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.