Longing for the Land: Meditations on Rural Ontario

by JaneFairburn on February 25, 2018

All of us yearn for something. By this I mean a deep feeling of wistful desire, or longing, for myriad objects and aspirations as diverse as our own life experiences — a lost child, the inner peace that comes from solitude, forbidden love. Can landscape embody, or at least metaphorically represent these desires and mirror our internal journey? Can a filigree of mist over September fields conjure at once feelings of cupidity and melancholy? How does, exactly, “who we are” impact “how we see” the land”? And what, if any, part does genetic memory — the past experiences of our ancestors, and their relationship to the land — play in how we relate to the countryside?

Travelling north to the Canadian Shield and cottage country, we so rarely give the bucolic and beguiling farmland above the lower Great Lakes a second glance. Yet archaeological sites reveal a rich Indigenous presence, decrepit barns — cathedral like — display noble form and function, and ancient groves echo with the sound of draft horses pulling heavy timber. Peel back the faded paint, dust off these lovely castaway relics, and you will discover them imbued with a peculiar kind of luminosity — the half-life of cultural memory.

It certainly is no secret that the rural landscapes of Southern Ontario are in transition. The decades-long downward spiral of the economic viability of the family farm has flat-lined, with farms being replaced in many cases with corporate, single crop agricultural practices. Farmland in the Golden Horseshoe is under constant threat of being gobbled up — witness the almost-50-year battle over the Pickering Airport Lands, or more recently, the Megaquarry in Melancthon. There is a devastating environmental price to be paid for all of that, but alongside this story is another more encouraging trend. A new crop of people are rediscovering the land, and, often in partnership with their die-hard neighbours with generations of farming experience, are producing gorgeous organic and naturally raised food.

My new project, Longing for the Land: Meditations on Rural Ontario, explores some of these ideas. The project will undoubtedly be enriched greatly by the participation of the marvelous Natalia Shields, whose photography also appears in Along the Shore. Natalia and I made a great start on the photography in the late fall of 2017, travelling back in time to the Ottawa Valley. I look forward to joining her in Prince Edward County this spring.

The project also has an autobiographical component. With unabashed Irish roots on both sides of the family, farming, and love of the land is in my blood. Our family spent years loving and propping up a 450 acre pioneer homestead near Eganville, in the storied Ottawa Valley. Now, the prospect of organic farming looms in Indian River, near Peterborough, but first we need a barn that’s not falling into the earth (literally)…

Thought you might enjoy this clip taken a few months ago, with two of the best stonemasons in the business, the indefatigable Ed Moseanko and Wayne Nicolas. Listen while they patiently explain the restoration process for the barn’s stone foundation, and in the process, discover an open, stone-lined well.




Happy New Year, everyone. I thought I’d get 2017 rolling with some thoughts on the TRCA’s recent update to their Scarborough Waterfront Development Project (SWP). In case you haven’t yet learned, the TRCA is planning to roll out a whole multi-year make-work project at the Scarborough Bluffs lakefront, from Bluffer’s Park at the foot of Midland Avenue, all the way east to approximately the mouth of Highland Creek at East Point Park. As part of the project, conveniently financed on the taxpayer’s dime, the TRCA proposes to obliterate (yes, you read that right) over half of the last remaining natural stretch of sand beach on the mainland of Toronto. The area in question is the beautiful, wild Grey Abbey Beach, which is adjacent to East Point Park and Beach.

East Point Park_caption

The TRCA is attempting to sell the project as an extension of the larger Great Lakes Waterfront Trail system, which already runs, in various iterations, across the entire Toronto waterfront (at Grey Abbey and East Point, it is on the headlands, recessed from the shore). The TRCA also says the “trail” will help prevent the erosion of the Bluffs. To the uninitiated, a waterfront “trail” on the beach may initially look attractive. Harkening back to the boardwalk in the Beach district, who wouldn’t want increased access to the lake along a waterfront trail?

The point is that this isn’t a “trail” at all. Nor would the plan increase “access” to the lake — sadly it would do just the reverse by denying any meaningful access to the water’s edge. Witness the current state of affairs at the bottom of Guild Park — a gigantic, elevated road, buttressed with armour rock, currently runs for over a mile to the west, almost to the edge of Bluffer’s Park. What the TRCA wants to do is feed the concrete leviathan. They want more road, not less. As I’ve said before, a wolf is still a wolf, even though it’s all gussied up in sheep’s clothing. Multiple Hummers in width, their “trail” would be built up high over the lake on top of the existing natural beach. Composed of construction refuse, otherwise known as “clean fill”, the beach and adjacent near-shore area would disappear entirely — areas that are home to communities of rare and threatened species. The TRCA, Toronto’s conservation body, proposes to inflict this kind of damage to the shore in the face of other creative ways of dealing with erosion, the likes of which are currently proposed and employed by the TRCA in other areas of the waterfront, including at the Island and in the Bluffs.

Guess what? Despite strong and vocal opposition and uncontroverted scientific evidence that points to the devastating effects of unnecessary shoreline hardening, and the area being allegedly “protected” with the city’s environmentally “significant” designation, and despite the TRCA’s very own self-published report that specifically proscribes further loss of the natural shore at Grey Abbey, their position hasn’t changed. Not one iota.

Forgive my naiveté. As an active participant in the TRCA’s “consultation process”, I’m gobsmacked. The TRCA’s disingenuous and dysfunctional manner of seeking input on their ill-conceived scheme should concern anyone who is interested in the health and preservation of our democratic process. Incidentally, the consultation process is something John Sewell devotes time to in his new book How We Changed Toronto: The Inside Story of Twelve Creative, Tumultuous Years In Civic Life, 1968-1980. Regardless of one’s political stripe, I’d recommend his book to anyone interested in learning about how governmental institutions and administrative bodies listened in a different era of our city’s history. As John points out, hearing people and drawing on their ideas is the stuff of real consultation. Real consultation is hard, but in the end it shaped the modern, inclusive Toronto we know today.

John recently said this to me about the current state of the consultation process in Toronto, “… it is true that consultations are rarely held to find out what the public thinks: they are done in order to say they have happened. In my day we did public consultations because we usually found the public had better ideas than we did and thus consultations led to better outcomes. Now politicians think they know best, and they don’t trust members of the public. It is why governments make so many dumb decisions these days.”

Case in point: On January 11, 2017, the TRCA held a stakeholders meeting on the SWP. I am told by observers at the meeting that not one person on the stakeholder committee spoke in favour of the project. In fact, many members of the committee indicated that they were virulently opposed to the TRCA’s service road, and spoke out passionately against the plan. University of Toronto students in the Environmental Studies programme who were in attendance at the meeting were aghast, and also voiced their opposition. Mutiny is upon the TRCA and they have invited it through a sham consultation process. Rather than consultation, perhaps the stakeholders meetings henceforth might better be termed as crisis management sessions.

Despite the intellectually dishonest approach of TRCA officials, Torontonians and local Bluffs residents are fighting back and a broad coalition is developing. Friends of the Bluffs has presented the TRCA with an alternative waterfront proposal that allows increased access to the lakefront, while at the same time respecting the natural environment and the rare flora and fauna that inhabit the shore and near-shore areas. No further hardening of the Grey Abbey shore is contemplated. Rather, a blue flag beach is proposed at the foot of the trail that leads from the newly imagined Guild Park, to the shore. Amble farther to the east, past the current concrete “trail”, and reach a natural shoreline with recessed bluffs that extends all the way to the outlet of Highland Creek. As for the new waterfront “trail”, it remains where it is: on the headland, in a location that respects the environmentally sensitive nature of the entire area, all the way to Highland Creek.

To the TRCA: I’m willing to bet that the thousands of newcomers to Toronto – those without access to cottages in Muskoka – are far more interested in a picnic at the shore than a concrete roadway in the searing heat. Hmmmmm. If in doubt, take a peek at the videos I’ve done on the subject – one with Christopher Hume of the Toronto Star last winter, and another I did on the fly this summer that fleshes out the rich waterfront experience the TRCA has in store for the years to come.

Incidentally, I had the opportunity to walk the beach with the wonderful Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, Arthur Potts, in July of 2016. As we ventured eastward to Grey Abbey Beach at the foot of the Guild, we came across a number of families, entirely cut off from the water and in search of a picnic spot and a place to swim. I assured them that if they just hung there in a little longer, they would make it to the sand and the shore. As the monster roadway gave way to the beach and the waves, we were blown away by the number of people accessing the water, including windsurfers, who consider the Grey Abbey shore near East Point to be among the best places in the city to ply their craft.

TRCA, ask yourselves: are the tipping fees you very likely will receive from dumping construction refuse (“clean fill”) all over the beach really worth it? Don’t the new Canadians you mention in your discredited 2016 promotional piece deserve better?

Readers, I urge you to have a look at the plan below that has been developed by Friends of the Bluffs. The plan was presented to the TRCA in late 2016 and was rejected out-of-hand. (The TRCA confirmed their rejection of the proposal in a letter to Roy Wright, dated January 11, 2017.) If you like what you see, sign the petition. Make your local Councillor aware of how you feel, as well as your local MPP and the Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, Glen Murray. We all know that the environment never wins, wildlife never wins, and people never win when natural beaches are destroyed.



Conceptual drawing Number 1 – Waterfront concept for Grey Abbey Beach, east of the Guild Park waterfront. Prepared by Roy Wright.

Plan 1
The TRCA’s planned extension of the concrete roadway that currently exists at the bottom of Guild Park, complete with concrete headlands. The entire beach is lost up to the edge of East Point Park and Beach.

Plan 2
The bottom image represents Friends of the Bluffs’ environmentally and people friendly solution that preserves all of Grey Abbey Beach  and creates another beach (with Blue Flag designation), park and limited docking facilities at the foot of the Guild Park trail.

Drawings 1

Conceptual drawing Number 2 – Friends of the Bluffs’ enlarged waterfront concepts for the foot of the Guild Park path, at the current Guild Park hardened shore. Prepared by Roy Wright.

Drawings 2



Hon Glen Murray, Minister of the Environment and Climate Change
11th Floor, Ferguson Block
77 Wellesley Street West
Toronto, ON
M7A 2T5

Hon Kathryn McGarry, Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry
Suite 6630, 6th Floor, Whitney Block
99 Wellesley Street West
Toronto, ON
M7A 1W3

Lorenzo Berardinetti, MPP, Scarborough-Southwest
3090 Kingston Road
Scarborough, ON
M1M 1P2

Mitzie Hunter, MPP, Scarborough-Guildwood
Unit 109, 4117 Lawrence Avenue East
Scarborough, ON
M1E 2S2

Raymond Cho, MPP, Scarborough-Rouge River
Unit B, 4559 Sheppard Avenue East
Scarborough, ON
M1S 1V3

Councillor Paul Ainslie
Grey Abbey Beach

Councillor Gary Crawford
Bluffer’s Beach

Councillor Ron Moeser
East Point Beach


The TRCA’s Scarborough Waterfront Development Project (June 28, 2016 meeting): My Comments

July 16, 2016


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