the paper of December 27, 1911, listing exactly who had visited who for Christmas, along with details of various school concerts. Large ads from local stores wished customers a happy and prosperous New Year – just as they do today.

The largest ad, however, was for the new edition of the T. Eaton Co. catalogue. A sale started on Boxing Day, with a promise "to reach the highest pinnacle in value-giving, and with it all this guarantee – We Gladly Refund Your Money If Goods Are Not Satisfactory." The two featured bargains were Corset Covers for 39 cents, and Lace Petticoats for $1.98. Orders over $25 got free delivery.

December 07, 2011

Resisting invasive species often a losing battle

As published in The Erin Advocate

Invasive species of plants and animals not only threaten local biodiversity, but create a costly burden for our society. The damage to agriculture and forestry, plus the costs of suppressing the invaders is estimated at $138 billion in the US. And with fears of biological attacks, it has also become a Homeland Security issue.

For humans – perhaps the most invasive of all species – the effort to control relatively new arrivals is often a losing battle. It is simply impossible to allocate enough resources to reverse these forces of nature. Ironically, we have in some ways unleashed them upon ourselves, by clearing land, moving species away from natural predators and accelerating climate change.

Some biologists argue that the tumultuous conditions created by globalization, human population growth and climate change have made the division between native and non-native seem irrelevant. Indeed, most of our food crops and livestock are not native to North America, and farming has been a prime destroyer of biodiversity. So it is more important than ever to defend the healthy native ecosystems that we still have.

"It is about picking your battles," said Rod Krick, a Natural Heritage Ecologist with Credit Valley Conservation (CVC), at a recent seminar on invasive species. CVC has made major efforts to control invasives on its own land and to educate private landowners about the threats.

"There are some that are so widespread that there is no feasible way to control them. The ones we can do something about, we focus on them, and on areas that still have a lot of native biodiversity."

One invader that has become virtually native is reed canary grass, a tall, perennial bunchgrass, up to 2.5 m in height, imported from Europe about 1850. It has been used as a landscaping ornamental, for hay and as a livestock forage crop. It creates single-species stands, crowding out other wetland species.

"While still considered invasive in our region, it is so widespread and so integrated into our wetland flora that management is all but impossible now," said Krick. The same approach has to be taken with certain species of fish – common carp and northern pike are considered invaders in the upper Credit River, but getting rid of them is considered unrealistic.

"This does not mean they are not invasive though, or that we accept them," said Krick. "Complete control may not be possible, but in some situations we can ‘manage’ them to acceptable levels."

Speaking in Erin recently, Don MacIver, Mayor of Amaranth Township and a senior climate change scientist with Environment Canada, said that once CO2 levels double, the conditions for good forest biodiversity that now exist near Windsor will be up north of Sault Ste. Marie.

"There is a tremendous migration that is expected in terms of forest species northward as the climate warms. What happens to the native tree species? They are under threat, they are growing outside their climatic optimum, and as a consequence they are subject to disease and infestation from invasive species. It's not surprising, we see the Ash Borer here today...there are many more that will come in from the United States and elsewhere, and it is going to be very difficult to maintain native tree species in this area."

The Emerald Ash Borer attacks and kills healthy ash trees. The Canadian Food Inspection agency has urged Wellington County residents not to move firewood away from source areas, to limit the infestation.

MacIver said that with proper land use controls (restriction of development), it may be possible to reverse the decline in biodiversity by 2020, and even restore it to the level it was at prior to European settlement, by the end of this century.

"Climate change has the opportunity to re-establish the original baseline of 1792, but it won't be with native tree species. It will be a combination of native and new. You have the ability right now to grow Washington DC species here in Ontario. The climate has changed, but we haven't caught up to it. We're still out there planting native tree species.

"You have the opportunity to bring in new species. That's called planned adaptation, assisted migration. It means sitting down with the community and deciding how you want that community to look."

Credit Valley Conservation is studying the impact of climate change and planning for adaptation, but has not yet changed its tree planting practices.

"We aren’t necessarily looking at new species to bring here that may be better adapted," said Krick.

"The most recent literature says assisted migration is generally not recommended by scientists and practitioners at this point in time. Any work done in this area has to be conducted carefully and within a rigorous experimental framework, as we don't want to be introducing problem species and this would include non-natives. Rather as a first step we are looking at creating better connections between natural areas that will allow species to move more freely to ‘assist’ with more natural migration."

The Ministry of Natural Resources is conducting experiments on the success of trees planted outside their normal ranges. While the areas being planted by conservation authorities would not immediately have a major impact on the forest population, they may be able to establish seed production areas for future climates, according to Barb Boysen of the Forest Gene Conservation Association.

"Though southern sources may suffer initially under the more extreme northern conditions, within decades they might prove to be better adapted than local sources," she said. "If we waited decades to bring southern sources north, they may be too maladapted in their changed local climate to produce seed.

"Strategic action requires understanding that forests are a diverse mosaic of species and local populations of those species, which are genetically adapted to local conditions. As these conditions change, local forests may not have the genetic capacity to adapt. And there is evidence that the climate is changing faster than natural migration rates."

November 30, 2011

Eden Mills really is going carbon neutral

As published in The Erin Advocate

In the global effort to reduce carbon emissions, it is important to look for ways to take action locally. Perhaps Erin could borrow a few ideas from Eden Mills, a village of 163 homes on the Eramosa River near Rockwood, where they have made much progress in making their community carbon neutral.

It started with the Millpond Conservation Association, which for more than 20 years has managed their local historic millpond property as a public conservation area.

They have done dam upgrades, dredged the pond bottom, strengthened the shorelines, maintained a beach, preserved wetlands through a stewardship agreement with landowners, promoted environmental education and paid for insurance so the public can use the area for things like swimming, canoeing and skating.

It is difficult to imagine such a thing in Erin, where most of our shorelines are not readily accessible to the public. That, however, is not today's topic.

In 2007, Eden Mills Going Carbon Neutral was a new project for the Millpond group, with the goal of becoming the first carbon neutral village in North America. It is an example of grass-roots action – not waiting for governments to take the lead.

Linda Sword spoke on behalf of the Eden Mills project at the recent "Making Erin Greener Than Our Shamrock" event, co-sponsored by the Environmental Advisory Group of Erin and the Climate Change Action Group of Erin.

"I am excited to meet another community working together to make change," she said. "Going carbon neutral means emitting no more carbon dioxide than we absorb, and that means both reducing our use of fossil fuels and increasing our absorption of CO2."

Of course, it is not possible to completely avoid emitting carbon, especially in our oil-driven economy. But Eden Mills has shrunk its overall carbon footprint by 12 per cent in three years, half by capturing more carbon with thousands of newly-planted trees, with help from the Wellington Green Legacy Program. The other half is from conservation and increased use of green energy sources. The project was praised at the annual international symposium of the Canadian Institute of Planners last year, as a model for others to follow.

"We can see the results of one person’s change rubbing off on another," said Sword. "While one neighbour replaces appliances, the next stops using the clothes dryer, choosing air drying. While one neighbour buys food at the local organic farm, two other families join up to manage a vegetable garden in their backyards and share the produce. The examples are many, and the financial savings are often significant."

The process relies on getting good technical advice, to estimate how much carbon is stored locally and how much more can be captured through tree planting. The local carbon footprint (emissions from households, businesses and travel), is estimated using household surveys (done every two years).

Fourth year students from the University of Guelph Environmental Studies program helped calculate the baseline carbon sequestration rate, while graduate students from the School of Forestry studied the relative sequestration rates of young trees. Students continue to help with the design and analysis of the surveys. About half of the households provide full information, which remains confidential, since the students provide direct feedback to the residents, but only totals and analysis to the organization.

The baseline was an annual emissions footprint of 4,621 tonnes of carbon, with lack of public transportation being a key factor. That's been reduced by six per cent. The baseline of sequestration was 2,608 tonnes – emissions already being neutralized every year by trees and vegetation. That has been increased by six per cent.

To achieve the carbon neutral balance, they started with a goal of neutralizing just over 2,000 tonnes, and now have 1,367 to go.

Sword is the author of a handbook called So You Want to Go Carbon Neutral? It takes a Village, one of several resources available through the Education section of the group's website, They offer DVD-based workshops and host guest speakers.

Eden Mills resident Richard Lay, a professional engineer with Enermodal (Canada's largest green building consulting firm), has been a key player in the village's environmental progress. He founded the Millpond Conservation Association, volunteered professional advice for Going Carbon Neutral and did a full energy audit of the Community Hall.

Last month he was awarded the 2011 Engineering Medal of Achievement for the University of Guelph. A few weeks later, he accepted the Tree of Life award on behalf of his firm, from the association of Canadian Consulting Engineering Companies.

Last week, the Millpond association and the Eden Mills Community and District Club announced that they have been awarded a Trillium Foundation grant of $120,000, and a $50,000 incentive loan from the Wellington-Waterloo Community Futures Development Corporation. It will help pay for reductions in the carbon footprint of their community hall, installation of solar panels and improved accessibility.

November 23, 2011

CVC enlists landowners to battle "super weeds"

As published in The Erin Advocate

Just because a species of plant is green and healthy does not mean it will be welcome when it moves into the neighbourhood, especially if it is an immigrant from Asia or Europe. An aggressive campaign has been mounted against invasive species, which can overwhelm native plants and take over large tracts of land.

Human activity has severely disrupted the slow, natural evolution of local ecosystems, creating opportunities for the invaders. Conservation authorities are now attempting to manage forests as one might tend a garden. It seems we must weed the wilderness if we want it to serve our needs.

Credit Valley Conservation (CVC) warns that aggressive new species can destroy the balance of ecosystems and reduce biodiversity, diminishing the goods and services we get from nature, including air and water regulation, recreation, crops, fish and wood products. The costs to Canada's agriculture and forestry sectors alone may be as high as $7.5 billion per year.

Teaching landowners about problem plants is a difficult task, so it is often presented as a war against intruders, or a hunt for criminals. The Ontario Invasive Plant Council publishes a series of "UN-WANTED" posters, with mug shots of plants like Dog-Strangling Vine, a member of the milkweed family that arrived from Europe about 120 years ago. It is currently invading backyards, altering natural areas "at an alarming rate" and has made it onto the CVC's Top Ten Troublemakers list.

The Town of Erin published a warning this year that Giant Hogweed (#1 on the CVC list) had been spotted in the area. This member of the carrot-parsley family, which grows 10-15 feet tall and looks like a giant Queen Anne's Lace, is a special public health hazard. Its watery sap has toxins that cause photo-dermatitis, meaning that skin contact followed by exposure to sunlight produces large, scar-causing blisters, and eye contact can cause blindness. Call County Weed Control if you encounter this plant.

Most of the aggressive newcomers, though, are not poisonous and are quite attractive on their own, with some available at your local nursery. CVC wants landowners to become aware of the most common ones, and to take action against them. That includes not planting them, digging them out (down to the root tips), trimming off seed pods before they open, mowing them down and attacking them with herbicides if necessary.

"People often don't care about this stuff until it actually affects them personally," said Rod Krick, a Natural Heritage Ecologist with CVC, at a recent seminar on invasive species. For example, a farmer would naturally be concerned about Dog-Strangling Vine if it threatened to make valuable pastureland unusable.

Often, these weeds don't simply grow among the native foliage, they obliterate it to create a monoculture. "These aren't just weeds, they are super weeds," said Krick.

While it may be necessary to battle these species, it is important to remember that the enemy is really our species. Humans have created the clear-cut and disturbed areas where invasives often thrive, and it is we who have transported most of them from their natural habitats, either accidentally or for ornamental and commercial purposes.

Sometimes, natural forces can help restore some balance. Do you remember Purple Loosestrife? It was a huge concern in the 1990s as it choked the life out of valuable wetlands under a sea of purple flowers. One of the reasons that invasives flourish is that they have been set free from their natural enemies. Severe infestations of purple loosestrife have been successfully controlled by introducing beetles that feed on it.

Others on the CVC hit list are Common Reed and Rough Manna Grass, which also invade wetlands, and Garlic Mustard, European Buckthorn and Non-Native Honeysuckles which take over forest floors, crowding out the native inhabitants.

CVC urges people who already have invasives to not let them "escape", and especially to not dump garden waste into or next to natural areas, where it could spread invasive seeds. CVC also suggests alternatives for gardeners and landscapers. For example, instead of aggressive ground covers like Periwinkle, English Ivy and Goutweed, consider Wild Ginger or Barren Strawberry.

Instead of Norway Maple, which grows so dense that it shades out all other native trees and shrubs, consider Freeman's Maple or Hackberry. Plant Joe-pye Weed instead of Japanese Knotweed, New England Aster instead of Himalayan Balsam, Blue Flag (Iris) instead of Flowering Rush, Switchgrass instead of Maiden Grass or Feather Grass, and Native Bush Honeysuckle or Witch-Hazel instead of Winged Euonymus (often sold as Burning Bush).

For more information, go to, and the Watershed Science / Invasive Species section of the CVC site,

November 16, 2011

Active Transportation Plan needs active support

As published in The Erin Advocate

If you could ride on a network of wide, safe bike lanes, where would you like to travel? Would you be looking for regional destinations, like Rockwood, Fergus, Orangeville, Belfountain or Acton, or just loops close to or inside the Town's urban areas?

We already have the Trans-Canada Trail linking Cataract, Erin village, Hillsburgh, Orton, Belwood, Fergus and Elora, but the Wellington Active Transportation Plan is about creating a broader network, combining roadside lanes and off-road trails.

Not every road will get a bike lane, so it is important to find out where there is public demand. Should we have more paved trails, natural hiking trails, mountain bike trails, horse trails, or all of the above? Or do we prefer motorized trail travel, on various snowmobile routes and the unofficial dirt bike and ATV trails?

Convenient access to trails and bike lanes means opportunities for physical activity, saving people money, reducing our local greenhouse gas emissions and making our communities safer, more cohesive and attractive. Trails also protect natural areas, while making them accessible to more people.

The process started in June, including a meeting in Erin involving local politicians and residents. Existing trails have been mapped and there is an ongoing internet survey (search Wellington Active Transportation).

Preliminary results were reported at an open house held recently at Centre 2000, showing that active recreation was the main factor motivating trail users, as opposed to travel for work or shopping. Walking (or running) was the top activity, followed by cycling, hiking, cross-country skiing (or snowshoeing), horseback riding and in-line skating.

MMM Group of Mississauga, the consulting firm hired to develop the plan, will now be doing field investigations, developing design guidelines and devising strategies for implementation, funding, tourism and getting more people onto the routes.

Project Manager Jay Cranstone hopes to have a draft network by February, with recommendations going to County Council in the spring. The County could adopt the Active Transportation Plan, then incorporate key elements into its Official Plan. Lower-tier municipalities such as Erin will likely be asked to follow a similar process.

County Planner Sarah Wilhelm said that actual improvements will still be dependent on available funding, but that it is important to have an official framework.
"You need a plan in place for grant applications," she said.

Taxpayers generally don't know or care whether a road is controlled by the County or the Town, but they do expect them to work together to deliver the most practical improvements.

In its Official Plan, the Town of Erin has objectives that include promotion of compact, people-oriented downtowns by establishing a safe and pleasant pedestrian environment, encouraging movement by foot and bicycle rather than by automobile.

Vehicle and pedestrian movement is to be facilitated through improvements to roads, parking areas and pedestrian paths, including linkages along the rivers.

Just because something is in an Official Plan, however, does not mean it is going to happen. If people actually care about such "objectives", they need to prod the Town and County into aggressively pursuing them.

One priority should a bypass route to divert truck traffic from downtown Erin village, along with at least one more traffic light and some official crosswalks. These ideas have been discussed in the past and not done, but that does not mean they should not be done. Often a need will exist for a long time before action is taken – for example, the creation of a village fire brigade in 1946 after decades of disastrous fires.

Erin's Official Plan also requires that new developments provide links with pedestrian and cycle routes "on their perimeter". Perhaps that idea could be expanded so that a new subdivision would have a trail winding through it, separate from roads and sidewalks.

Some would prefer that no new subdivisions ever be built in Erin, but that is probably unrealistic. They will not be built any time soon, however, since the Servicing and Settlement Master Plan (SSMP) study process, which has frozen most development since 2007, is proceeding very slowly. The study was originally to have been done by now, but we're still in the middle of it, waiting for a report on sewer and water options, with several stages still to go.

November 02, 2011

Cycle tourism presents an attractive opportunity

As published in The Erin Advocate

Erin should take full advantage of its beautiful rolling hills by promoting itself as a destination or take-off point for cycling tourists.

"There is a tremendous opportunity for cycle tourism," said Andy Goldie, Director of Parks & Recreation for Centre Wellington, which is developing a Trails Master Plan. He was helping with an information Open House at Centre 2000 on October 22 for the county-wide Active Transportation Plan (ATP).

It is going to take a while to build up the number of rural roads with excellent bike lanes – ideally 2 metres wide, compared to the current 50 centimetres (19 inches) if they exist at all.

"Cyclists are using the roads anyway, and interest is growing all the time," said Project Manager Jay Cranstone, an Erin native, avid cyclist and landscape architect with MMM Group of Mississauga, the consulting firm hired to organize the ATP. While mountain biking remains popular, he has noticed a renewed interest in road cycling.

"Cycle tourists spend more than car tourists," he said. A survey in Quebec, where cycling culture is very strong, showed cycle tourists spending an average of $102 per adult per day (up from $83 in 2005), compared to $52 per day for motoring tourists. They also like vacationing in the spring and fall, extending the season for tourism-related businesses.

Unfortunately, Downtown Erin village is too congested on summer weekends for many cyclists to feel comfortable. Alternative routes and better parking could help improve the situation. Our off-road trails are generally unmarked, which is fine for long-time local riders, but for visitors, a more official, signed network is needed.

Erin needs to boost its image as one in a series of attractive destinations within a network of regional bike routes.

There are several positive scenarios. For example, people traveling the Trans-Canada Trail (Elora-Cataract) could detour into Hillsburgh or Erin village because they've heard good things about them. City dwellers who load their bikes onto vehicles and head out for an afternoon of riding could make Erin their preferred place to park and set out. Or those who come here mainly for shopping may like the option of also doing some short loops, either biking or hiking.

Cyclists planning a vacation could decide to check in at a local Bed & Breakfast place, using it as a home base for their excursions. Or if they are based at Conservation Area campgrounds in Rockwood, Guelph Lake or Belwood, they could plan routes through rural Erin, because they've heard that the hills and views are great, and the roads are not too busy. Companies that book cycle tours could flag Erin as a "must-see" place.

The Town of Erin needs to promote itself as a centre of activity, not a fringe area. Being a part of a large regional tourism association is useful, but the benefits seem limited. Erin has been shifted into a region that extends from here to Lake Huron, though we can still maintain a link with our Headwaters partners to the east, which seems a more logical grouping.

Erin gets some promotion on the Headwaters website ( which is quite professional, but it is not enough. We are lumped in with other places that in some respects have more to offer.

We can't expect other people to aggressively promote Erin – that's our job. We need a broad tourism strategy, involving businesses and the municipality, that identifies our strengths and gets the word out to potential visitors. Ideally, we should have our own tourism association to decide on the best marketing strategies.

Improved cycle tourism is just one of many aspects, which tend to support each other. Cycle traffic benefits food businesses, both the sit-down restaurants and places that offer quick carbohydrates such as ice cream and baked goods.

Riders may be interested, for example, in travelling to several of the art displays on the Hills of Erin Studio Tour, visiting farms or in attending attractions after their riding is done, such as shows at Century Church Theatre.

Public feedback is still being collected for the county study on non-car mobility – search Wellington Active Transportation or go to

October 26, 2011

Making Erin more resilient in a harsher climate

As published in The Erin Advocate

An enthusiastic crowd gathered at the Legion hall last week, looking for ideas on how Erin can prepare for climate changes that are expected to alter our foliage and wear down our infrastructure in the coming decades.

The "Making Erin Greener Than Our Shamrock" event was co-sponsored by the Environmental Advisory Group of Erin (a Town committee) and the Climate Change Action Group of Erin (activists known for film nights and other awareness-raising events).

The guest of honour was farmer Don MacIver, the mayor of Amaranth Township (between Orangeville and Shelburne) and a senior climate change scientist with Environment Canada. As part of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, he and other federal scientists shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore.

Mayor Lou Maieron welcomed MacIver, noting the seriousness of the challenge faced by our species: "If we don't adapt, we may become extinct," he said. "It's the generation coming behind us that we have to educate."

MacIver no longer speaks of stopping climate change – that battle was lost many years ago. He also leaves to others the on-going battle to mitigate the changes by reducing greenhouse gases to slow global warming – the current goal is a 17 per cent reduction below 2006 levels by 2021.

He focuses on the urgency of improving our defences against inevitably more severe weather, caused by the unforgiving mechanics of the atmosphere. Mean temperatures at Toronto (Pearson) are up about 2.7°C since the late 1800s, with minimum temperatures up about 4°C, though the pace of change varies by region. Compared to the 1961-1990 period, temperatures are expected rise another 2.6-4.0°C by 2050, with 6-15% more precipitation.

"Have you noticed there's less frost over the last few decades? You can grow more crops in the spring," he said. "You need to understand how your community has changed in terms of its warming profile, its precipitation profile, especially if you are going to grow trees. And remember the take-home message here, 1°C is significant for biological growth – 2 and 3 and 4 degrees warming, that's a complete disaster when it comes to native tree species."

While there may be less snow, the area in the lee of the Great Lakes is getting more precipitation overall. The weather variations are also more severe, with more dry spells and intense storms with flooding and high winds. Buildings, bridges, roads and dams will not last as long and will have to be built to higher standards.

"We are in tornado alley, they are expected to get more severe," he said, noting that as of 2015 the National Building Code will require more resilient construction. "It's not a question of whether you're going to get one, it's a question of when."

Disaster planning is becoming more important, including reserve funds for repairs, and a registry of vulnerable people who need to be checked on during ice storms or heat waves.

He said conservation authorities need to not only defend native species, but to engage in "planned adaptation", to support biodiversity while encouraging growth of desirable new species from the northern US that can flourish in our altered climate.

Environment Canada has two websites to help municipalities gather data on local atmospheric hazards ( and to develop local climate change scenarios ( The federal government is planning to shut them down, however, and MacIver urges anyone concerned about this to write to Environment Minister Peter Kent ( MacIver is also concerned that many federal climate change scientists in contract positions have been notified that they could be laid off.

Making "green" changes at the local level is difficult, especially when we already have a hard time finding money to maintain or upgrade roads and infrastructure. Are we willing to pay higher taxes or accept fewer services in a harsher climate? Erin would love to have a greener reputation, as long as it could be done cheaply, or better yet, with money from other levels of government.

These are issues that we cannot leave entirely to scientists and politicians. They need to be directed. As organizer Heather Gentles said: "The purpose of tonight's meeting is to begin the process of re-imagining Erin in a more sustainable and resilient way. It's up to us, the residents of Erin, to begin planning."

Sarah Peckford, Environment Progress Officer for Caledon ("Greenest Town in Ontario") was a guest at last week's meeting, explaining their climate change planning process. Also speaking was Linda Sword, who described efforts by Eden Mills residents to make their community carbon neutral. Both of these projects will be the topics of future columns.

October 19, 2011

Fair Grounds perfect for Farmers' Market

As published in The Erin Advocate

It was an excellent Thanksgiving weekend, with plenty of turkey and family visiting, all the sunshine we could handle and a chance to do some late-season garden clean-up and machine maintenance, which I normally put off until it is uncomfortably cold outside.

The autumn colours were near their peak, so I looked about for a new hiking route. From the corner of Ballinafad Road and Rockside Road, just east of Winston Churchill Blvd., you can pick up an offshoot of the Bruce Trail.

Heading downhill towards Terra Cotta on the Rockside Side Trail, on the unopened road allowance of Heritage Road, the walking is easy. On the road, you'll pass Credit Valley Quarries, still producing the landscape and building sandstone that made the area famous in the late 1800s. Coming back along the rocky main trail, completing a 4.8 km loop, was a lot tougher – the whole hike was over two hours.

Then, of course, there was the Erin Fall Fair. I was running low on novelty belt buckles and T-shirts with rude sayings, so it was a chance to stock up.

But seriously, it was a great time – the social event of the year. From the beer at the Lions' tent to the Optimists' peameal on a bun, from the quiet crowd at the cow judging to the huge crowd at the tractor pull, there were plenty of choices and lots of people to recognize.

I particularly enjoyed the Crooner Show, with Erin native Monty Greig doing some energetic numbers in the Frank Sinatra / Dean Martin mode. Not an easy job wearing a black suit under a blazing hot sun. Check him out on Erin Radio, Sundays at 5 p.m., or at

It was a pleasant surprise to see that the Erin Agricultural Society is considering the possibility of starting a Farmers' Market at the Fair Grounds next summer, from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Fridays. They had a small survey near their food counter at the fair, where potential customers or vendors could show their interest.

The best option is to visit their nicely-redesigned website ( and take a couple of minutes to complete a brief survey. This will help them decide if the venture is feasible. There is a section for customers, with questions about shopping habits and what products you would like to see offered.

There's also a section for farmers and other merchants, about the cost of renting space and the volume of sales required to make their participation worthwhile.

It seems like a good idea from many points of view. It's both practical and economical to make more use of an excellent facility with lots of space, in the heart of the village.

More and more people are seeing the value in buying locally, directly from farmers, but it needs to be convenient, with reasonable prices and selection. Farmers may be able earn a reasonable profit by selling produce themselves, without having to transport it a long distance.

There has to be sufficient variety for a market to succeed. It does not have to be just food, but there have to be clear criteria in order to maintain the right atmosphere. For example, hand-made local crafts may be appropriate, but mass-produced T-shirts may not.

A Farmers' Market could increase the size of the overall customer base, including both local residents and short-trip tourists, to the benefit of all village businesses. Erin has been building its brand as a destination, but it needs to offer more benefits if it is to take full advantage of the trend. Like it or not, we are in competition with the towns all around us, and they all have Farmers' Markets.

The greatest benefit, however, is not about business. Like the fair, a market can be a gathering place, where you expect to meet people that you know. It could become a valuable part of Erin's identity.

Starting a Farmers' Market is a lot of work. I hope that the Agricultural Society gets plenty of encouragement and tangible help from the community if they decide to proceed.

October 12, 2011

Shand Dam provides huge recreation area

As published in The Erin Advocate

It's off the beaten path for many people, so unless you have a passion for boating, waterskiing, fishing, hunting or hiking, the Shand Dam may be an unfamiliar landmark.

Located just 5 minutes west of the Erin border, along County Road 18, the dam was completed in 1942, the first in Canada built solely for water conservation purposes. It prevents the Grand River from regularly flooding the communities of Fergus and Elora just downstream, and helps regulate the flow for Kitchener-Waterloo and Cambridge.

The dam is 640 metres long and 26 metres high and can hold back 64 million cubic metres of water in Belwood Lake. It was the first project for the agency that became the Grand River Conservation Authority (GRCA).

I joined a hike there recently with some friendly people from the Elora Cataract Trailway Association. They have monthly outings from May through December, and the next one is November 6, starting in Elora. Go to for more details. The trail itself, a former rail roadway that crosses the dam, is co-owned by the GRCA and Credit Valley Conservation.

The lake level varies considerably, reaching a high point in the first week of June, then dropping gradually until late summer. In dry periods, more water evaporates from the lake than flows into it.

"We couldn't keep it full if we wanted to – it's not supposed to be here," said Derek Strub of the GRCA, who gave us a tour.

Water levels are measured at least twice a day. The floodgates can be opened wide to allow maximum water flow, even if it means flooding downstream. Water cannot be allowed to "overtop" the dam, since it could quickly erode the earth that supports it, causing a catastrophic collapse.

The raw data for river flows, and water levels for reservoirs such as Belwood Lake, Guelph Lake and Conestogo Lake (south of Drayton in west Wellington County) are posted on the GRCA website.

Some communities take drinking water from the river and discharge waste into it. Normally it is treated waste, but untreated waste does reach the river due to storm overflows. Sufficient water flow has to be maintained to dilute that discharge for the benefit of communities downstream.

The dam offers a fine view of the Grand River valley, and provides the GRCA with a valuable source of income since one of its chutes drives a year-round hydro-electric generator. It puts about 700 kilowatts per hour into the Ontario grid, enough to power at least 250 homes. A stairway on the dam face provides access to the base.

Belwood Lake is quite attractive, but it is an active recreation spot rather than a protected nature zone. Unlike Guelph Lake, motorized boating is allowed. The lake is 12 km long, including 347 private seasonal cottages, with the community of Belwood near the north end and the 1,348-hectare Belwood Lake Conservation Area to the south.

There is no charge if you just want to hike or cycle through on the rail trail, but for other activities, admission is $5.25 for those over 14, $2.75 for ages 6 to 14, and free for 5 and under.

There are 3.3 km of additional trails, a picnic area, and a one-acre spring-fed quarry with a sandy beach for swimming, including a shallow section for younger kids. Water quality is tested weekly in the summer, but there is no lifeguard patrol. The park is also home to the Belwood Lake Sailing Club.

Motorboats and ice fishing huts can be rented, and there are two public launch area. The lake is known for its pike, smallmouth bass and perch. Below the dam, the water is cool enough to support brown trout. There is a fishing pond for kids, stocked with rainbow trout and bass.

There are 243 hectares set aside for hunting deer, turkey and waterfowl, with a permit costing $15 a day or $120 for the season.

You can rent kayaks, but not canoes. I have found it better to paddle in the narrower upstream area of the lake where you can barely hear the jet-ski engines, and there is more chance of seeing wildlife such as heron.

Belwood is a day use area, so if you want to camp, check out Highland Pines, a private campground on the north shore. It is not far from the Belwood Transfer Station, where Erin residents now drop off their bulky or hazardous waste.

October 05, 2011

Not much new on Erin at All Candidates Meeting

As published in The Erin Advocate

About 50 people came out to the All Candidates Meeting hosted by the Optimist Club of Erin on Tuesday last week, instead of watching the provincial leaders slug it out that night in the TV debate. It was a friendly affair, with a few good ideas tossed about, but not much to influence voters who care about local issues.

Participating were Progressive Conservative MPP Ted Arnott of Fergus, who has held the seat for 21 years, Liberal Moya Johnson of Georgetown, a nurse and Halton Hills town councillor, and New Democrat Dale Hamilton, a playwright, community worker and former Eramosa councillor. Green Party candidate Raymond Dartsch, a community nurse from Eden Mills, was not present.

Actually, it would have been better to hold the meeting on an earlier date, so people could read a report in the newspaper in advance of the vote. Many won't get this issue by mail until tomorrow, election day. The proceedings were broadcast on FM 88.1 CHES, Erin Radio.

"This is a chance to change to a government you can trust," said Arnott. "Ambulance response times have been a huge interest for me, and I have gone to bat for you on that issue in the legislature."

Hamilton, who came a close second to Arnott in the 1990 election that produced an NDP government, made an appeal for support to backers of the Green Party, based on "compatible" environment policies. "The NDP offers real change to the status quo," she said.

Hamilton agreed that Erin needs better ambulance response times. She said her party would cut ambulance fees and free up more dollars by continuing the Liberal plan to upload costs from municipalities.

"We are proposing to give the provincial ombudsman oversight over hospital and health spending, to be sure patients are respected, and certainly a case of that would be reasonable response times for rural areas," she said.

Johnson was eager to remind people of the Mike Harris PC government.

"I've lived through times when health care encouraged and supported, and times when it was cut to the bone," she said. "After all the progress we've made, rebuilding the health care system, we can't go back there, to those days."

She was not familiar with "exactly how many ambulances" Erin has, but said that in general, as the province continues to upload costs from the municipalities, "more funds will be available to improve ambulance service".

Arnott said he has spoken with the Minister of Health about the problem, in which the City of Guelph has only been willing to station an ambulance in Erin for part of each day. "The provincial government needs to get involved to ensure the response times are adequate," he said, and urged Guelph to be a "good neighbour".

Candidates were asked about support for the Town if it is obliged to install sewers. Johnson was unaware of Erin's situation and mistakenly said that all municipalities are obliged to provide sewage treatment. She said Erin would have to apply for any available funding, while Arnott said he would actively promote such a bid. Hamilton identified it as a development issue, saying Rockwood had succeeded in restricting new housing to within existing urban boundaries.

There were questions on whether the province should subsidize Erin residents if they are forced to hook up to the Town water system, and whether the system should undergo more scrutiny.
None of candidates made any commitment or showed any understanding of this local dispute, although Hamilton said she would look into it. They talked instead about water safety, uploading, infrastructure funding and eagerness to collaborate with municipalities.

The issue of Hydro Smart Meters arose, and Arnott promised to continue pushing for solutions to the technical problems that have led to erratic electricity bills for Stanley Park residents.
Regarding farms that need power 24 hours a day, Arnott said his party would make time-of-use meters optional, allowing some customers to benefit from a flat rate. Hamilton also supported flexible billing systems, as part of a broader plan to reduce risk for farmers. Johnson spoke of the expensive investments required to improve the Hydro system, and said the government already supports farmers in other ways.

September 28, 2011

Rural internet project neglects parts of Erin

As published in The Erin Advocate

A Wellington County project to improve rural internet service, with a $1 million boost from the Ontario government, is having a limited impact in Erin because most of the town was considered to be already well-serviced.

Many Erin residents, especially in the north, would disagree with that assessment, but the good news is that wireless and satellite capacity is expanding quickly, so good quality internet could soon be available to everyone at a reasonable price.

The Rural Connections Broadband Program was started in 2009, one of 47 initiatives in the province to bring high-speed web access to under-serviced rural areas. The idea was to partner with a private firm that would build a series of towers, beaming a wireless internet signal to receivers at people's homes.

Residents in urban areas like Hillsburgh and Erin village can choose to receive high-speed service via TV cable or phone line, but in many rural areas, the only options are slow-speed dial-up, a satellite link or a wireless tower that requires a direct line-of-sight transmission.

Initially, the County planned to partner with Everus Communications, but the process was delayed when Everus went out of business. In 2010, Barrett Xplore Inc. (BXI) purchased some of the Everus equipment and customer base, and was chosen to proceed with the $3 million project. BXI, which operates with the brand name Xplorenet, is investing $2 million and will receive $1 million from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs when the work is complete.

There are now 14 towers set up as part of the project, with three more being finished this month and the last one in October. Only one of the new towers is in Erin, located at Ospringe, providing improved service to rural residents in the west part of the town. Other parts of rural Erin did not qualify.

"Areas of the County that previously had at least 75% high-speed internet coverage were not eligible for funding," says the website. "Those areas will not be receiving additional coverage as part of this project."

The Town of Erin has been involved in the process and did make it clear to the County that there is a need for better service in various areas. Councillor Jose Wintersinger was on the committee, and both former Mayor Rod Finnie and current Mayor Lou Maieron have both been vocal proponents of improvements. They've received many complaints about lack of quality internet, even though it is not a municipal responsibility.

A public information meeting was held by the County at 6:30 pm on Tuesday last week at Centre 2000, but it was not advertised in The Advocate. Nine residents were there, including four politicians and one columnist, to see a presentation by Don Ticknor, a Sales Manager for Xplornet. (It's a good thing there wasn't a large crowd, since the projector wouldn't work, so we had to huddle around a laptop.)

County Councillor Ken Chapman said he was shocked to see that north-east Erin was not mapped as an area qualifying for improvement. For this project, Xplorenet could only build upgrades where the County directed them.

"The gaps still exist," said Maieron, and he urged Xplornet to consider parts of Erin for future expansion (after this project), since there is a relatively high density of rural residents, including hundreds of people who need high-speed internet to operate businesses from their homes.

Kirk McElwain, a councillor from Elora who chaired the Wellington broadband committee, said they surveyed service providers to check existing coverage, since the County was not supposed to be funding one company in a competitive market area.

Although he had some doubts about the extent of the coverage, he said, "We took their word for it". He said that while service may not have been great in some parts of Erin, it was better than areas like Puslinch where there had been none at all.

Ticknor said it generally takes about 400 newly-connected households to make installation of a tower economically viable. His firm is involved with 31 government-assisted projects.

"We are Canada's largest rural high-speed provider, and are doing our best to provide the service. Our new 4G technology provides robust, reliable service that is interference-free and can be continuously upgraded."

Some parts of rural south Erin get wireless service from Hummingbird Wireless of Halton Hills. Others are customers of Firefly Networks, which in August merged with Standard Broadband (Data Matters Inc.) of Milton. They transmit from a series of towers in south Erin and the Ospringe area, and are currently upgrading to higher-capacity technology.

Figuring out just how many households were getting good service is complicated. People can receive a wireless signal either through an outdoor receiver or through plug-in equipment on their computers such as the Rogers Rocket Stick. Signals can be blocked or degraded, however, by trees – a constantly "growing" problem – or hilly terrain. Satellite transmission eliminates that issue, but has traditionally been much more expensive.

Ticknor said that by the end of this year, new satellite capacity will allow his firm to offer a 4G satellite signal at the same price levels as a tower signal – plus an extra equipment rental cost of $10 per month. Installation costs are also extra. Call their Arthur-based dealer, Northwind, at 519-957-2438 and go to or for more details.

The effort to bring better internet service to the County was coordinated by the Waterloo Wellington Community Futures Development Corporation (WWCFDC), a federally funded non-profit agency that promotes economic development. As part of the broadband program, they are hosting three free workshops for small businesses.

On October 12, from 9 am to 4 pm, at the WWCFDC office in Elora: Social Media Basics – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIN and YouTube. On October 19, from 9 am to 1:30 pm, at the WWCFDC office in Elora: Is Your Website Making the Grade? Maximizing web tools to promote, manage and grow your business. And on November 9, a repeat of the Social Media program, at the Mount Forest Community Centre. Call 519-846-9839 ext. 227 or go to

September 21, 2011

Getting serious about transportation alternatives

As published in The Erin Advocate

For the past 15 years, I've been thinking about cycling to Hillsburgh and back, along the route of the old Credit Valley Railway, but have never gotten around to it. I've needed a special event to prod me into action, and now it has arrived.

There's a community bike ride this Saturday, September 24, on the Elora Cataract Trail, with registration starting at 8:30 am in Erin and at 9:15 am in Hillsburgh. It is a political demonstration, of the decidedly peaceful variety, to show local politicians and provincial candidates that people feel strongly about curbing greenhouse gases, promoting alternative methods of transportation and reducing Canada's carbon output.

Sponsored by Credit Valley Conservation Authority (CVC), the Climate Change Action Group of Erin (CCAGE) and Erin Trails, it should be an enjoyable way to bring people together. It is part of a world-wide day of cycling action called Moving Planet: A Day to Move Away from Fossil Fuels. A visit to will update you on the many efforts to reduce the earth's carbon dioxide level to 350 parts per million. For more information on the Erin "Ride for Change", contact Heidi Matthews at 519-833-9816 or email:

A bike ride won't shut down the carbon-producing tar sands in Alberta or produce immediate changes in our consumption-driven, car-dependent economy. But doing something is always more powerful than just talking. If millions of people not only speak up to say that current trends are unacceptable, but also demonstrate that they are willing to make lifestyle changes to benefit the planet, they will have an impact.

Another way to make a difference locally is to fill out the on-line survey that is part of the Wellington Active Transportation Plan, which aims to get more people involved in things like walking, jogging, running, cycling, in-line skating, skateboarding and even snowshoeing. The goal is to make non-motorized transportation more practical for commuting to work or school, for recreation and exercise, and for destination travel such as shopping and visiting friends.

This would be achieved not just through education, but by improvements to infrastructure such as bike lanes and trails. It is a joint effort involving the Public Health Unit, the County and local municipalities.

Do a search on Wellington Active Transportation or go to to access the survey. It will take about 15 minutes to complete, asking about current activities and priorities for improvements. You do not have to provide personal information.

In the Comments section at the end, I made two suggestions. If you agree with them, please back them up with your own comments. First, that both the County and local municipalities should commit to creating paved bike lanes whenever a road is being rebuilt. This does cost more initially, but some costs are recovered over time because the wider pavement lasts longer.

Second, that Wellington County establish a fund, similar to those in Peel and Halton Regions, to contribute towards the purchase of lands for protection of natural areas and development of recreation and trails. Such deals are typically coordinated by conservation authorities and often require funding from several sources – provincial, region/county, town and charitable foundations.

I saw a notice recently that Centre Wellington (Fergus-Elora) is launching a formal study to create a Trails Master Plan, a process they expect to cost about $50,000. Erin does not have that kind of money for trails, but it is worth noting that trails have become a high priority for many municipalities.

Trails are not a recreation luxury. They should be a key part of the local infrastructure, supporting physical and mental health, environmental protection, road safety, tourism, economic development and the town's reputation at large.

September 14, 2011

Natural areas should be protected and accessible

As published in The Erin Advocate

Nestled among some of Mississauga's most expensive homes, and close by the massive Suncor lubricant refinery on the Lake Ontario shore, Rattray Marsh is a significant ecological refuge in the urban landscape.

This sensitive wetland is the last remaining lakefront marsh between Toronto and Burlington, home to a wide variety of plants and animals, and a popular destination for migratory birds (and their watchers). The pounding waves of the lake have created a beach of small flat cobble stones, forming a barrier that backs up the waters of Sheridan Creek.

On a recent hike along the Waterfront Trail there, I was surprised at the extensive work done with raised boardwalks and railings. These allow people and pets into the natural marsh without having them trampling the vegetation or getting stuck in the mud.

It is something we need to consider for Erin's wetlands. Protection of natural areas is the first priority, but in populated areas it is almost as important to make them accessible, with trails and educational signs. When people are able to appreciate their local treasures, it builds political support for protection and improvements.

Like Erin, Rattray is also on the route of the Trans Canada Trail, which (from the west) comes through Sudbury, south through Barrie, west through Caledon, Erin and Elora, south to Brantford, then east along the Lake Ontario shore through Hamilton, Mississauga and Toronto on its way to the Atlantic Ocean.

Except for the Credit River, Erin doesn't have much in common with Mississauga – Canada's 6th largest city, with about 750,000 residents. But the Rattray Marsh may have some lessons for our future.

The area was owned by Major James Rattray, who tried to encourage governments to take it over. He died in 1959, but the battle to acquire the marsh lived on for several years, as there was a plan to fill it in and build homes.

Concerned citizens were unsuccessful in stopping Phase 1 of the development, but after years of negotiation and lobbying, Credit Valley Conservation (CVC) was able to buy 82.5 acres in 1972, preserving it for public use.

CVC now works in partnership with the Rattray Marsh Protection Association, a dedicated group of volunteers that help improve the network of trails, and protect the Marsh resources through education and stewardship. Except for police patrols, no bicycles are allowed on the trails.

Would Erin be ready to form a "protection association" if the need arose? We have some protection from excessive development, thanks to our Official Plan, the CVC, the Niagara Escarpment, the Greenbelt and our lack of a sewer system. It may be tempting to do as little as possible, hoping that everyone will just leave us alone.

But anyone who has attempted to drive down Mississauga Road lately will have seen the development pressure that is building. The road is being widened, there's a Walmart Supercentre at Williams Parkway and huge tracts of land are being prepared for subdivisions.

Here in Erin, it is important to continue building up public awareness of environmental issues and our network of concerned citizens, so that any proposed development will be subjected to intense public scrutiny. It is not here yet, but the time will come when we will be called upon to aggressively defend the things we really value in this town.

September 07, 2011

Column took the pulse of a thriving community

As published in The Erin Advocate

"A chiel's amang you taking notes, And, faith, he'll prent it."

That is the quote that appeared every week, as the first line in the Local News Items column of The Erin Advocate, one hundred years ago. A rough translation: "A young fellow is among you taking notes, and you can be sure he will print it."

The line is lifted from Robert Burns' 1789 poem, On Captain Grose’s Peregrinations Thro' Scotland, and would have been recognized by Erin's upper class readers at the time.

Browsing through the September, 1911 issues of The Advocate, there is a large portrait of Conservative Robert Borden, who had just defeated Liberal Wilfred Laurier to become Canada's eighth Prime Minister. You'll find another portrait of Borden, who brought us military conscription and income tax, on the $100 bill. Wellington South (including Erin) stuck with Liberal Hugh Guthrie, who six years later crossed the floor to become one of Borden's cabinet ministers.

Tucked onto the back page, Local News Items covers the social comings and goings of people, whether they like it or not, with items such as:

• Mr. T.G. Howell, of Toronto, motored to Mrs. Hunter's, 10th line, last week.

Virtually every paragraph is a brand new topic, with random bits of humour: "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may be married." The column is a smorgasbord, with lines of poetry, editorial ads for products like Holloway's Corn Cure, descriptions of residents' illnesses, and reports of various burglaries, funerals, birthday parties and sermons.

There are frequent promotions for the business interests of the publisher, Wellington Hull, who was also a real estate and buggy salesman, and an auctioneer of farm implements. Every week, the column has lines like: "I have any amount of money to lend at a low rate on first mortgage.–W. Hull," and "Marriage licenses may be had by calling at The Advocate office." He also has advice for local politicians, on an issue that never seems to go away:

"We have at different times called the attention of parents to the folly of allowing their children to run the streets late at night. They are not only getting into all sorts of mischief, but learning bad language. Every small child under a certain age should be compelled to be off the street not later than 9 o'clock. Why not the Council pass a By-Law to this effect?"

There is the tale of Mr. W. Duthie, manager of the Hillsburgh branch of the Union Bank, who disappeared without a trace on a business trip to Toronto. Described initially as "a gentleman of good business ability and universally respected", it turned out the following week that he had abandoned his wife and children, with a "very considerable" amount of the bank's money.
Here are some other interesting excerpts from the column in 1911:

• A number of Italians who had been working on the C.P.R. track near Hillsburgh appeared before Magistrate Hull, charged with fishing on Sunday and trespassing on the reserves of the Caledon Mountain Trout Club. They were fined $5 each and costs.

• Colour-Sargeant Ward of Erin has been appointed to take part at the King's Coronation. (George V, grandson of Queen Victoria, became King of the United Kingdom and the Dominions including Canada, and Emperor of India, on June 22, 1911.)

• Mr. B. Mundell has been making some improvements to his planing mill, including the putting in of a new flume.

• Erin Village Council motion, carried: That we put down 300 feet of 4 ft. cement walk on the west side of Main Street, from the Agricultural Hall up towards the Station; and from Mrs. Morley's, on the east side of Main Street, to the north side of English Street, and put down new crossings at Spring, Scotch and English Streets; also put in curbing along the west side from Mill Race to Charles Street.

• The Clerk was requested to prepare specifications and advertise for tenders for building the bridge over the dam on Church Street.

• The Erin Tennis Club has been organized for the season. Mr. J.W. Flett is President and Miss Jessie Overland Sec.-Treas.

• Mr. R. Grundy has returned home from the North West and is again at his old position in Russell's store.

A large ad from Russell's boasts: "All the latest styles...See our Ruffs, Muffs, Caperines and all kinds of up-to-date Furs...We lead in Men's, Boy's and Ladies' Underwear...We have fitted a room upstairs for Fair Visitors where they may leave their Wraps with safety...Groceries always Fresh...Highest Price for Produce...Ladies' White Blouses, beautifully trimmed, reg. $1.25, for 98c."

A weekly ad for powdered soap, a relatively new invention, is typical of the era: "GOLD DUST is a good, honest vegetable oil soap in powdered form – scientifically combined with purifying ingredients of magic power." Too bad they don't make it any more.

August 31, 2011

Rodeo pros really show animals who's the boss

As published in The Erin Advocate

After watching the bull riding competition at the Erin Extreme Rodeo, I went home and turned on the TV news. There was a warning about a video clip that could be disturbing to some viewers, so of course I had to watch. It was a stunt pilot at an air show, losing control and hitting the ground in an unsurvivable fireball.

It got me to thinking about why people participate in high risk sports entertainment, and why spectators are drawn to it. For the athletes, it cannot be just for the money, even at the professional level.

The desire to defy death, with a combination of skill and luck, is not the mark of a crazy person. It seems to be a mix of testosterone and rational choice, driven by the need to take real risk, push the limit, overcome fear, feel an adrenaline rush, raise your arms before a cheering crowd, earn the admiration of your peers and maybe win some money.

For the crowd, it is as though the risk takers are mocking death on our behalf, doing things we would never dare to try ourselves.

There is a tense moment at the end of many bull rides when the bull either flails its hind hooves close to the cowboy lying in the dirt, or whirls around and stares down at him. And unless he is unconscious or paralyzed, he will be up and literally running for his life.

That's when the bullfighters (formerly known as rodeo clowns) move in to skillfully distract the angry beast, when all goes well. Their job is even more dangerous when they have to free a rider who is hung up, dangling from the bucking bull by the arm or leg.

One bull took a straight charge at a bullfighter at the Erin event. With no chance to get to the fence, he made a quick little fake and the bull rumbled harmlessly past him – just another day at the office. Bull riding is a relatively civilized North American invention, compared to the Spanish bull fighting tradition – we just annoy the bull for a few seconds instead of killing it.

It is important to laugh at danger, preferably from a distance. The rodeo announcer at one point suggested that one of the bulls was planning to give the bullfighter a "2,000-pound ivory suppository". Those horns have rounded tips, but they can throw a person 15 feet up in the air, or worse.

If you have strong stomach, go to YouTube and search "bull riding wrecks" to see 742 samplings of what can go horribly wrong. There was nothing quite that "entertaining" at the Erin rodeo, although one fellow hobbled off after his lower leg was stomped by a bull, and another rolled around in the mud clutching his stomach for several minutes after flinging himself over the fence. Most riders wore hockey helmets with face cages, but others were content with cowboy hats.

Bull riding was the grand finale that Sunday afternoon, promoted as the world's "most dangerous sport" (though there is a lot of competition for that claim). There are many sports or performances that are not primarily about violence, but draw part of their appeal through the possibility that something violent might happen at any time. There is hockey, car racing, circus acrobatics, downhill skiing, motorcycle racing, big wave surfing and competitive cheerleading.

Rodeos, of course, are mainly about horses, not bulls. Any sport involving horses has risks, due to the speed and power of the animals and the height from which a rider can fall, but professional riders make the moves look smooth and natural. The horse and rider seem to become a single entity and it is amazing to watch. The riders have a special connection with their horses, a combination of discipline and affection.

The same respect does not apply to calves, however, since they occupy a lower rung in the hierarchy of mammals. Their job is to come charging into the ring, only to be have their necks roped, their bodies flipped in the air and their legs tied.

If you tied one end of a rope to a pole and the other end around a calf's neck, then made the calf run just for the fun of seeing it jerked to a stop, some people might call it cruel. But when the calf is brought down through the skill and strength of a cowboy and horse, as part of a traditional competition, it becomes a whole different thing – quite acceptable to most people.

Calves sometimes get hurt, but like cowboys they are tough and wiry. They usually bounce back up, trot off happily, punch their time cards and relax until the next show.

August 24, 2011

Are we ambitious to fly with the birds?

As published in The Erin Advocate

The fascination that humans have for birds is perhaps based not so much on admiration of their elegant form, rich colours and quirky behaviour, but on envy of their ability to fly. I don't think they envy us, with our wheels.

We have achieved amazing personal mobility on the horizontal plane, but if future technology offers the general public that same mobility in a vertical way, it will surely cause a flap in the twittersphere.

After we have destroyed so much of their natural habitat, and erected glass buildings that fatally deceive them, they won't be impressed if flocks of humans start invading their air space. Even then, we would surely look awkward.

Personally, I am content to stay on the ground, and connect to their world with my camera. That technology has advanced to the point where you can get amazing optical zoom and automatic focus at a low price.

One no longer has to be an expert photographer with expensive equipment to capture beautiful bird pictures. I got such a crisp shot of a baby robin in a nest on my property this year that there was a clear image of the clouds reflected in its eye.

I've never been an official birdwatcher, but like to keep my eyes and ears open while hiking. You have to be willing to stop, be quiet and observe what's going on all around you – not easy if you are focused only on reaching a destination.

It can be a very intense hobby if you have the time, with some people even taking a competitive approach, in a quest to tick off as many rare birds as possible on their list. The pastime got its start in the 1800s, with a movement to protect birds from being hunted for their feathers, or as specimens for collectors.

Birding is now a lucrative niche in the tourism trade, as more people are eager to travel long distances to observe interesting species. Specialized equipment includes binocular-cameras, compact telescopes with tripods, and digital recordings of bird calls to help with identification. Popular birding areas will often have blinds or observation towers to help conceal the watchers.

The tourism people at have published a brochure and on-line guide called Trails Take Flight, identifying the 20 favourite birding trails in the Grand watershed. These include the Gilbert MacIntyre Trail at Rockwood Conservation Area and the Elora-Cataract Trail between Belwood Lake Conservation and Orton.

I took a hike on the rail trail near Fergus last week, and within a few minutes had pictures of a yellow and black American Goldfinch and a scarlet Northern Cardinal. The trail is good for birding because it cuts through marshy areas, and because many of the clearings created by railroad builders have become lush strips of meadow bordered by trees.

For an excellent summary of local species, check out the Birds of the Credit section in the CVC website,

To get more involved, may I suggest you look up the Upper Credit Field Naturalists, based in Orangeville, who bring in guest speakers on birds and other nature topics and run a Beginners Birding Course. They have organized birding trips to not-too-distant places like the Minesing Swamp near Barrie and the Luther Marsh near Grand Valley. The Guelph Field Naturalists have similar activities.

August 17, 2011

Elora has succeeded at marketing its attractions

As published in The Erin Advocate

In a recent visit to Elora, I was impressed not only with the many attractions in the village, but with the success they have had in creating a positive brand name that draws people to the area.

The Elora Farmers' Market was established in 2005 and has become a hub of community activity, with more than 20 vendors every Saturday at Bissell Park from May to October, and a winter market indoors at the Elora Raceway. It takes a bit of nerve to call yourself the World’s Prettiest Farmers’ Market, but it certainly doesn't do any harm.

Bissell Park is a large public green space right in the village – a brilliant concept. It has a nice wide boardwalk along the north bank of the Grand River, a feature that many Erin residents would like to see on our stretch of the West Credit River.

The Grand flows from Belwood Lake through Fergus towards Elora, past the quarry that supplied stone for the village's beautiful public buildings and heritage homes. It is now the 79-acre Elora Quarry Conservation Area, opened in 1976, including a two-acre swimming hole with 40-foot sheer limestone cliffs.

The river tumbles over a waterfall near the downtown core. It is joined by Irvine Creek and flows through an impressive gorge with 70-foot cliffs. For $150 (including training) you can take a zip-line ride out over the gorge, then rappel down into it.

The Elora Gorge Conservation Area has camping and riverside trails with safety barriers, and while there is no swimming or rock climbing allowed, you can try whitewater canoeing, kayaking or tubing. It was the first conservation area on the Grand, opening in 1954 after more than 20 years of promotion by local newspapers, and with strong support from the business sector.

The village is known for its active arts community, especially the Elora Festival and Singers. The summer festival has run since 1979, attracting international patrons and performers, featuring large-scale classical works for choir and orchestra and intimate concerts of jazz and popular music. The Festival Singers is a renowned chamber choir, nominated for Grammy and Juno Awards, with 12 releases on the Naxos label.

Sensational Elora is an 11-day festival, starting September 30, that combines dance, film, art, music and feasting on locally-grown food.

The old Elora Public School has been nicely maintained as home to the Elora Centre for the Arts, which hosts various exhibitions. There is a permanent gallery of works on sale from the 39 artists of the Harris Collective. The building also has the offices of the Elora Environment Centre, a non-profit group with several staff members, specializing in home energy evaluations and advocacy of sustainable lifestyles.

The village is only a couple of minutes away from the Wellington County Museum and Archives. Built in 1877 as a House of Industry and Refuge for the poor, aged and homeless, it is a National Historic Site. A trail on the grounds links two branches of the Elora-Cataract Trailway, and a renovated trestle bridge offers a stunning view of the river gorge.

Elora has 5,500 residents, about as many as Erin village is projected to have by 2031. It is part of Centre Wellington Township, including Fergus and surrounding area, which has a total population of 27,500, compared to 12,000 for the Town of Erin. Centre Wellington has a Manager of Economic Development and a strategic plan to stimulate and guide economic growth. They also have their own tourism organization for local stakeholders.

The Grand River Raceway at Elora, owned and operated by the Grand River Agricultural Society, offers dining, seasonal live harness racing, wagering on year-round simulcast racing, and 240 slot machines.

I dropped in to the OLG Slots there on a weeknight, and almost every machine was in use. I knew my limit and played within it, making it last a while with single plays on a five-cent machine. Then I hit the Maximum Bet button by mistake, and my ten bucks was pretty well gone.

In that process, I chipped 50 cents into the coffers of Centre Wellington Township. Ontario Lottery and Gaming pays five per cent of gross revenues from slot machines to the municipality. That now amounts to more than $500,000 every three months, with no strings attached.

August 10, 2011

Elora show laments loss of precious rural land

As published in The Erin Advocate

Elegy for a Stolen Land, at the Elora Centre for the Arts, is an array of startling panoramic photographs by Peter Sibbald, documenting the relentless push of urban development into rural areas.

Living close to that cutting edge, but protected for now in our little bubble, we need to think about how Erin will look in 20 or 50 years. Like Rockwood? Caledon? Orangeville? Georgetown? Elora? There are many choices to be made.

The photos at the gallery delve into the details of subdivision construction – the gaudy sales signs, the ruts in the soil, the disruption of aboriginal artifacts and burial grounds. The elegant shapes of the farmland and isolated farm buildings are contrasted with the destructive, cancer-like spread of highways, power lines and housing.

The photos are rich in detail, beautifully taken and quite thought-provoking. Some deal with the Six Nations land dispute in Caledonia, which remains an open wound on our society, not only because of the injustices to aboriginal peoples, but because of the recent failure of the Ontario government and police to protect the rights of non-Native residents in that area.

The show is not so much about politics or landscape as is about about the starkness of how the land has been abused, and how people connect with it. Sibbald is from Jackson's Point on Lake Simcoe, near the intense development of York Region, and has had a successful career in journalistic and commercial photography.

His show laments the journey from "earth mother" to "real estate" and he freely admits his bias, setting up a moral dichotomy with native spirituality and our farming ancestors on one side, and ugly urban growth on the other.

"It is a cry for environmental justice," he said at the opening last week, admitting to discouragement over the small effect his voice may have against a multi-billion dollar industry and its political allies.

The style is a bit over-dramatic for my taste, romanticizing a rural ideal and demonizing the building of homes on land approved for that purpose by democratic governments. Is our democracy failing because not enough people care, or was it never meant to keep everybody happy? It seems that many are concerned about urban sprawl, but not enough to do anything about it, and as long as it does not affect them personally.

Of course it is not the job of artists (or journalists) to come up with solutions to society's problems, but rather to ask questions and draw people's attention, prodding them to think and act. Art, like politics, is all about the spin of underlying motives. Farming, for example, could be portrayed as having an ugly side, as an industrial process that has already devastated the natural ecology.

We have been raised in a culture that makes the owning of a dwelling place a key symbol of success. Who can tell the middle class that they must give up their dream of a detached home and settle for a high-rise condo? Or that they must move hundreds of kilometres away from the offices and factories if they want an affordable house?

The Ontario government plans to welcome millions of new residents in the next 20 years by intensifying existing urban areas, promising to limit urban sprawl and preserve farmland. Many are skeptical that this can be achieved, as developers leapfrog over the protected Greenbelt into lands farther and farther from Toronto.

When we resist new subdivisions here in Erin, are we really defending farmland and the natural environment? Or are we slamming the door behind us, defending the privilege of open space that we earned simply by moving here before some others? Will a trickle of middle-income city dwellers in our midst ruin our small-town charm?

Or do we cling to the illusion of defending our real estate values, as demand for housing soars near the GTA? Will lack of development really give us the opportunity to sell our homes and farms for more than we ever dreamed possible?

The discussion will heat up during the next phases of the Servicing and Settlement Master Plan (SSMP), looking at improvements to water and sewage infrastructure that would help protect the environment, but also enable a small amount new housing in our tightly defined urban areas. It could also allow for the revitalization of our downtown districts.

These matters went onto the back burner after last year's election, and there have been no meetings of the SSMP Liaison Committee since December. A public meeting expected in the Spring did not happen and there have been no updates to the SSMP website. A report dealing with a range of SSMP issues is expected in September, which should help re-focus public attention on the process.

The photo essay is online at, but I encourage people to make the 45 minute trip and check it out in person, until September 1, at 75 Melville Street in Elora ( There are lots of other things you could do while you are in Elora, but more about that next week.