Bill-99by L. G. William Chapman, B.A., LL.B.

Mississippi River at AlmonteMany in the world are intrigued by the US Republican convention currently being staged. There is a temporary suspension of interest following the proclamation last night by House of Representative Speaker Paul D. Ryan that Mr. Donald J. Trump is the official nominee of the Party. Things won’t reignite until Thursday when Mr. Trump delivers his much awaited acceptance speech (followed naturally by a Benediction from Roger W. Gries, Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus).

At the local level here in Mississippi Mills and with far more personal appeal another heated debate is being played out, this one involving a hydro development by a hometown corporation called Enerdu. The events surrounding this controversy likely began about the same time that Mr. Trump first hinted that he would run for the Republican nomination in a presidential election, that is in about 2012. I didn’t view the unfolding Enerdu dissension with anything other than spectator status until the early part of 2014 when I contemplated running for election to Council and submitted my formal nomination papers. In anticipation of that campaign I met with Mr. Jeff Cavanagh, the son of renowned businessman Mr. Thomas Cavanagh of Cavanagh Construction. Essentially they own Enerdu which was bought from the family of Mr. Mike Dupuis who operated a small hydro-electric facility behind the Old Flour Mill in Almonte on the Mississippi River across from the Town Hall and the Thoburn Mill. By the spring of 2014 the Enerdu proposal to renovate and enlarge its plant had polarized the members of the community.

From the outset my opinion of the Enerdu renovation was favourable. Like most people I based my uncomplicated deduction upon basic tenets which instinctively bore sway with me and which weren’t based upon a whole lot of investigation or science.

First, the existing Enerdu site was an eye-sore. It has since been described by some as a bunker. It always appeared to me to be in a state of disrepair and neglect, a half-hearted commitment to industry, at best a less than serious business adventure. Mr. Mike Dupuis owns Canadian Hydro Components and he is best known for his manufacturing skills not his hydro-electric production. When I sat on the Board of Directors of Mississippi River Power Corporation we mostly viewed the Enerdu plant as an inconvenience since it initially diverted water from our own run-of-the-river operation lower down the Falls. Sometimes Enerdu deliberately backed up water to create a headpond for improved generation during peak hours which naturally affected our own production.

Second, everything I knew and had seen about Cavanagh Construction – whether it was its inventory of machinery and trucks, its solar panels, its warehouses, it pits, its fences, its residential apartments or its head office and boardroom – led me to conclude that it was a superlative operation of the highest standards. I had even briefly met Mr. Thomas Cavanagh at a social gathering and I recall being impressed by his candid and heartfelt approach.

Third, my introduction to the opinions of those who opposed the development was far less impressive. In connection with my nomination campaign I also attended a meeting of the Mississippi RiverWatchers.

Who are The Mississippi RiverWatchers?
The Mississippi RiverWatchers stand for the river as a community resource.
We are a group of concerned citizens who came together in the spring of 2012 to advocate for the river’s aesthetic importance, ecosystem value and recreational potential.
All members are volunteers.
We believe that there must be a balance between development and community values, and we will advocate for that balance.
Long term priorities include:
Stewardship
Elevating the value of the river as a community feature
Preserving the essential character of the river
Promoting recreation
Water quality
Shoreline clean up
Development watch

The ambitions of the Mississippi RiverWatchers were unquestionably well-intentioned. Never for example did I detect any subterfuge of private agenda for personal gain or purpose. However there was from my point of view as a lawyer a decided lack of insight into the mechanics of the dispute with Enerdu. While there may certainly have been those who felt qualified to comment upon ecological matters affecting the River generally, neither their credentials nor their theses provided any foundation for legal objection. The meeting was attended by a Justice of a superior court of law who afterwards gave me reason to believe that my observations at the meeting about the necessity to found a cause of action upon case law or legislation were pertinent. Subsequently the popular opposition to the Enerdu project gathered momentum from a proposal by several candidates for council to pass a by-law designating the downtown core (which pointedly included Enerdu) as a Heritage Conservation District. This strategem (which almost everyone acknowledged was solely targeted to subvert Enerdu) was doomed as an opposition tool for the same reason that no other mechanics had been discovered to stall the project; namely, there was no basis in law to do so. The theory that the squeaky wheel gets the grease and that politicians can ultimately be manipulated to conform to popular opinion did however continue to animate the dispute. The fact that well-trained mandarins (who had likely survived more than one change of provincial government) had analyzed the project and considered the public in-put was dismissed as pandering (a convenient but unpersuasive allegation).

Fourth, I then canvassed the opinions of people on the street. One person (who had political experience in local politics, who was a long-time resident and who was involved) told me she objected to the Enerdu project. When I asked her to specify why, she said, “Because it sounds bad”. Another person (who actively promoted objection to the project in public fora) stated in so many words that he objected because so many others had done so. It was becoming clear to me that the objection to Enerdu was founded upon deep instinctive reactions as elemental as water itself not fact. The waters were muddied by the compelling observations of local citizens regarding the degeneration of up-river shoreline growth. But significantly none of these complaints was definitive; some were only tenuously connected to the root project; and the official government surveyors echoed no concerns. One objector was even muted by apparently heavy-handed action by Enerdu lawyers though I wasn’t so quick to characterize the exercise of legal privilege as mere power-politics. I also sought to balance the views I was hearing by consulting with those whom I knew were actively involved with the management of the Mississippi River and whose long-time experience provided insight. There were also others with whom I met who supported the project, people who importantly had lived in the community for decades.  Unhappily the controversy was at times in threat of reducing to a confrontation between the so-called “tree hugger newbies” and the regressive old guard of Town.

Like the Republicans, we of Almonte are now poised to await the outcome of what has been a hotly contested though undeniable result. I imagine that in both the Republican camp and on the Mississippi River there will only now be heard the trailing cries of objectors. The Republicans have attached a good deal of significance to their democratic entitlement and I believe that many in Almonte likewise adopt the Rule of Law.