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Peggy Peterson is an activist and an environmentalist but she somewhat cringes at those labels saying, “I may be all of those things but I believe that whenever we try to put words to what we are it leads to division.” She smiles, “So people can think of me like that but it really isn’t how I think of myself.”
Peterson had a ‘regular’ life at one time. She was the District Manager for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) for a number of years. She has two grown children and wryly acknowledges that “It’s not easy having an outspoken activist mother.” She’s a homeowner and small business owner although she has come close to losing her home a few times. Activism and advocacy don’t pay and there is a cost to caring as deeply as she does.
People may have been first introduced to Peggy when she tried to educate local people and governments on the proper way of planting and mulching trees. As a professional organic gardener and garden educator it pained Peggy to see the health of our municipal tree inventory deteriorating. Now Peggy is a Market Gardener growing an acre of organic food for the local market.
As much as many people agreed with her it doesn’t seem as though much has changed in regard to planting of trees by the municipality. Peterson tends to be philosophical about it, considering that it is her role to inform but whether or not people listen is up to them. While she feels a bit like a voice crying in the wilderness, Peggy philosophizes, “I work at letting go of an attachment to any outcome. I have no ability to control that.”
Most recently Peggy gained wide-spread media attention by spending 11 months camped out at the traditional Wahta Mohawk portage route in protest against the North Bala Falls Small Power Project proposed by Swift River Energy – a contentious project that has dragged on for 11 years. Some estimates suggest that 85 per cent of people who may be affected by the project object to it while its supporters claim that it is only a vocal minority that do so. It is a complex issue that can be followed at savethebalafalls.com.
It’s hard to know what galvanizes someone into action but Peggy Peterson can’t remember a time when she wasn’t aware of nature and the environment and the desire to preserve it. She says, “I had a perfect childhood. I grew up the youngest of seven kids, on a successful farm in southwestern Ontario. My father, Russ McCammon, was involved with Walter Bick (of Bick’s pickle fame) and our farm grew dill for both Bick’s and Strub’s.” She laughs, “The farm was also a grading station for cucumbers and I can remember hollowing them out to make little boats.” She says, “We always grew our food and we always had flower gardens. My parents had a respect for nature and for people and I never knew any other way of being.”
She had a lot of freedom to be out of doors given that her parents were very busy with their large family and the farm. “If my parents couldn’t find me they’d go looking in the cedar hedges around the farmhouse. I spent hours in those trees.”
Early on, Peggy was introduced to Muskoka. She explains, “My parents were skiers so they took the family to Limberlost Lodge on winter weekends. In the summer we had a cottage at Oxbow Lake.” When Peggy was eight years old her parents announced that they were selling the farm and moving to Huntsville. It was a big change to go from pear orchards and farm fields to an in-town subdivision. Peggy laughs at an old recollection: “My mom asked me to go for milk as it was only two blocks away but I didn’t know what a ‘block’ was!”
Peggy lost her father when she was a teenager and clearly remembers many of the wise things he told her. She says, “I was only about six years old and I remember dad telling me that one day there would be a war over water.” Peggy’s mother, Jean Hobson, remarried and moved away and after 30 years was widowed a second time. At the respective ages of 87 and 91 she and an old friend named Ralph Jones were reacquainted and returned to Huntsville where they lived together at Grandview, until Ralph’s death. Jean recently moved into Traditions Muskoka and Peggy loves visiting her there and reconnecting with some old neighbours from her childhood.
Every second Saturday morning, Peggy meets with a group of friends who all attended Huntsville High School. She says, “It’s a pretty casual affair of people showing up if they are able but we’ve been doing it for years and it’s important to me.”
It is connections like these that allow Peggy not to lose hope. On a larger scale her participation in a faith-based climate and environmental justice summit for youth in Ottawa “restored her faith in humanity” according to Peterson.
Aware that she isn’t everyone’s ‘cup of tea’ Peterson knows that she needs to let go of expectations.
I can somewhat ignore the two opposite ends if the spectrum – those who aren’t interested in anything I say and those who care as I do. If I’m kind and understanding, maybe I can help the big, middle, undecided group to take a baby step out of their comfort zone into action for the planet and its people.
She truly believes Maya Angelou who said, “when people know better they do better.”
While the Bala Falls energy project seems to be getting closer to being a done deal, Peterson holds on to hope. In part she wishes for a stop to the project in homage to Rob Stewart, a friend and documentary filmmaker who died in a diving accident shortly after finishing a nine-minute short documentary called The Fight for Bala. In a subsequent interview he said, “It’s not a done deal. But it will be if we don’t act fast.” He considered the fight for Bala Falls to have much wider ramifications than it appears on the surface and so does Peterson.
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