by Brent Eades
In recent weeks I seem to have become one of the more visible of the many, many opponents to the Enerdu hydro project. I didn’t plan it that way.
Enerdu is an issue that only last winter I had no strong opinions about. I didn’t think it would be a good thing, but I wasn’t sure it was a potential calamity either.
My thinking has changed since then. I’m now convinced this project would indeed be a calamity, a fatal and inexcusable blow to the heart and soul of our beautiful little town. Let me tell you why.
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Like many of our citizens, I’m not from here originally. I first spent time in Almonte after my sister moved here in 1985. My wife and I were living in downtown Ottawa and were planning to start a family; we knew we wanted our children to grow up outside the city. Almonte was on our minds.
In 1986 our first daughter was born and we became earnest about getting out of Ottawa. After many visits and house showings we made an offer on a lovely old brick home on Elgin Street. On August 1 1987 we moved in.
I spent my first several months in Almonte mostly shaking my head in wonder at what a good decision we’d made. Our Elgin Street neighbours were all exceptionally friendly, kind people, and I liked nothing better than sitting on my front porch with my infant daughter and chatting with them as they passed by.
* * *
Shopping in town, well, that was an experience that seemed almost from a different century.
Back then there were no strip malls or franchises here, or in fact anything north of Paterson Street. Mill Street and the immediate area were the entire commercial district.
There were two grocery stores (Pike’s and the Red & White); two tin-ceiling hardware stores (Lee’s and Levi’s); Timmons Clothing; Stan Morton’s store; Stedman’s, which sold everything from shoes to staples to beach balls; the Almonte Gazette was a thriving concern. You could get whatever you needed in a three-block walk, and run into your neighbours every few steps. It was just about the perfect Canadian small town.
* * *
And at its the heart was the river. A blue-green sparkling ribbon that changed abruptly from broad and calm to narrow and tumultuous as it rushed past a vista of weathered old mills that had stayed almost unchanged for a century or more.
In those days I travelled often on business. I remember times driving back from the airport in the small hours, spotting the first soft lights of town from Highway 44 and then making the turn on to Bridge Street and seeing downtown lying sleepy along the banks of the river. If I was especially lucky there would be a full moon. All the stress of a frantic week far away would drain from me. I’d think: “I’m home now. Hello, Almonte.”
* * *
Life moved on. We had a second child, born at the Almonte General Hospital. She and her sister went to Naismith school, where they had consistently excellent teachers and made life-long friends. Meanwhile, by 1995 I had become interested in the World Wide Web and created my first site about our town, promoting its beauty and attractions. Eighteen years later that lives on as Almonte.com, which is still my personal project and which brings 2,000 visitors a month seeking information about this special place.
* * *
Almonte has changed a lot since my early years here, for better and for worse.
Commerce has moved largely north of Paterson Street into malls. You can’t walk down Mill Street now and buy whatever you need. But that was likely inevitable. The city and its big-box stores have drawn closer in my 26 years here, and I’d much prefer to see local businesses like Patrice’s and Levi’s flourish on the outskirts rather than close down and force us to shop in Kanata or Carleton Place big-box stores.
Mill Street still thrives, though as a different destination from what it was back then. It’s now a draw for antique-hunters and gourmands and culture-lovers from the city and beyond.
The trains stopped running last year, another blow to our sense of heritage and continuity. Train whistles had been blowing here since 1859.
* * *
But the river? The river doesn’t change. It’s the heart, the soul of it all. Constant and eternal. Folks who were last here years ago will come for a visit with friends and say, “Let’s check out that river walk, it’s really nice. You should see the waterfalls, they’re gorgeous.”
Imagine these poor visitors later this year if Enerdu gets its way – they’ll be showing their friends a vast construction site, the riverbed exposed by coffer dams as the blasting and dredging go on and the dump trucks line up to haul away the debris. Meanwhile a huge trench has been excavated beside the Maple Leaf Mill and the foundation is being poured for the 5,000-square-foot powerhouse.
Our visitors look around, bewildered. “Well… it used to be nice here. Sorry about that. This place has changed. Let’s go.”
* * *
The change that Enerdu wants to inflict on this town is not inevitable. It’s not the natural evolution of a local business that needs to keep up with changing times, perhaps at the expense of some nostalgia over “how things used to be.”
Instead, Enerdu is about an outside firm that sees an opportunity for profits at the expense of this town and everyone who lives in it. Profits that, as far as I can tell, will flow straight out of here while while leaving behind a legacy of butchered heritage and environment.
And that’s just wrong. Every single part of it.
* * *
There’s a chat I’ve had with my daughters a few times over the years, and it goes like this.
“You know what I like most about your mom and I deciding to live here? It’s that you guys could move away for 20 or 30 years, and then come back to visit — and your town would look mostly the same. And there would still be a lot of people here who knew exactly who you were, they’d remember you. That’s mighty special, to belong to a place where the important things don’t change.”
I don’t want my daughters coming home to a place they don’t recognize anymore. How about you?