Intervenor: Vol 23. No 2 April - June 1998

NO BSAR: How a Community Stopped an Expressway

"OH NOTHING - a highway is going here", they said, those four men standing and pointing, in the park by our newly bought retirement home. It was a cold January day, 1992, in Brantford, Ontario, population 82,000. I had emerged from my hike in the Glebe woods, land within Brantford still owned by the Six Nations First Nation. With unaccustomed boldness I asked "What do you have in mind?" I soon learned to my horror that the $42 million Brantford Southern Access Road (BSAR), dream child of city planning for the past 30 years, was to begin construction that fall.

Now, six years later, 18 sprightly trees dig down their roots directly in the road's expected corridor. They were planted by the neighbourhood as a silent witness: the BSAR is not here. Those six years have seen an amazing flowering of community empowerment in Brantford.

The BSAR would plow through fine older residential neighbourhoods, through areas contaminated by massive industrial dumping beside the old canal which flows into the Grand River. Construction would disturb the toxins, threatening neighbours and angering the Six Nations people downstream who depend on the Grand for drinking water. The BSAR would destroy Carolinian woodlots and urban greenspace. It would sever walking, cycling, wheelchair routes heavily used by the community. Part of the BSAR would go through the Glebe woods.

The BSAR plan defied the now-accepted axiom: more car space spawns more traffic. The BSAR would encourage sprawling, car-dependent development, dumping extra costs on all taxpayers. More road space and more cars mean greater road maintenance and storm-water costs; more police, health and environment costs. A dream of the 60's, the BSAR plan no longer fit the needs of Brantford; rather it would contribute to the environmental crisis of the planet.

The city's chief engineer told us, "The time for public input is past." But five people gathered in our kitchen and formed the BSAR Action Group and vowed to stop the road. I did what I had never before been brave enough to do - knock on doors, gather signatures of neighbours who had no idea of the city's quiet plans grinding on. Our small steps mushroomed. A core of about 20 people bringing various backgrounds and skills, met every week for two years, sometimes every day. A stream of people tramped into our kitchen. We made 58 speeches to City Council, each time supported by up to 200 citizens in attendance, thousands of phone calls to our ever-expanding network. We wrote 130 letters to the editor (contrasted with only 13 supporting the BSAR). We sent a barrage of communications to government ministries. One morning Brantford citizens awoke to dazzling yellow "NO BSAR" signs all around the city.

Allies came to our aid, and made all the difference. The Canadian Environmental Law Association saw the BSAR as a classic example of environmental degradation due to unnecessary road-building and general contempt for community values. CELA received streams of information from us and were generous with their good advice. They made presentations to the Minister of the Environment, and twice spoke to Brantford City Council. CELA commissioned a report on the environmental costs of dealing with the old industrial contamination beside the canal if the road construction were to proceed. CELA made our success possible. The Six Nations Confederacy shared our passion for the river and for the Earth, and they were absolutely determined that no BSAR would touch their Glebe lands. Greenpeace sent us transportation consultant Joell Vanderwagen, who helped transform us into "experts".

But children were our most important allies. They made posters which graced public meetings. They delivered flyers. They knocked on my door to ask "Have we stopped the road yet?" Their imaginations were still free to picture what the road would mean to their lives. And they were a vibrant reminder of why we let this cause consume our days and our nights.

Every time we won a delay, we celebrated a small victory. First we appealed to the Hon. Ruth Grier, then provincial Minister of Environment, for a bump-up to a full Environmental Assessment. City Councillors kept delaying a decision until November 2, when they had on their desks a motion to begin construction immediately. The mayor, prime advocate for the BSAR, opened Council by reading an announcement from Ruth Grier ordering community hearings by an independent Environmental Assessment Advisory Committee. CELA presented our case to the EAAC, (Environmental Assessment Advisory Committee).

The EAAC's recommendation came out totally in our favour: "Construction should not proceed unless the dispute over the use of Native lands is resolved, and there has been a new assessment of Brantford's transportation needs (and alternatives) with opportunities for meaningful public consultation." One year later, in March 1994, the new Minister of Environment, Bud Wildman, replied. He allowed the city to build another small part of the road, but the most critical section had to have more study to resolve the Native and environmental issues. So we pinned our hopes on the City's long-overdue Transportation Study. We plunged into making it involve widespread and meaningful public participation.

Finally in February 1997, the answer came. Regarding the BSAR, the IMC consultant Don Drackley had managed to find a compromise between the opposing forces. Existing roads linking the already built BSAR sections would serve at least 15 years and avoid the critical canal-Glebe section. But (something for everyone so we'd all agree) that corridor should be preserved. It is still waiting.

The rest of the Transportation Study vindicated our dogged persistence. It promoted traffic management, with major improvements for walking, bicycle and transit transportation (as well as road-widening).

Stopping the BSAR (for now) was only the beginning. We began to see the connections within the whole web of a healthy community. Along the way, we formed a Citizens' Committee which forced the city to hold an official Plan Review. If we didn't want more roads, we had to strengthen other modes of transportation. So our new Transit Users' Group has made public transit a hot issue in Brantford. The Brantford Bicycle Committee was formed to work with the Transportation Study's bicycle consultant. Our Transportation Action Group brought the notion of traffic calming to a level of respectability. Through the Rogers Community program, Enviroscapes, we created four television shows on transportation issues. Parking lots devouring city spaces, gravel pits ravaging our countryside, tires piling up (and burning), sewer and road extensions threatening precious ecosystems, desperate social needs, climate upheaval - we now see that such things are related to unbalanced transportation.

Our City Hall had seemed our enemy until November 1994 when we elected a new, anti-BSAR mayor, Chris Friel, and a progressive anti-BSAR Councillor, Marguerite Chest-Smitten. Then, in the 1997 election,we also elected a Councillor, Dr. Patricia Franklin, who is purposely dependent on public transit and her bicycle. The years of public education, the growing inter-connecting, are paying off. And the little trees are singing in the wind, giving shelter and shade.

Unfortunately, the EAAC option for citizen appeal has since been eliminated by the present Ontario government.

Catherine Verrall is a retired kindergarten teacher and full-time political and environmental activist, and one of the Brantford Raging Grannies.