Newspaper source: March 1 and 4, 1972 editions of The Globe and Mail.
Image copyright 2006, Peter Shatalow. Used with permission.

LAST STANDOn March 2, 1972, the federal and Ontario governments jointly announced a plan to build an airport and adjoining city in North Pickering. Part of Thistle Ha’ farm was inside the planned airport boundary.

The announcement was a badly kept secret. The Globe and Mail published the details of the scheme the day prior to the announcement, and sent reporter John Scott along the 7th Concession to gauge public reaction. On March 1, he reported that “Very few people in the area are overly enthused about the idea.” “‘The whole idea of an airport destroys the vibrations of the way I live,’ said William Lishman, [who] says he plans to form an action committee among the residents who are opposed to the development to fight the proposal.”

Bill Lishman’s plan began to take shape 34 years ago tonight. John Scott reported in the March 4th edition of The Globe and Mail that a meeting at Melody Farm was attended by “more than 100 angry residents”. The location of this meeting was significant, since it was part of the farm originally purchased by Elder Barclay in 1819, whose son George participated in the Rebellion of 1837. Hugh Miller of Thistle Ha’ farm was asked to chair the meeting. Pat Bouck took minutes, highlighting Lorne Almack’s suggestion that ad hoc committees be formed: Steering, Legal, Publicity and Fund Raising. The minutes also recorded the membership of the four committees, and plans for a mass meeting on the following Tuesday in the Township Hall in Brougham. By mid-March, this group of area residents opposed to the proposed airport became known as People or Planes (POP), with Dr Charles Godfrey serving as chairman.

Once their announcement was made, the politicians moved on, leaving it to the public servants, whose job description was to “Build Airports”, to push aside the inevitable few pesky protesters, expropriate the land and bulldoze the runways.

There were two problems.

They picked the wrong site. Walter Stewart’s book Paper Juggernaut documents that the objective airport site selection process, laboriously developed by the Airport Builders over several years, ranked other sites ahead of Pickering. But for a variety of political reasons, the politicians told the Airport Builders and then the public that Pickering was the best site.

They also picked on the wrong people. The population of North Pickering was a mix of people who had either lived here for generations, or were newly-arrived professionals who mostly worked in Toronto, but decided to live in Pickering, and had worked very hard to create their home in paradise. Most had been exposed to endless visits by land speculators, and had already decided to stay, rather than accept buyout offers. Pickering farmers had been working together for years, successfully convincing Ontario that a municipal property assessment scheme designed to tax farmers off their land was not in the public interest. Many had also worked together in opposing the Century City land development. These were the people who became POP: experts in politics, law, media relations, agriculture, publicity, finance, data analysis, engineering, construction, environment – and if an expert was lacking, somebody always knew where to find one. POP people were used to saying “No, we don’t want to move”; they were people used to working together in an effective lobby group.

POP’s publicity machine was formidable. Staging events ranging from tours of historic homes to shocking street theatre, they managed to sustain the national media’s interest in their protest. POP’s experts pored over government data; their painstaking analysis soon exposed errors and inconsistencies in the Airport Builders’ case for an airport at Pickering. With the Pickering proposal starting to fray, the politicians tried the Swackhammer public hearings, which gave POP’s dedicated volunteers a platform to continue their relentless lobbying. Finally in 1975, Ontario announced that they would not fund the roads and other services required for the proposed airport. Construction of an airport at Pickering would not proceed; POP had won.

Except by this time, the Airport Builders owned the proposed airport lands. Although the project was now in political limbo, their job remained the same: Build Airports. They could only rent the property and wait until the protesters had died, moved or lost interest. Whether intentional or not, the Airport Builders proved to be exceptionally bad landlords. Farmland requiring crop rotation had its fertility mined by continual cash-cropping. Barns and homes were allowed to fall into disrepair, good tenants evicted and the buildings demolished. The proposed airport lands became a rural slum. This mismanagement has sustained the protest by aggrieved tenants and their neighbours.

After 30 years, the Airport Builders, hoping for the best, announced that they would build a feeder airport at Pickering. All this managed to achieve was renewed protest by a whole new generation of Pickering residents in groups such as V.O.C.A.L. and Land over Landings. At a V.O.C.A.L. event commemorating the 34th anniversary of the government announcement of the Pickering airport project, acclaimed filmmaker Peter Shatalow premiered LAST STAND, his documentary about the historic fight of Pickering’s citizens to stop the proposed airport.

The rebellion of ’72 continues.