Acre banner Home Contact Us

"Grassroots" Dextox in Chelsea:
A Story of Environmental Activism

 

By Andrea Lockwood
[EnCompass Magazine, Oct/Nov 2001]

  • "Everyone is aware that individually and collectively we are responsible for preserving the natural environment ... environmental protection [has] emerged as a fundamental value in Canadian society."
    Madame Justice L'Heureux-Dubé in the Supreme Court of Canada decision 114957 Canada Ltée (Spraytech, Société d'arrosage) v. Hudson (Town), 2001 SCC40 rendered in June 2001.

  • "A tradition of strong local government has become an important part of the Canadian democratic experience. This level of government usually appears more attuned to the immediate needs and concerns of the citizens."
    Mr. Justice Lebel, in the same case.

The recent decision of the Supreme Court of Canada affirming the right of the municipality of Hudson, Québec to regulate the cosmetic use of pesticides (pesticides used for aesthetic purposes only) has drawn attention to the power a community can wield in protecting its environment.

Hudson is not alone. Approximately 40 municipalities in Québec have enacted pesticide bylaws, as has Halifax. Other municipalities across Canada are actively working toward drafting and adopting similar bylaws. This is the story of what happened in one community where a small group of concerned citizens got together and made some changes.

Chelsea is a community of approximately 6500 people nestled on the edges of the Gatineau River some 15 minutes north of Ottawa-Hull, Canada's political centre. Chelsea's population is diverse: equal parts anglophone and francophone with a smattering of "allophones." The grandsons and granddaughters of the men who logged the hills in the last century live beside those drawn to the area by the richness of the outdoor recreational opportunities. Chelsea is also home to people attracted by real estate prices that are generally substantially less than those found in the Ontario municipalities to the south.

Approximately 66 percent of Chelsea's landmass is contained within Gatineau Park. The entrance to Harrington Lake (the site of the Prime Minister's summer home) and Meech Lake lie within Chelsea's borders, although recent prime ministerial sightings have been few.

Many Chelsea residents bike and ski the paths of Gatineau Park or canoe, swim and sail in the Gatineau River, and their appreciation for the outdoors has helped foster environmental awareness in the community. Chelsea's soccer fields were constructed so that they would not require pesticide applications, and municipal lands have not been sprayed with chemical pesticides (other than for poison ivy) in over a decade.

In the mid-1990s, some members of the municipality's Environment Commission learned about the Hudson bylaw that restricted the cosmetic use of pesticides. However, the validity of the bylaw was being challenged in the courts (see sidebar) so municipal council decided not to adopt a similar bylaw but to run an educational campaign instead.

Unfortunately, the campaign had little effect. It was not until Dr. Nicole Bruinsma, a local family doctor and breast cancer survivor, presented a well-attended lecture on the possible links between environmental contaminants and breast cancer and children's health that the movement to convince council to adopt a bylaw regulating the cosmetic use of pesticides gained some momentum.

Bylaw advocates distributed and discussed studies of childhood, prostate and breast cancer rates; endocrine disruption; dwindling sperm counts and lower wildlife numbers. But nobody ever claimed that there was definitive proof that the use of named pesticides caused adverse health effects. All energies were concentrated on the question of risk: was the elimination of unwanted species really worth the possible risk posed by the use of chemical products, which in some cases had not been re-evaluated in 30 years, and of whose cumulative effects little is conclusively known?

All homes in Chelsea depend on wells for their drinking water. Long before Walkerton, drinking water contamination was a grave concern and therefore a prime focus of the bylaw initiative.

Shortly after Dr. Bruinsma's lecture, the Quebec Court of Appeal upheld the Hudson pesticide bylaw. Chelsea council created a subcommittee to draft a bylaw. Subcommittee members included Dr. Bruinsma, Dr. Noha Fuad (biologist), Jim Douglas (landscape architect), Andrea Lockwood (lawyer) and Ross Anderson (member of council).

The sub-committee immediately examined bylaws passed by other municipalities in Québec restricting the use of pesticides. The contents of these bylaws varied greatly, but generally restricted pesticide application to reduce the possibility of children coming into contact with the chemicals. Most were passed after Jean-Dominique Lévesque-René, a young cancer survivor turned anti-pesticide activist, and his mother spoke to their municipal councils about their concerns that his illness was related to the family's use of pesticides both inside and outside their home. A sad parallel among almost all the municipalities was that the bylaws were usually passed after credible people suffering illness pointed out to their legislators the possible links between pesticides and illness.

In the fall of 1998, a draft bylaw was presented to the public in Chelsea. Two things became very clear. First, comments made by local - as opposed to national or international groups - had more impact. In other words, the soccer parents who said they didn't want their kids playing on treated grass were the most effective. Second, most people requested that the draft bylaw be made stricter; specifically to include the two golf courses operating in Chelsea. The bylaw was strengthened to include most of the public concerns and the golf courses and was passed unanimously by council in December 1998.

Like Hudson's, Chelsea's bylaw purports to ban the cosmetic use of pesticides. But it does in fact permit the application of pesticides in specific situations such as a verified infestation of insects (with a permit), and on plants or insects like poison ivy or wasps that constitute a danger to people (without a permit). The golf courses have five years from the date of implementation of the bylaw to stop using pesticides. Chelsea's bylaw has been used as a precedent by other municipalities that are drafting similar bylaws.

There are still opponents to the bylaw, and it is difficult to pre-judge who will and will not support the action. While the health-conscious young professional who cycles to work can generally be counted on to support the initiative, there are parents of young children who opposed the idea of a restriction of their right to do as they pleased with their land. Many older residents whole-heartedly endorsed a natural approach to lawn care. Just after the bylaw subcommittee was organized, Action Chelsea pour le respect de l'environnment/Action Chelsea for the respect of the environment (ACRE) was informally created by a small group of people sitting around a picnic table in the local youth hostel. Working both together and independently, ACRE and municipal staff organized educational campaigns on the health risks associated with the use of chemical pesticides and alternatives to these products and disseminated information on organic methods. These educational campaigns are ongoing.

ACRE has grown into an organization of more than 100 members who have effectively tapped into the expertise and enthusiasm in Chelsea. ACRE now runs a successful lecture series and Earth Day activities. It was the driving force behind a bylaw protecting wetlands and a public consultation into a proposed major development that, plagued by unanswerable questions on the environmental impacts, died in the planning stages.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Chelsea's small supermarket now offers a wide selection of organic foods, including dairy, fresh vegetables and fruit, and packaged items. Interest in lawn-care alternatives has resulted in many "naturalized" lawns.

Not all Chelsea residents support these initiatives, however. Most opposition seems to be centred in the flat, non-forested portion of Chelsea that most closely resembles traditional suburbia with its manicured lawns and carefully tended perennial beds. When a resident of one of these areas attempted to naturalize parts of her lawn, her neighbours (some of whom had also vociferously opposed the pesticide bylaw) petitioned municipal council to enforce a little-known and never-before-enforced bylaw that restricted the height of grass. The municipality charged the resident and took her to trial where she lost. ACRE mounted a campaign to educate residents about the benefits of naturalization, and the Canadian Environmental Defence Fund has taken up the resident's cause (her appeal will be heard in the fall).

Eventually, Chelsea council rescinded the grass bylaw noting that its purpose was being misinterpreted: the bylaw was intended to prevent the dumping of garbage on empty lots in the municipality, not to dictate landscaping standards. It was also noted that the principles of naturalization were consistent with those of the pesticide bylaw. When asked by an angry resident why council so often found itself in agreement with ACRE, Mayor Judith Grant replied, "because their arguments make sense."

In Chelsea, that seems to be the key to environmental success to date: a fact-based balancing of pros and cons with human and environmental health concerns tipping the scale. It's a never-ending campaign to protect the environment. There's a lot of work to do, but ACRE members are committed to doing what they can. ACRE and the municipality have had to fill a void created by inaction on the part of the federal and provincial governments with respect to pesticide regulation.

The victory in the Supreme Court of Canada in the Hudson case is a double-edged blessing: while recognizing that a municipal council may be more aware of, and responsive to, the needs and desires of its community, the decision also places an additional responsibility on already-burdened councils and municipal staff with generally less expertise than higher layers of government. In Chelsea, this expertise lacunae at the municipal level has been filled through the voluntary contributions of community members with the necessary expertise. Across the country, Canadians are discovering that if they want community action, they must be prepared to provide (pro)active community involvement.

Chelsea's municipal council has proven its commitment to protecting its environment. Now if we could only get the guy riding in the back of the limousine through Chelsea to Harrington Lake to pay some attention and ban the cosmetic use of pesticides across Canada….

Acknowledgment: Special thanks to members of the Pesticide Bylaw Subcommittee (Noha Fuad, Jim Douglas, Nicole Bruinsma, Ross Anderson) for their contributions and advice for this article and to Geof Burbidge for the photographs.

Andrea Lockwood has been a resident of Chelsea for 13 years and is past president of ACRE. She remains actively involved in environmental matters in her community. For more information about ACRE visit www.acrechelsea.qc.ca.

Sidebar 1:

Hudson, Québec: The first Canadian municipality to outlaw the use of pesticides on lawns

The Town of Hudson is located approximately 30 minutes west of Montreal. In 1991, town council adopted bylaw No. 270 that restricted the use of pesticides. The objective of the bylaw was to substantially reduce the non-essential use of pesticides. In 1992 two lawn-care companies, Spraytech and Chemlawn, were charged with violating the bylaw. These companies then sought a declaration that the bylaw was invalid. In 1993, the Québec Superior Court upheld the bylaw. Spraytech and Chemlawn appealed that decision to the Québec Court of Appeal. The appeal was unanimously dismissed in 1998. Spraytech and Chemlawn then appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, where in June 2001 they lost again.

Sidebar 2:

Websites on pesticides and alternatives

[top]