It was 20 years ago this month when a small group of about 15 rural property owners and farmers in Lanark County met to unload their burdens about escalating government overreach that was putting rural people out of business. They narrowed their gripes down to one common concern: property rights.
The meeting was organized by the then young and gung ho local Conservative MP Scott Reid. Four of those men got together again one week later and launched the Lanark Landowners Association. They had no idea they were about to embark on an almost surrealistic odyssey transforming into a rural revolution that ignited tractor rallies and road blockades, instilled fear into law enforcement, launched two political careers, opened a market for ball caps, T-shirts, signs, even a magazine, and, most importantly, gave power back to the people by encouraging them to stand up and push back.
From the long halls of Parliament, word would eventually get back from MP Reid that this rural movement was one of the most successful populous grassroots group ever formed in Canadian history.
The Lanark Landowners Association was started by Perth-area electrician Randy Hillier, market gardener Merle Bowes, Algonquin College instructor and part-time berry grower Brian Hanna and local crop farmer John Vanderspank, who was in the fight of his life to save his farm. Crop prices were low and he was out of cash and out of patience. Deer were eating his corn and he was so fed up with the heavy losses, he was ripe for a fight.
A Ministry of Natural Resources officer told him he would never get permits to shoot deer on his property and suggested he build a fence around his 1,200 acres, even though an Agricorp study found that in just two weeks on one 60-acre field, deer caused $800 in damage to just the outside row.
This was too good an issue to ignore and the landowners found their first cause. They publically announced that in Vanderspank’s bush they would hold an illegal Father’s Day deer hunt, the first of a series of mischievous demonstrations and head fakes that endeared them to the common folk, while at the same time rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. MNR enforcement officers and OPP officers arrived to arrest Vanderspank and his small group of hunters when they emerged from the woods. But when they did, there were no guns, no bullets, no deer, no evidence. The landowners headed to the farm for a bbq. They pulled off their first attention-grabbing ruse and made their point, made headlines, captured the hearts of many and irked the authorities.
While planning their deer hunt, the LLA protested against a property standards bylaw in Mississippi Mills and successfully modified it. They also succeeded in stopping a pesticide ban in Lanark Highlands.
The charismatic Hillier, with his brash bravado and affable charm, became the natural leader and voice of the movement. They began to defend anyone with a property issue. They stepped in to defend elk farms, sawmills, crop farmers, and a farmer who couldn’t build because an endangered loggerhead shrike was found on his property. The landowners association was printing and selling signs that read “This is my land: Back off government.” They began appearing at the roadside in front of farms and rural properties across the province.
They shut down highways to champion property rights and stared down police who didn’t charge them for blocking traffic. When a TV reporter asked Hillier if he feared getting arrested, he replied defiantly, “Let them try. Are they going to put all of us in jail?”
“Where is this passion coming from?” the reporter asked and Hillier laughed heartily, his trademark disarming charm.
At one protest, the landowners shut down the Kemptville Ministry of Natural Resources office by piling haybales in front of the door and then sold “illegal” beef from the back of a truck. The lineup of buyers to support the cause extended across the parking lot after the sale was announced on local radio stations.
They were forever thinking they were going to be arrested at their demonstrations but it never happened. It helped that they were getting advice from retired police officers and met with police before almost every event to agree to the terms of a demonstration. The more popular they became the more deferential the enforcement officers. An MNR officer told Farmers Forum that the officers were all instructed that if a property had a “Back off government sign,” leave immediately.
When it was time for the second father’s day deer hunt, the MNR sent 12 conservation officers in seven trucks, a canine unit and a plane. Vanderspank got charged with improper transfer of tags. He took his case to the Perth court, along with more than 100 supporters, who chanted from the street. He lost and was fined $600. But he figured he won because the next year, 2005, he was given all the hunting permits he wanted and in that year hunters shot 67 deer on his property.
The LLA popularity kept growing. People would buy up a membership for $20 then expect the LLA to do more work to solve a problem than the combined efforts of a lawyer, police and politician. “They’d buy a membership and say, ‘what are you going to do for me?’” recalled Vanderspank who was out of the house almost every evening for weeks. It seemed like there was a demonstration every few days. The phone was always ringing.
“It exploded,” Vanderspank, now 70 and semi-tired, recalls. “We were in the right place at the right time. Randy and I probably talked 100 times a day. It was just crazy. I don’t know how I got my work done.”
When they announced they were opening the U.S. border to Canadian beef by transporting cattle across the international bridge at Johnstown, detractors said the U.S. border patrol would shoot them. They strapped a fiberglass cow to a pickup truck and drove it both ways across the international bridge. They drove tractors to Queen’s Park and presented a petition to end the Nutrient Management Act. They transported a truckload of cattle to Ottawa and held a mock cattle auction on Wellington Street in front of Parliament Hill and persuaded Stephen Harper, who was then leader of the opposition, to speak to the crowd about property rights. They even hanged effigies in front of the eternal flame.
By 2005 the Ontario Landowners Association was born, an umbrella group for 12 county groups now operating across the province. The next year the OLA was pushing 10,000 members but the steam was beginning to thin. Vanderspank’s concerns were more farm related and he aligned with commercial crop farmers in large grassroot tractor rallies to demand a risk management program, production insurance and bridge funding to help crop farmers who weren’t earning enough from one harvest to buy seed for the next.
Meantime, Hillier’s politics got in the way. He used his landowner popularity to springboard into the next provincial election. He won and represented Lanark-Frontenac-Lennox-Addington from 2007 to 2018. The next Ontario Landowner president, Jack MacLaren, also jumped into politics. He won in Carleton-Misssissippi in the next election and served as a provincial Progressive Conservative MPP from 2011 to 2018.
The OLA carried on but focused on policy changes. Sheep farmer Tom Black was with the movement from almost the beginning, was president from 2012 to 2019, and noted that while brash demonstrations were great publicity stunts, they were all volunteers and needed to spend all their energy re-working bad rules and meeting with politicians
The landowners were instrumental in reining in the province’s conservation authorities and ending blanket wetland designations, dismantling the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and stopping Fisheries and Oceans from declaring every puddle a waterway. Government officials tended to wither when they saw crowds carrying “back off government” signs march into a public meeting.
But it was all at a cost. “I was burned out,” Black recalled, about stepping down. “I couldn’t keep all the balls in the air.”
He paid his own phone and gas bills for years. Phone calls alone could eat up two hours each morning before he went to the barn. Everyone was a volunteer and the office was the kitchen table. “I don’t think we knew our own power when we were in the middle of it,” he said. “We were always putting out fires.”
“We did wonderful things,” Vanderspank said, looking back on 20 years. “It taught a lot of people that you could stand up. That was our biggest success.”