Like the crusty mud on the bottom of his work boots, Frank Meyers is a man who sticks to his word. He vowed, again and again, to never sell his beloved farm to the federal government. When Ottawa threatened him with expropriation, he dug in those dirty heels, warning the bureaucrats he wouldn’t budge. Even after the feds took possession of his property—slated to be part of a sprawling new headquarters for Joint Task Force 2, the Canadian military’s elite Special Forces unit—the 85-year-old refused to surrender. “What are they going to do, send a task force in to take me out?” he once asked. “I’m not going anywhere.”
But after battling the state for seven long years—doing everything he possibly could to save his family land, a slice of Canadian heritage in Quinte West,Ont.—Frank Meyers has finally given up his unwinnable fight. Exhausted and out of options, he has reluctantly signed a deal with the Harper government that gives him just one more month to harvest his last crop and remove what’s left of his equipment. On New Year’s Eve, the gate around his former field will be locked up for good, his prime soil now the property of National Defence.
In the end, Meyers agreed to go quietly. No last-minute standoff. No task force hauling him away. “I just got to the point where I broke down,” he says, holding back tears. “I’m talking to you now and I’m shivering. But they don’t care. Nobody cares.”
For years, it certainly seemed that way. Although Maclean’s readers are well aware of Meyers’s plight, his story generated little sympathy; in April 2012, when his family pleaded their case at a public hearing, barely a dozen people showed up to watch. But in recent weeks, he has enjoyed a sudden surge of support from strangers across the country, driven by a Facebook campaign that has amassed nearly 12,000 members and triggered numerous protests, including a small rally on Parliament Hill last weekend. Meyers himself embraced the eleventh-hour attention, hoping his newfound allies could somehow convince the government that it didn’t need his 90 hectares to complete the planned expansion of Canadian Forces Base Trenton. “They’ll never know how much I appreciate what they’re doing,” he said in October, when asked about the Facebook page. “I could never repay them.”
But last week, as his online supporters continued skyrocket, Meyers and his children drove to Toronto for a meeting with federal officials from the Department of Public Works. The government’s message could not have been clearer, says John Meyers, Frank’s son. “They said, emphatically, there is just no way we’re going to get the property back,” he says. “Everything our lawyers had said all along was starting to come true: ‘It’s going to drag out, eventually you’ll get tired of it, and the more you fight the harder the government is going to fight back.’”
“They threatened me, that’s what it was,” Frank adds. “They told us if I didn’t take the money they wanted to give me they would go to court and I wouldn’t get half of what they offered me. That’s what they said.”
The result, Frank says, was an impossible choice: Refuse the government’s offer and risk financial disaster. Or take the offer, assuring something close to fair market value for the land. Either way, the government takes the property. “I’m thankful for all the people that supported me, but it just got to the point where I can’t control it,” Frank says. “I’ll be in the hospital, or I’ll be in the ground.”
As a son, John was equally torn. At his dad’s side during the entire ordeal, he was encouraged by the unexpected outpouring from fellow Canadians and was prepared to keep fighting. But he also saw the stress taking its toll on his aging father and mother, Marjorie. “It’s too difficult for them,” John says. “My dad has lost a lot of weight over the past few months and my mom was in the hospital a couple weeks ago because of the stress. You have to weigh your options: what it’s going to take, what the outcomes could be, and if it’s worth it.”
Though heartbreaking for the Meyers, the answer was clear: it wasn’t worth it. “They were harassing me every day here,” Meyers says. “This has been going on for seven years. I couldn’t take it anymore. You can’t talk to them because they won’t listen to you. It’s: ‘We’re going to get rid of you and that’s it.’ ”
Signed on Nov. 28, the specifics of the deal, including the sale price, are protected by a confidentiality agreement. But for the Meyers clan, their standoff with the feds was never about the dollars and cents; they just wanted the government to leave them be. “It was very difficult, actually signing it away and saying this is the end,” John says. “It is really difficult knowing that everything we’ve worked for our whole lives, and generations before us, is now gone.”
John says it was especially devastating for his father, knowing so many people had rallied around him over the past two months. “That’s one of the things he was worried about: ‘What were people going to think? How are they going to react?’ ” John says. “It was great to see all the support, very encouraging. I hope issues like this get Canadians angry and get them to stand up for their rights because that is what it’s all about.”
The direct descendant of Capt. John Walden Meyers—a loyalist war hero and founder of nearby Belleville, Ont.—Meyers farmed a portion of the same plot of land bestowed on the captain by King George III for his exemplary service during the American Revolution. (Ironically enough, Capt. Meyers was the 18th-century version of a special-forces commando, a crack spy and daring soldier most famous for leading a late-night raid on the home of U.S. general. To patriot children, he was the bogeyman. If you don’t behave, their mothers would say, Capt. Meyers “will come and eat you.”) Signed in May 1798, nearly 70 years before Canadian Confederation, the Crown land patent assigned the property to the Meyers clan “forever.”
Frank has never lived anywhere else, working the family land since he was able to walk. By 14, he was in charge of the entire farm, part dairy operation, part cash crops.
In 2006, a campaigning Stephen Harper promised to bring an airborne unit to neighbouring CFB Trenton, Canada’s largest and busiest air force base (and the same hub that welcomed home the flag-draped caskets of every Canadian soldier killed in Afghanistan). Two years later, the news was official: JTF 2 would be the incoming unit. From a strategic standpoint, the move makes absolute sense; the anti-terrorism team’s current home at Dwyer Hill, near Ottawa, is famously cramped, and Trenton offers instant access to airlift for rapid deployments. But JTF 2’s new headquarters—slated to be built on 400 hectares of private property directly north of the base—meant that 12 landowners would be uprooted, whether they wanted to leave or not.
Legally speaking, the owners had no real choice. If the state wants your land (for a highway, a hospital or a top-secret training facility), you can either sell now or be expropriated later. For the feds, expropriation is always a last resort, and Treasury Board guidelines allow bureaucrats to offer up to 15 per cent more than fair market value, plus moving costs and other incidentals. But the bottom line is nonnegotiable: you’re leaving, one way or another.
In this case, each owner did eventually hammer out a deal—except Meyers. He honestly believed that if he kept saying no, the bureaucrats would eventually stop pestering him.
Rick Norlock, the local Conservative M.P., has championed the base expansion project because it will inject millions of dollars and hundreds of well-paying jobs into an economically depressed region. Moving JTF 2 to Trenton is also the best logistical option for the military, he says. “The vast majority of my constituents—and when I say the vast majority, I’m talking the vast majority of my constituents—want this to go ahead sooner rather than later because they know the economic implications,” Norlock told Maclean’s in September. “I can tell you I’m pushing for this to go ahead, quite frankly, because we made a commitment six years ago. I want to make sure that I can look my constituents in the eye and say we lived up to our commitment at CFB Trenton.”
In fact, Norlock said he personally approached the prime minister before the 2011 election to ask why the government appeared to be stalling on the project. Stephen Harper, Norlock said, was aware of the Meyers’s objections and wanted to give the family ample opportunity to work out a deal. “The prime minister told me his concerns that he wanted this, as much as possible, to be a negotiated settlement,” Norlock said. “He was aware of the history behind this and the sensitivity that the government should have.”
Construction was delayed by more than a year as the Harper government waited for Meyers to change his mind and willingly sell his land. But by 2012, the clock had expired. That February, he was served with a notice of expropriation, stating his farm was required “for a purpose related to the safety or security of Canada.” His family did hire a lawyer and file a last-ditch appeal in front of independent hearings officer, arguing, among other things, that the government didn’t actually need their 90 hectares to finish JTF 2’s new stomping grounds. But the hearings officer wielded no real authority. Federal officials read her report and went ahead with the expropriation anyway.
In a “statement of reasons” dated May 25, 2012, Rona Ambrose, then the Public Works minister, said the Meyers land is “absolutely essential” for national security. “The Meyers family will receive fair compensation for their ownership interests and may utilize proceeds to continue farming on available replacement lands of similar or superior quality,” she wrote. And the property’s heritage value? “It is not considered that either historic landscape or cultural history will be lost,” the document read. “The Meyers family name is also preserved with the existing name of the roadway as Meyers Creek Road and the historical associations are well known.”
Although Meyers didn’t own his land anymore, he did sign a lease agreement that allowed him to continue farming (and finish removing his property) while the final selling price was negotiated. When that lease expired Oct. 1—and the “No Trespassing” signs went up along the fence line—officials at CFB Trenton offered yet another extension: until his final crop of corn is harvested, Meyers could continue to access the property under the watchful eye of a commissionaire.
It was news coverage of that particular development that triggered intense public outcry. Lisa Gibson—a complete stranger from Morrisburg, Ont., a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the Meyers farm—was moved enough to create the “Save Frank & Marjorie Meyers Farm” Facebook page, a campaign that has monopolized her time ever since.
On Friday, Meyers told Gibson about his deal. She was upset—not at him, but at the government. “I think it all got too much for Frank to bear,” she says. “A lot of people are totally angry and sad to think that this is what our government is capable of: doing something like that to an 85-year-old man. It’s not a Canada I want to be a part of.”
Gibson isn’t sure what to do next. Although the deal is done, she holds out hope, however slim, that some sort of compromise can still be reached before the demolition crews show up in the new year. “It’s not over until it’s over, right?” she says. “Until they come in and actually bulldoze his barns and do everything they’re going to do to that land, it’s not over. The fight continues.”
A small slice of the Meyers land will not be expropriated, including the modest home where Frank and Marjorie still live. When the demolition crews do show up—and they will show up, that much is now certain—Frank will have clear view of the destruction from his front porch. At this point, he’s not sure if he’ll have the nerve to watch. “What can I do?” he says quietly. “What can I do?”
The other day, while father and son continued to empty out their barn, they stumbled across a wooden board with an engraving: “R. Meyers 1818.”
“Robert Meyers was my great-grandfather,” John says. “That was probably the date the barn was built.”
Nearly two centuries later, in early 2014, that barn will be gone, ripped down in a matter of hours.
Tuesday, December 3, 2013