Local Politics

The view of the earth from space inspires dreamy poetry.  On the other hand a close-up examination of it tends to be less idealistic, even at times sordid. This is especially true when delving into the daily episodes of local politics.

The Town of Mississippi Mills has lately become a hotbed of hitherto unprecedented Machiavellian enterprise.  It is possible that the tableau is particularly dramatic as the Town now has for the first time in its history an electronic newspaper (“The Millstone News“) which has enabled virtually instantaneous involvement of the public in the once largely private conspiracies of Council.

The focus of topical interest surrounds what is popularly known as the “Enerdu” project, a hydro-electric plant in the Mississippi River in the heart of the Almonte Ward of the Town named after the former owners, the Dupuis family. The development/alteration is by the new owner Jeff Cavanagh.  Jeff Cavanagh is the son of Tommy Cavanagh who is a hugely successful contractor/entrepreneur in the area. The hydro project has been touted as costing upwards of $6M and there can be no doubt that the influence of the Cavanagh family (parenthetically a large local employer) has insinuated many parts of the community.  Opposing the project are those who in broad terms have identified themselves as environmentalists, a label which is sufficient to embrace aesthetic features as well. Those in favour of or opposed to the project have, during the last municipal election, fallen into two camps which seldom agree and which appear at times to thrive more upon sentiment and instinct than science. This assessment would no doubt offend the proponents of either side in the debate but it is a reduction which is not entirely inconceivable given the volatile ingredients – money, power and influence on the one hand and nature, impotence and mistrust on the other.

While each side of the campaign has attempted to bolster its position by reference to fact and law (and a good measure of disputed science), the respective attempts have succeeded only to underscore the frustrating ability to do so.  Just when one side makes advances which seemingly highlight the lack of authority of the other, the rebuttal is that the scheme first advanced is itself without foundation.  The esoteric nature of the arguments is quickly lost upon the public which much prefers to rely upon emotional responses uncontaminated by the bafflegab of science and legalese.  The result is inevitably the lapse of the discourse into ad hominem argument; that is, disparagement of who said it rather than what they said, a rhetorical device which engages all the provocative expressions of personal hardship and disaffection.

Make no mistake, however; this dispute is strictly political and its unfolding will in the end have very little to do with general feeling or opinion. The one actor in this drama which is mistakenly and perilously ignored is the Government of the Province of Ontario. The Ontario government has to this point pronounced its approval of Jeff Cavanagh’s proposal.  There have been publicly spirited reassessments to date, but the bureaucratic approvals have so far survived those challenges and there have been no material concessions by the provincial government. As a result the government is in the awkward position of having to stand fast or to resile from the conclusions of its lengthy public process and bend to the perceived public annoyance at the risk of exposing itself to litigation to force its hand in accordance with current legislation.  In a nutshell, the fight comes down to this: On whose side is the law?

Before the new Council was swept into power there was much said to admonish the previous Councillors for having rolled over in the face of the provincial government’s decision to approve the hydro project. There was a popular misconception that the jurisdiction to determine the viability of the project lay with municipal Council rather than the provincial government or at the very least that Council should have something to say about it. Given the fact that municipal governments are merely creatures of provincial statute and that the magnitude of the project invited the involvement of senior mandarins it should come as no surprise that the provincial government trumps municipal Council on almost every front. It can hardly be expected that Ministers of Her Majesty in Right of the Province of Ontario have any intention of condescending to the whining of municipal Councillors much less their committee delegates (one of whom has brazenly though fecklessly weighed in upon the discourse).  The highly charged objections from the local level will ultimately face an abrupt confrontation with the proverbial “letter of the law” which in this case is unquestionably weighted in favour of the provincial government.

In an effort to thwart the unimpeded progress of the Enderdu project the last act of redemption by the outgoing municipal Council was to initiate a study to create a Heritage Conservation District, a process which pointedly included a building permit moratorium in the nature of an interim control by-law clearly aimed at the broadside of the Enerdu armada.  This apparent legal loophole was a stratagem designed to stifle Enerdu.  In a surprise turn of events, a delegation of local businessmen presented themselves before the newly elected Council and succeeded in gaining the support of 7 of the 11 Councillors to rescind the moratorium.  There has subsequently followed endless jabs at both sides of the contest from opposing interests. The fracas is however doomed to redundancy because neither Jeff Cavanagh nor the provincial government has any intention of being intimidated by these peevish legal tactics.  Aside from what is expected to be the Ontario government’s belief in its own legislative paramountcy (sustained as it is by the network of government ministries and agencies who have already participated in and approved Enerdu’s application), there is yet one last legal principle which may in the end eclipse all others – and that is the once archaic principle of equity which stands for the proposition that “You cannot do indirectly what you cannot do directly“.  Thus even if it were found (as I doubt it will be) that there is any legal mechanism within the Heritage Conservation District designation process which enables the Town to inhibit whatever Enerdu proposes to do, the Court will no doubt find that in the event of a legislative conflict the determination of the Ontario government must stand. In essence it would be unthinkable that Her Majesty’s minions and subalterns should suffer the indignity of being manipulated by either a newly elected municipal council which derives its very existence from Queen’s Park or by local citizens whose most forceful instruments of battle are red T-shirts and balloons!

This latest conundrum precipitating the rescinding of the moratorium has for the first time in the long debate shed light upon the face of those who are reputed to support the Enerdu project (even though that was not ostensibly the object of the exercise).  Quite aside from the bona fides of the opposing views of the project based upon science or law, there has from the start been an undercurrent of animosity between two polarized groups.  The people behind the delegation to rescind the moratorium, while they are not as overtly public as their more vocal opponents, are believed to include many of the long-standing business people in the Town, people who are generally aligned with authority and capital.  There is unquestionably an Old Boys network in the Town and to deny it is callow.  They are people who socialize together at the golf club and local institutions and who harbour a republican view of society which is best adapted to private enterprise.  In fairness these same people genuinely believe in the good intentions and ready capacity of Jeff Cavanagh to fulfill his objectives; they have no inherent mistrust of the likely outcome especially as it has achieved the standards set by the qualified and trained government analysts.  These Enerdu supporters have been lumped into a group of long-time and active residents. Because of their reclusive nature they have in turn attracted the support of people who are generally considered conservative or mainstream.

Opposing this camp of Enerdu supporters are people who have, whether fairly or not, been characterized as “newcomers” to the Town; and, who in addition have been tainted with a brand of ingenuous intellect.  It is their common refrain that they are being ignored by Enerdu as though they were somehow entitled to deference.  It all adds up to a naive maelstrom.  Not insignificantly Jeff Cavanagh has for the most part refrained from theoretical involvement in the public debate.  His only formal submission to Council touching this debate has been a very polite submission regarding on-going architectural drawings. It is reported in The Millstone News that “…he commits to aligning the Enerdu project with the character and beauty of Almonte’s river setting and history”. He has done nothing which could be interpreted as acquiescence to the jurisdiction of the Town.