An Ontario farmer who has fought for years to save his historic land from the Canadian military—a battle bolstered in recent months by tens of thousands of online supporters—will soon have nothing left to fight for.
Demolition workers gathered on Frank Meyers’s former property early Wednesday morning, installing a concrete barricade and delivering large metal shipping containers in preparation for a razing that his family—and many sympathetic strangers—have been dreading. Contacted by Maclean’s, a spokeswoman for the Department of National Defence (DND) confirmed that the controversial site has been “secured” for demolition, a “standard practice to ensure public safety.”
As for when the teardown will officially begin, DND won’t say. But the sudden prep work suggests the excavators will arrive at any moment, poised to rip down the old Meyers barn and numerous other sheds standing in the way of the military’s master plan: a sprawling new training facility for JTF-2, Canada’s elite Special Forces unit.
“It’s sneaky,” says Meyers, now 86, who saw the bins and barriers when he looked out his front window early Wednesday morning. “They came in the middle of the night. What would you feel like? What would you think if they had a barricade up in front of your house when you went outside in the morning?”
If the end is finally near, it took eight long years to get here.
As Maclean’s first reported, Frank Meyers was one of numerous landowners in Quinte West, Ont., being forced off their properties to accommodate the planned expansion of CFB Trenton, the country’s largest and busiest air force base. But while most neighbours eventually reached a deal with the federal government, Meyers vowed to never sell his beloved farm, no matter how much money Ottawa offered to pay. As he famously proclaimed (more than once): “What are they going to do, send a task force in to take me out?”
Meyers’s tough stance didn’t garner much local sympathy. Political leaders, including Quinte West Mayor John Williams and Conservative MP Rick Norlock, championed the arrival of JTF-2 because the base expansion will inject millions of federal dollars and hundreds of well-paying jobs into an economically depressed region. Moving Canada’s elite commandos to Trenton will also be a major tactical upgrade, providing the troops with instant access to airlift for rapid deployments. “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 last year. “The good of the many, in this particular case, outweighs the good of the few.”
But the Meyers land is more than just a dairy farm. It’s a slice of Ontario heritage.
The direct descendant of Capt. John Walden Meyers—a loyalist war hero and founder of nearby Belleville—Frank farmed a portion of the very same plot of land bestowed on his famous forefather 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 operative, a crack spy and daring soldier most renowned for leading a late-night raid on the home of a 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 1798, nearly 70 years before Canadian Confederation, the Crown land patent assigned the property to the Meyers clan “forever.”
Even Stephen Harper sympathized with Meyers’s plight, delaying construction plans for at least a year in the hopes that a fair deal could be reached. “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.” By 2012, however, the government’s patience had run out; Meyers was served with a notice of expropriation that said his land was required “for a purpose related to the safety or security of Canada.” (All levels of government have to the power to expropriate private property, in exchange for “fair market value,” if it’s required for the public projects such as highways, hospitals and hockey arenas.)
Meyers hired a lawyer and filed a last-ditch appeal with an independent hearings officer, arguing, among other things, that the government didn’t actually need his 90 hectares to finish JTF-2’s new headquarters because the other 11 properties it acquired provided plenty of space. Barely a dozen people showed up to listen to Meyers’s tearful plea, and the hearings officer wielded no real authority. Federal officials read her report and went ahead with the expropriation anyway. (The Meyers home, separated from the rest of the land by a set of train tracks, was not expropriated.)
Although he doesn’t own the property anymore, Meyers signed numerous lease agreements with the government that allowed him to continue farming the land (and emptying his barn and sheds) while both sides negotiated the final selling price. But in October—amid news that the final lease agreement had expired, and Meyers would soon be ousted—his story suddenly exploded on social media, triggering a Facebook campaign to “save” the farm that now boasts more than 57,000 supporters.
A few weeks later, Meyers actually agreed on a selling price and signed the final pieces of paperwork—but quickly backtracked, saying he was pressured to surrender and that the deal was null and void. Bolstered by his growing legion of Internet followers (and the few dozen protesters who periodically arrived at his farm, waving Canadian flags), Meyers vowed to fight on, even though he officially lost the land more than two years ago.
When the government cheques arrived in February—totaling $3.3 million, according to one published report—Meyers refused to cash them. He still does. “I don’t want the money, I want the land,” he says. “This has got nothing to do with the price. I’ve told them that from the beginning.”
Meyers has no idea when the heavy equipment will arrive, or what he’ll do when it does. “What can I do?” he asks. “What would you do? “Why not just take me out, tie my hands, and shoot me instead of harassing me for eight years? What is the difference?”