Thriving – sustainably – in the long term part 2: Assessing our natural and social capital

by Theresa Peluso


Almonte in Autumn © Edith Cody-Rice
Almonte in Autumn © Edith Cody-Rice

Last month, the Green Talk topic was sustainable development, presented at the conceptual level. Let’s go local and try to get an idea of how to apply this concept to our community.Here’s an extreme hypothetical example of the economy-at-all-costs approach, at the local level. What if a pulp and paper company was built in Mississippi Mills, and proposed to cut down and transform every single one of our trees into paper and wood products? Think of all the jobs that would create for people! Stores and houses would materialize in the space of a few months, extra roads would be built to accommodate all the extra vehicles, and money would be as plentiful as leaves on the ground in October (prior to the arrival of the pulp and paper company). And our GDP would be off the charts!

Fast forward a few years, and what would we have? A glut of houses for sale, empty storefronts, high unemployment, and an infrastructure that would need to maintained on the backs of the remaining taxpayers.

What would we have lost? The trees, which provide shade, as well as oxygen, act as windbreaks and privacy screens, absorb pollutants in the air, prevent soil erosion, reduce damage from floods, create habitat for animals, and provide fuel, shelter and food for us humans, as well as aesthetic and psychological benefits. Our health would most likely also have been negatively affected. Several studies cited in the Atlantic ( have shown a positive correlation between increases in human illnesses and the absence of trees.

In fact, this scenario of large-scale removal of trees is not that far removed from the situation that resulted after a century of European settlement in Lanark County, during which settlers removed over 70 percent of the forest cover. Today, thanks to government initiatives which began in the 1920s and continue today, the forests of Lanark County now cover about 58 per cent of the county’s total land area. Fortunately, in this historical case the damage was remediable, unlike much of what is happening today.

So, just how could our own municipality of Mississippi Mills take the lead in developing sustainably? In fact, at the October 26 meeting a couple of months ago, which was organized by our municipality to seek community input into Mississippi Mills’ Strategic Plan, nearly everyone who spoke wanted more environmental action – whether at the planning level, or at the implementation level. Subsequently, an announcement of a survey seeking additional public input on Mississippi Mills’ strategic plan was published in the Millstone. Our municipality is on the right track in requesting public input. It’s important to ensure that all sectors of our community feel that their input is valued for this initiative to work. Also, our municipality, as one of the communities in Lanark County, is supported by the Lanark County Sustainable Communities Official Plan, which describes our county’s vision as follows: “Lanark County is proud of its heritage and cherishes its small‐town character, rural way of life, sense of community and distinctive natural features. We want to strengthen and diversify the economy effectively, manage growth, protect the environment, preserve our heritage and maintain our unique character for future generations.”

All the key words are there: manage growth; protect the environment; preserve our heritage; maintain our unique character.

But how exactly do we go about it?

“Manage growth” and “protect the environment” don’t mean agreeing to a proposal like a new gas station in Almonte because Council fear being taken to the Ontario Municipal Board if they refuse. These phrases do mean agreeing to a natural heritage system that will safeguard habitat for wild plants and animals; and they do mean implementing a site alteration bylaw that will protect natural heritage features which, besides providing a place for wildlife to live, also reduce the risk of flooding, soil erosion, water pollution, etc. “Preserve our heritage” and “maintain our unique character” mean valuing the people and traditions of our municipality, including our First Nations heritage – and, I would like to think, – at the same time remaining open to new influences and approaches without losing our basic character. For example, any changes to our river, which has enabled Almonte to grow and thrive, must ensure that the character of this beautiful little town is protected.

How do we put this vision of thriving sustainably into practice? First, we need to take stock of what our natural and social capital consists of, before we can come up with ways to make them work to ensure our development is as sustainable as possible.

So, what is our natural capital?

Our municipality has an area of about 520 km2, most of it consisting of about 28,000 hectares (70,000 acres) of forest, and of fertile farmland (240 farms (beef, dairy, sheep, poultry, field crops, Christmas trees, fruits, vegetables, etc.) managed by approximately 350 operators). The forests not only provide essential ecological services; they also provide (as we all know!) maple syrup, which is a thriving industry in our area, lumber, firewood, habitat for deer (of special interest to hunters) and scenery for nature lovers and fitness enthusiasts. In addition, our municipality has a few quarries. We have open spaces that have been adapted for downhill skiing, golfing, concerts (I’m referring to our naturally formed amphitheatre, Gemmill Park), recreation paths, and natural areas, such as the Mill of Kintail, Blakeney Park, the Almonte Lagoons Trail, the Burnt Lands Alvar, and High Lonesome Nature Reserve.

Also very important to our sustainability, is our 30-km section of the Mississippi River (the remainder of its 200-km length runs through adjoining municipalities). Because the river has, for the most part, a steady supply of water, and also drops in height as it passes through our municipality, it also provides us with hydro-electric energy. Finally, there are numerous creeks, clean aquifers, and wetlands in Mississippi Mills. The river, aquifers, and wetlands provide a source of water for drinking, household needs, and recreation (including fishing).

As for social capital, I would go way over my word limit if I enumerated every single community group in Mississippi Mills – but, nonetheless, I’ll try to do justice to the wealth of social capital that we have. (In this enumeration, I am omitting the many government-affiliated organizations that exist.)

First, we have service groups such as the Hub, the Almonte Civitan Club, the Royal Canadian Legion, Mills Community Support, many church organizations, the Lions Club, the Rotary Club, the Girl Guides and Boy Scouts, not to mention various county-based groups, such as the Food Bank and Interval House. We also have several agriculture-related groups: the North Lanark Agricultural Society, the Lanark County Beekeepers Association, the Lanark Landowners Association, the Lanark Organic Growers Guild, Lanark Local Flavour, and numerous horticultural societies. There are several environmental groups as well, such as the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists, Sustainable Eastern Ontario, the Lanark-Climate Action Network, and the Mississippi Madawaska Land Trust.

We also have no end of formal and informal sports clubs; hockey, curling, lawn bowling, hiking, soccer, baseball, skiing, canoeing and kayaking (thanks to the Carleton Place Canoe Club), horseback riding, skating, tennis, pickleball, cycling, golf, basketball, snowmobiling, fishing and hunting, taekwon do, and judo are just some examples.

The arts community is huge! Just for starters, in the visual arts category, we have the Almonte Potters Guild, the Almonte Artists Association, the Almonte Quilters Guild, the Photography Matters Group, the Textile Museum, artists of all kinds (painters, milliners, landscapers, metalworkers, jewellers, potters, fabric artists, fused-glass artists, wood turners, woodcarvers, cabinet makers, gardeners, fashion and costume designers, weavers, etc., etc.). As for music, there are numerous choirs, classical and folk (including Celtic) music groups, including the fiVe Woodwind Quintet, the Barley Shakers, the Monday Night Fiddlers, the Jimmy Tri-Tone Band, JazzNhouse, KEWT, the Ragged Flowers, plus many talented soloists, young and not so young. In the realm of dance, we have the Almonte Dance Academy, the Margaret Morris Movement, the Hy-Liners, highland dancing enthusiasts, and more. In the theatre arts domain, we have an amazing puppeteer, Noreen Young, who, with the help of numerous enthusiasts, has made Almonte renowned for its Puppets Up! Festival. In the realm of literature, we have two libraries, book clubs galore, and many local authors and poets who have made a name for themselves here, and well beyond the boundaries of Mississippi Mills. We have museum, heritage and historical associations, who do their utmost to preserve our community’s history for future generations.

We also have a wealth of talents and local industries: local specialty food producers, such as Health Food Technologies, Cartwright Springs Brewery, Hummingbird Chocolate, maple-product and honey producers, and irresistible breads and cakes from our local bakers in Almonte and Pakenham. We have talented tradespeople, architects, and software specialists of all kinds. In terms of business groups, we have the Mississippi Mills Chamber of Commerce and the Pakenham Business and Tourism Association.

Another essential feature of our community is our communication tools. We are so fortunate to have this FREE online newspaper, the Millstone, where its editors and publishers willingly and promptly publish news, comments, and links to other media, in connection with the goings-on in Mississippi Mills. We also have the FREE! Canadian Gazette, published weekly, with all kinds of information about the groups and events in this area. Not only that, we have the Humm, also FREE, a monthly publication, which is an excellent resource for finding out about arts- and environment-related events in Mississippi Mills and the surrounding communities. Finally, we have a radio station, LAKE 88.1, which broadcasts out of Perth, with a ready ear and voice for local happenings.

In terms of governance, we have a municipal council that work well together, and seem to keep an open mind in resolving the issues that are presented to them, and municipal staff that are very committed to working cooperatively with the public. The municipality regularly sets up public meetings for input from the community, although many of these meetings are poorly attended. Council and staff are supported by numerous volunteer advisory committees that provide input on various areas such as heritage, the environment, beautification, arts and culture, community and economic development, and more. Governance is an area where we all need to work as a team to carry out Lanark County’s vision for sustainable development. Together, we need to manage growth; protect the environment; preserve our heritage; and maintain our unique character.

To summarize, these are all the assets with which Mississippi Mills is blessed: our natural capital, social capital, and governance system. How can we use these assets to make Mississippi Mills a shining example of a sustainably developed community? Stay tuned for next month’s installment on Thriving – Sustainably – In the Long Term! In the meantime, I welcome any comments from readers – omissions and corrections, and suggestions for how we can make this concept work for us.