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Sarah and Isabelle Harmer

Right now, the Nelson quarry file is one of the most important public proceedings in Canada. Isabelle and Sarah Harmer and their group Protecting Escarpment Rural Land are part of a hearing that could protect the Niagara Escarpment. Read on to learn the truth of such public hearings: They are only won with the support of friends – friends who help bear the financial burden of a professional hearing, friends who donate their time and energy to attend the hearing or spread the word.


Isabelle Harmer just may be the nicest woman in the world.

She is kind and warm, the type of person who makes you feel cared for when you’ve only just met her. Isabelle has seen a lot in her eighty-ish years. She’s sharp, a quick and accurate judge of character. In the last decade alone, this trailblazer has helped to found or promote an impressive list of volunteer programs to protect her community*.

Sarah, her daughter, is a rival for the title of world’s nicest woman. Sarah Harmer is a popular and highly-respected musician; she, like her mother, is a committed environmental advocate. Sarah has created songs about the Harmers’ backyard: the Niagara Escarpment. She has back-packed its trails, performed for crowds in out-of-the-way halls, and spread word of the Escarpment on cross-Canada tours.

“It’s hard to say exactly when I became involved in the Niagara Escarpment, and in PERL. About 20 or 30 years ago, this society in Ontario decided that the Niagara Escarpment was an ancient and vital ecosystem. Because it’s difficult terrain — it’s difficult and steep — historically it was difficult to develop. Now, some of the remaining old-growth forest is still there, along with hundreds of creeks and tributaries,” says Sarah.

The Harmer farm

The Harmer family property lays atop the Niagara Escarpment. It’s a 100-acre farm full of hay and trees, close to wetlands that nurture the threatened Jefferson Salamander.

The Harmer family farm also sits close to a large quarry operated by Nelson Aggregate. Nelson’s quarry is nearly sixty years old, has helped build much of the Greater Toronto Area, and the company is about to run out of rock. It is hoping the Province of Ontario will issue it a new license to blast out a new massive quarry across the road from the old one.

Concerned about the impacts Nelson’s new quarry would have on precious Escarpment water and wildlife, Isabelle and Sarah teamed up to stop the project:

“A few years ago, my mother and me and some neighbours made fliers and stuffed mailboxes. Then we had a meeting at the church, and about 100 people came out,” Sarah told The Tyee in 2005.

PERL’s vision

Their group’s name, PERL, stands for Protecting Escarpment Rural Land. It has a broad vision of celebrating and protecting the Niagara Escarpment, and more committed volunteers have come aboard to help out.

Right now, PERL’s intervention on the Nelson quarry file is one of the most important public proceedings in Canada. PERL’s initial concern – protecting 200 acres of rural land from the Nelson quarry expansion – is the focus of a hearing before a combined panel of Ontario Municipal Board and Environmental Review Tribunal members that promises to stretch on for many, many months.

A hearing of this length is an incredible commitment. Any individual or organization participating in a hearing is represented by counsel, but they need to have a team in the room to fully participate. When your team is a nonprofit organization, volunteers and generous consultants have to do more than their fair share of the legwork. PERL volunteers are attending the hearing virtually every day to listen to evidence, identify issues for cross-examination, and prepare for their own team’s testimony.

Local government agencies such as City of Burlington, Halton Region, Conservation Halton, and the Niagara Escarpment Commission are on PERL’s side. They are full participants in the hearing, bringing witnesses and leading cross-examination. That makes it easier for PERL, but not easy.

PERL’s challenge

PERL’s costs for expert evidence will be in the tens of thousands of dollars. (When Lake Ontario Waterkeeper was preparing for our appeal of the Lafarge Alternative Fuels file, our expenses reached about $200,000 before the appeal even began.)

To raise funds, PERL needs public support. The group has an individual giving program called “Adopt-a-Jeff”. Artist Stewart Jones has made 100 prints available for $250, with proceeds to PERL. Lake Ontario Waterkeeper is directing every text-to-give donation we receive between now and February 6th to help pay for evidence on water issues (Text “Drink” to 45678).

No hearing outcome is ever guaranteed. You never know what the final decision will be. The value of a hearing is the decision of the independent adjudicators, the people who hear all the evidence and weigh it fairly. Public intervenors (like PERL) are there to assist those decision-makers, to ensure that they are given all the evidence, the best evidence, and the community context to make a wise and informed decision.

The truth is, hearings are won by friends: friends who help bear the financial burden of a professional hearing, friends who donate their time and energy to attend the hearing or spread the word. You cannot win a fair legal hearing because of your friends, but without them you will always lose.

Both Isabelle and Sarah have put their heart and soul into protecting Mount Nemo. They have dedicated money, proceeds from album sales, time, energy, care and thought to their cause … all in the name of water and plants and the squishy-looking Jefferson Salamander.

If they win, future families who stomp around in Mount Nemo’s wetlands, poke at frog eggs, and breathe the quiet plateau air can thank Isabelle and Sarah and all those who are the first ones to say “yes” when the world needs their help.

That future is possible. PERL has science on its side. It has local government on its side. It has Canada’s ecological and cultural heritage on its side. All that PERL and Isabelle and Sarah need now is plenty of friends, friends who will come to the aid of two of the nicest people in the world.

More information

Lake Ontario Waterkeeper live-blogs weekly from the Nelson hearing. PERL’s Facebook Page carries regular updates as well. Please visit our pages to follow the hearing and share your comments.

(* Isabelle Harmer’s other projects include Citizens Opposed to Paving the Escarpment, Coalition of the Niagara Escarpment, Canadian Federation of University Women of Burlington, and SHARE Agriculture Foundation.)

When Sarah Harmer chose to record her last album, All of Our Names, in her own home near Kingston, Ontario, it wasn’t because the commercial recording studio was all booked up.

Harmer admits she tends to “write songs and bits of songs at home and about home.” The wood stove crackles in one of the songs on the album, and she says “both the sounds and the sentiments of her house seeped in.”

Harmer grew up in rural Ontario, and doesn’t think much of recent developments in the Niagara Escarpment, to name one of her environmental concerns. No naïve granola, Harmer has spearheaded an “I Love the Escarpment Tour” and a group called PERL.

But even though she says she finds the natural environment endlessly fascinating, she avows she never sets out to have this theme or any other theme in her songs. “It’s just what ends up. I start with something special or interesting, and it’s kind of random what ends up on paper. So much is about what’s in someone’s life. The little moments.”

Harmer spoke to The Tyee by phone. “I love Vancouver,” she says of her pending performances at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival. “And it’s at Jericho, which I have great memories of – I had an all-night bonfire there several years ago.” She’ll also be heading to Salt Spring Island and Tofino for concerts and for a little recreation after that.

Below, excerpted from our conversation, are her quotes.

On her origins – the church and the botanists

“I grew up on a farm just outside of Burlington, Ontario. It’s where my parents still live.

“I also grew up singing in the church choir. That’s where I learned to sing and harmonize. When I was eight and belting out classics like ‘Will Your Anchor Hold,’ I didn’t feel all that spiritual about them then. And I don’t practice any organized religion now, but I do think that’s filtered in somehow.

“Then there’s the fact that, genetically, my mom was a schoolteacher and she had six kids. She had aspirations to be a minister.

“I do think that music is part of the service industry. And spirituality is about being in service to other people and the natural world. I think it’s apparent that I’ve become more spiritual in the last five or 10 years, but mostly it’s just that I’ve grown up a little bit. And I’ve spent a lot of time outside.

“Which reminds me of something my friend told me: that nature and imagination are two of the world’s oldest friends. They do go hand in hand.

“Lately, I’ve been hanging out with a lot of biologists and botanists to do some environmental monitoring, mostly behind my parent’s land. And I’ve had some interesting conversations about reverence and some about straight-up science. But I really can’t separate the two. So many things are fascinating in the natural world that there’s a kind of inherent respect.”

On PERL-ly thoughts

“It’s hard to say exactly when I became involved in the Niagara Escarpment, and in PERL About 20 or 30 years ago, this society in Ontario decided that the Niagara Escarpment was an ancient and vital ecosystem. Because it’s difficult terrain — it’s difficult and steep — historically it was difficult to develop. Now, some of the remaining old-growth forest is still there, along with hundreds of creeks and tributaries. And the corridor is protected. But there’s one loophole – for the aggregate industry. They’re still allowed to operate.

“But if you have to prioritize between where to get gravel and where to protect species at risk, it’s an obvious priority. So PERL came into being just to protect 200 acres of grasslands.

“It’s got just about every button you could possibly push. We need to protect agricultural soil, habitat, old growth forest. Everything we’re talking about worldwide is going on here.

“A few years ago, my mother and me and some neighbours made fliers and stuffed mailboxes. Then we had a meeting at the church, and about 100 people came out.”

On singin’ the ‘Escarpment Blues’

“I guess I wrote ‘Escarpment Blues’ to tell the story. I just started kind of singing it in my backyard. I started it then I thought ‘Oh, I guess that’s a song,’ then I kind of put it away. For me, usually the melody is a given. It just happens. It’s just there. It’s subconscious. I usually have to labour over the words.

“A few weeks later, I finished it, and recorded it. My record label generously manufactured it and gave all the profits to PERL. It’s been awesome to put music to work.

“The Escarpment Tour wrapped up in June, but Andy Keen got the whole thing on video, so he’s going to make it into a documentary. He shot our shows and the hiking and rock climbing. So he’s cutting it. And I’m also going into the studio with an acoustic band to capture what we were doing on this tour and record an album Ideally, we’ll have a simultaneous release. So we’ll keep doing it.”

Sarah Harmer is playing at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival on Saturday, July 15th at 5:30pm on stage four.

Vanessa Richmond is the culture editor for The Tyee.

Stewart Jones

Mount Nemo
Printed on Archival Bamboo paper
20″ x 20″

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