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Sadly and disappointingly foreseeable Bala was the poster child for systematic governmental failure.
Just because you can doesn't necessarily mean you should. These words strung together sum up the saga of the Bala Falls Hydro Plant. Enter the province of Ontario in 2005 pimping out mother nature for the greenback under the guise of green energy. I'm not going to argue that we don't require green energy projects, yes we do, but not on the backs of tiny, historic cottage country landscapes, and possibly not smack in the middle of said town's Main Street. On that note please don't argue with me about the Bracebridge location of its generating station, its size, design and location in comparison to that of Bala's. I have already digressed, so just because the government Request for Proposal was issued doesn't mean it should have been in the first place.
Which leads to just because Swift River Energy Limited could have picked up the contract in Bala doesn't mean they should have given the geography. And yes if they hadn't someone else would have. And that's the sad reality of the economy we were all nurtured in. Once again the greenback took precedence over what was a breathtaking landscape and its history.
I also never bought into the argument that the government was simply offering the footprint of an old station. Former Muskoka Lakes mayor Alice Murphy summed up this conclusion in this paragraph from a letter she had written to the Wynne Liberal government in April 2014.
"To recap, 50 years ago there was a hydro station that occupied 256 square feet on a very small lot, 0.07 hectares in size, successfully co-existing with navigational, recreational and tourism opportunities at this location. Now the proposed structure would occupy 4,448 square feet, a growth factor of 1653%. Further, with the active support of your government, there would be an additional withdrawal of .33 hectares of public land from public use, representing all of the crown waterfront land in Bala. This additional land totals 31,700 square feet, bringing the total footprint of the proposed project 124 times the size of the crown land released by the MNR in 2004 and subject to public input," wrote Murphy.
As we forward through the long 15 years since the release and award of that RFQ, this project has consumed and divided this little town and its township's politics, relationships, and finances.
The Township of Muskoka Lakes in its fight against the construction of this hydro plant has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal battles and appeals voted on by a majority of councillors trying desperately to convince the provincial government not to proceed with this project. Personal property values such as that of former Muskoka Lakes Mayor Alice Murphy, who owned a home on Moon River just down stream from the falls, were brought into question during countless meetings and elections. As a property owner I can tell you from experience that it would be hard not to have a vested interest in preserving the years of a beautiful view slated to be obstructed by a 4,448 square foot hydro plant. I have also often questioned how we could blame Ms. Murphy and her interest in her own property which was located in her town, within the township which she happened to have been elected mayor of. She was accused of having a personal conflict of interest in the construction of the Bala Falls hydro plant due to the proximity of her residence to the falls and the proposed project. Let's unpack how absurd this conflict of interest is; 1. Most people who run for municipal politics run because they are unhappy with their status quo (Murphy didn't want the power plant to be construction in her backyard so in 2010 she ran on that platform) 2. It would be hard for her to avoid being emotionally and financially invested regardless of her position on council given the scope of this project in Muskoka. 3. It wasn't just hard for Ms. Murphy not to be invested as her fellow councillors voted in favour of court appeal after court appeal.
It's curious to me however, that we can question Murphy's interest in stopping the construction of the plant but overlooking the fact that at some point during this saga in 2013 Oakville's Mayor Rob Burton publicly told the Toronto Star in an interview that "he offered to invest in the project and work out a solution that would result in a safe and aesthetically acceptable power station." Burton sat on the board of Oakville Hydro at that time.
“I’ve told her: We could buy it, and we could put in the mitigations and that would be your sort of half a loaf. Then I discovered she wasn’t interested in mitigations either,” Burton said.
No, Murphy wasn't interested in a deal, or money which was clearly being offered by another elected official through interesting channels. She wanted a full stoppage of the contract; more or less in the same fashion Oaville stopped gas plants in the municipality's backyard a few years prior. Tell me doesn't that make you stop and think of just how many times had that deal been offered after Murphy declined.
The greenback once again rose to the occasion of this conversation. Arguably, acknowledging that Murphy and her supporters could have appealed, and did, and as a result spent hundreds of thousands of Muskoka Lakes tax payer dollars on Bala's fight, doesn't mean that they should have. And you could accuse Murphy of having self-interest in attempting to stop the Bala Falls Hydro plant but that doesn't mean that you should. You could also explore Rob Burton's quote "We could buy it" and assume he's trying to help out a colleague, but that doesn't mean that you should either.
Maybe there are just some things which are not meant to be bought. Not because of how they influence someone's property value, not because of how much money could be made on it. Some things and places should not be bought or developed for the pure sentimental curation and preservation of historic value and beauty. It's true that some things are simply priceless.
The aggressive nature of provincial ministry after ministry pushing and approving the permits for this project indicates that the government had zero intention of listening to the residents and focused on energy contracts worth billions. Most importantly it demonstrates the troubling dismissal of the views and opinions of municipal government colleagues who are also residents of the area in question. We are not talking about foreign governments trying to make a deal work. We are talking about two levels of government within the same country who are elected and mobilized to work for the people on behalf of the people. In the Bala Falls case these two public entities were fighting each other instead and as a result spending the same public funds they claim they are forever protecting from mismanagement. It's hard to really wrap your head around the irony of mismanaged funds and failure of the provincial government to protect the tax payers of Bala. This town could have really used the leadership of strong and powerful voice at Queen's Park during the last 15 years. It's a shame that Muskoka's member of provincial parliament did not relentlessly advocate for a portion of the riding's tax payers which he represented through those years of battles.
I personally began covering this story for the local print paper circa the Don Furniss mayoral days. I had to learn fast, get to know many characters and received many history lessons from Muskoka Lakes councillors, residents, activists and local historians on the Bala Falls hydro plant telenovela. I feel fortunate to have talked to many people on both sides of this issue as they have given me perspective on the complex social and economic impact of this development. People often say to me "let me give you my angle on the issue" trust me when I say chances are that I have already heard it. I recall driving up to report on my first Bala Falls Stop the Hydro Plan event at which now Premier Doug Ford promised to stop this "scam" as a Conservative leadership candidate hopeful and it became more than evident to me that this was a hot topic when councillors and residents thanked me for the coverage. While Ford possibly called out what the construction of green hydro plants contracts actually was visualized as by the Ontario Liberals, Ford also after being elected to the highest office in Ontario and following his order to cancel hundreds of other green energy projects didn't pull the plug on Bala. The explanation given was that cancellation of this contract would cost tax payers more money, ironically enough a smaller version repeat of the Oakville gas plants. The Ford Conservative government freshly from a Tory landslide election win could not appear in a Liberal limelight. Therefore regardless of the fact that Ford owns property in Muskoka and understands the beauty of the landscape and the rich, pioneer rooted history of the stewards of this region, once again the greenback and party lines won this fight to the heartbreak of many in Bala.
The glaring fact is that the fight for this tiny piece of land has lasted well over a decade, cost thousands upon thousand of dollars which could have been donated to the local food banks instead, was opposed by the Wahta Mohawks who have insisted that the site is a historical portage for the First Nations people. This sparked a he said, she said between government ministries and the Wahta council about the timeline or complete lack of consultations depending on who you talk to. This project had incredible community fight and resistance, so much pleading and begging and yet the government persisted. I was under the assumption the government was for the people. This was not a massive scale project, this could have been cancelled. The current Mayor of Muskoka Lakes Phil Harding was hoping the Ford government would scrap the project along with the other green contracts after taking office in 2018. Harding was once asked if the project was to be cancelled at such a late stage what would the township propose about the large hole in the ground. Harding said the hole would have been better than the hydro plant itself.
The hole would have been better simply because nature regenerates and as we know man can assist the process. Because that would have been a better outcome than the sad looking brick bunker style building I drove by yesterday on what is arguably Bala's main drag and was a landscape feature. The falls use to be inviting, it is now a rather frightening area dotted with yellow danger warning signs. This project has sadly taken away the historical value of Bala but it has also stripped this cottage town of its main attraction and landscape. This was an incredibly sad process to study and have experienced first hand. The disappointment and realization that the greenback trumps the governments mandate of being here for the benefit of the people is also profound. It's a sad defeat which should highlight the importance of demanding complete government transparency in our current Covid-19 times and beyond.
It's interesting the Machiavellian approach taken by the Ontario government of the 'end justifies the means' manoeuvring. I personally prefer Machiavelli's status quo quote much better. Look it up as I preferred that solution to this problem.