by  Julie Millett-Kennedy

I was recently invited to attend a meeting of the citizen’s group, The Neighbourhood Tomato.  The green pillars of the Mississippi Mills communities are coming together to make a healthy impact on our environment.  The Neighbourhood Tomato consists of farmers, gardeners, community groups, schools, activists, and youth leaders that bring such an array of experiences and intellectual expertise to the table that I sat in silence…and in awe.

The group of food enthusiasts sincerely studied and evaluated ideas at lightning speed.  Each of their suggestions made my heart leap at the promise of improving the quality of life, and sense of interdependency, for our community.  Ideas such as:

  • seniors’ unused backyard gardens being planted and harvested by volunteers so they can have fresh fruits and vegetables again, and the surplus going to the community
  • community potluck dinners at the town hall
  • green spaces and flower gardens being re-seeded with fruit and vegetable plots
  • grocery stores that buy produce from local gardens
  • utilizing the newly ripped up train tracks for biking trails and gardens
  • community garden plots at Augusta Street Park
  • a garden walk in which people can volunteer to have their gardens open to a public walking trail

These were only ideas, and there were many others.  Perhaps to the average Ottawa Valley citizen this does not seem heroic. Let me juxtapose this meeting with another scene.

I was raised in Almonte, attended G.L. Comba, swam at the beach, and ate Peterson’s ice cream cones in the summer, and cheered for the Thunderbolts in high school.  Then I moved to Hinton, Alberta for the next 25 years.

My first years in Hinton consisted of horse-back riding in the Rocky Mountain foothills, fishing for rainbow trout at Kinky Lake, and camping on the Macleod River just outside of town.

Then the tar sands opened, and the oil and gas industry poured into the little town of less than 10,000 people.  Social Services was flooded overnight with 20 year old men looking for work in a field that pays inexperienced workers up to $10,000 per month if they are willing to work 16 days straight for 14 hours a day as a “tool push” or “rig pig”.  They came by bus, by train, by plane, but there were no accommodations for them.  A tent city was erected behind the Ramada Hotel, nicknamed the “Ramada 2.0”.  The lucky ones were put up in camps in the bush consisting of over 1,000 men in each camp. There were hundreds of these temporary camps set up in the area between Hinton and Grande Cache.  These men had nothing to do on their 4 days off but wander into Hinton for some entertainment. The soul of the town changed at this point.  Huge money was sheared off of these men as fleece is sheared off sheep.

The bars exploded with customers, the crime rates went through the roof. The grocery stores, gas stations and McDonalds were now open 24 hours a day and the doctor’s offices became walk-in clinics, open on Saturdays, in order to handle the rush, much the same way a traffic circle handles large volumes by encouraging constant flow.

Hinton boomed.

The corporations enjoyed the lax environmental laws.  The rich made plans to retire far away from the industrial environment.  The poor relocated when the cost of a pizza hit $50.00.

The air was filled with sour gas flares, the river filled with grey bubbles where the runoff from the oil wells and gas plants met the sludge from the mill and the mines.  The horseback trails became honeycombed with oil rigs and sour gas wellheads, each with its own roads clear cut through the forest, with orders being carried out to install thousands more right up to the border of Jasper National Park.

Our friend Eva has a cottage at Gregg Lake in the bush about an hour from town.  One day a group of men came to the cottage and installed an H2S detector on the roof of her cottage.  The instructions explained that sour gas is extraordinarily poisonous, odourless and invisible.  Should her detector go off at any time night or day she is to drive as fast as safety permits in any direction away from the detector; any direction being preferable to remaining there at the point of an H2s leak.

2 months later the Town granted permission for a sour gas well with a 10 foot flare to be installed right on the Town line, across the road from the cemetery.

Around this time my son had trouble breathing.  My doctor said it was “environmental” and asked our permission to include him as a statistic in a study of children living in Alberta’s “Industrial Corridor”.  He said that he was moving his own family out of the area, and was gone within the month.

We moved to Almonte.

Both of my children now swim at Grandma’s cottage without fear of H2s detectors, fish in lakes without oil contamination, live in a community with a low crime rate, and can enjoy farmland, community and healthy living.

So imagine the flood of emotions when I sat at that table, where people were talking about free community pot luck dinners at the town hall, teenagers and other volunteers planting gardens to provide fresh food to elderly in their homes and donating the excess back into the community.  This was a group concerned with how to give knowledge of healthy eating habits, and a sense of belonging, for free, rather than how to extract for profit.

I felt like an alien.

I felt like a truly grateful, appreciative and delightfully thrilled fish out of water.  I had nothing to offer this group.  They were superheroes in a world of organic gardening, community feasts, solar, wind, composting, sustainability, community gardens and public bike trails.  This group of truly knowledgeable, experienced, highly educated in the ways of “greenness” saw all this as absolutely normal, natural, and taken for granted.

Then it dawned on me.  I knew my contribution.  I would be that alien reporter.  I will be that “other” voice.  I will let people know that this brilliant initiative is not common, but a treasure.  This opportunity will enlighten.  This community will flagship.

To offer all citizens of this area healthy food, grown within Mississippi Mills, for the consumption of its residents is one remarkable idea.  The collateral effects of community, respect, belonging, responsibility, empathy, stewardship, and caring for food, land, water and each other in general, is world view shifting.

I will tell their story, and I will be their biggest fan.  My children will volunteer, and my family will support in many ways.  We will be at all the potlucks, and enjoy the garden walks.

Come join me.  First potluck is this Tuesday at the Old Town Hall, March 19th.  Meet these wonderful people and include your own ideas.

I will tell their story and hopefully, eventually, in time someone will plant a tomato in a future community garden in Hinton.

Love Julie