A farmer's final stand

Frank Meyers and his family beg the federal government not to build a Special Forces training ground on their historic land

Photograph by Andrew Tolson

For six years now, Frank Meyers has been doing his best to ignore the elephant on his farm. Ask him about it—the fact that the federal government wants to kick him off his beloved land in order to build a new headquarters for the military’s elite special forces squad—and the 84-year-old brushes it all aside, like the dirt on his pants. Meyers, a dairy farmer for seven decades, is dealing with his bad luck the only way he knows how: with pride, toughness and a bit of humour. “What are they going to do?” he asks. “Bring a task force in to take me out? They might have to.”

But on Thursday, during a public hearing that will finally decide the fate of his historic property, not even Meyers could stop himself from tearing up. As one of his daughters read an emotional statement for the record, he sat two chairs over, quietly wiping his eyes. “By the time my father was 14, his fulltime job was maintaining this farm,” said Elaine Meyers Steiginga, speaking into a microphone. “I cannot begin to imagine what he is feeling right now, thinking about his lifelong hard labour that he put into this farm, only for it to be gone with just a signature. This wouldn’t just be the end of our family farm. It would be the end of a family legacy.”

For Maclean’s readers, the Meyers legacy has become a familiar one. The direct descendant of a loyalist war hero, Frank Meyers farms the very same plot of land that King George III bestowed on his famous forefather as gratitude for his legendary service during the American Revolution. Now, more than two centuries later, the Canadian government wants it back—ironically enough, to build a new headquarters for Joint Task Force 2, the army’s top-secret commando unit. Since 2007, the public works department has been buying up hundreds of acres directly north of CFB Trenton, the country’s largest and busiest air force base. But Meyers insisted, over and over, that he would never part with his portion, approximately 220 acres. In February, the inevitable happened: Ottawa filed a notice of expropriation.

Legally speaking, Meyers has no real recourse. If the government needs a piece of property—for a highway, for a hospital, for special forces troops—the owner is left with only two options: sell now, or be kicked off later. In this case, the notice of expropriation simply states that the Meyers farm is required “for a purpose related to the safety or security of Canada.” The law does allow a landowner to file an “objection” at a public forum, a Hail Mary attempt to convince the government to change its mind. But essentially, the process works like this: Ottawa hires an independent hearings officer to listen to the objection and file a report. Bureaucrats read the report. Then the government does whatever it wants.

Against such stacked odds, most owners would give up. But surrender has never been part of the Meyers bloodline. Frank’s acclaimed ancestor, Capt. John Walden Meyers, was a renowned British spy; a ghost-like figure who was so elusive that patriot children considered him the bogeyman. If you don’t behave, their mothers would say, Capt. Meyers “will come and eat you.” He is most famous for directing a late-night raid on the New York mansion of Philip Schuyler, one of the Continental Army’s highest-ranking officers. Although the mission—to snatch the general—was doomed to fail, Meyers survived the ensuing gun battle and led his troops back to Quebec. As one biographer wrote, he “was noted for courage and daring rather than brutality and ferocity.”

After the war, Capt. Meyers did much more than farm his newly acquired property. He expanded his operations east to what is now Belleville, opening a grist mill, trading furs, running merchant vessels and building a saw mill. Today, Meyers is celebrated as the city’s official founder, his exploits engraved on a town plaque: “Meyers was one of many loyalists whose defeat in war led to the beginnings of permanent settlement in what is now Ontario.”

Nearly 200 years after his death, his descendants gathered inside the basement conference room of a local Holiday Inn, hoping to salvage what’s left of the captain’s original farm. “It saddens me to think that a peace-loving country such as ours feels the need to take what isn’t rightfully theirs from a veteran of the past,” Elaine said, continuing to read from her prepared remarks. “I want to see my boys on this farm, helping their grandpa and uncle the same as my dad did long ago—to touch history with their very own hands by working the same soil their sixth great grandfather did.”

Frank’s son, who shares the captain’s name, has worked alongside his father, milking cows and planting cash crops, since he was 13. “It is not a job but a way of life,” John Meyers said, reading from his own prepared statement. “Farmers are not taught in school. They do not come from the city. Farmers come from farm families. Expropriating this property will end the farm in this family. The heritage and pride that comes from running this farm will fade away.”

“As you have already heard,” John continued, “my forefathers fought for this country and helped make it what it is today: a country of compromise, commitment and understanding. Canada is about rights and freedoms—the right to own property and the freedom to enjoy it to the fullest. It is not about taking those rights and freedoms away.”

JTF 2—a covert counterterrorism unit often compared to America’s Delta Force—is currently based at Dwyer Hill, on the outskirts of Ottawa. The facility is barely 200 acres, and as one general told a Senate committee in 2005, the site is “bursting at the seams.” In the military’s eyes, the 990 acres adjacent to CFB Trenton is the best alternative because it provides five times the space and instant access to airlift capabilities. Local politicians, including Conservative MP Rick Norlock, could not be happier. The planned expansion will generate millions of dollars worth of construction jobs and bring hundreds of new homeowners to the region.

But Paul Scargall, one of two Toronto lawyers representing the family, told the hearing that the government doesn’t actually need the Meyers land to construct JTF-2’s new home. The 700-plus acres purchased already should be plenty of space, he suggested. “These lands are simply not required for the safety or security of Canada,” he said. “In the absence of a transparent demonstration of an actual need for the land, rather than for extraneous uses, the expropriation of the Meyers lands will be remembered as an affront to the historical significance of one of Canada’s oldest farms.”

When it was Frank’s turn to speak, he was typically brief. “They don’t make any more farmland,” he said, dressed in blue work pants and brown boots, his wife Marjorie at his side. “The federal government has hundreds of acres within 24 kms that is no good for farmland. I don’t see why they cannot use that land.” Behind him, more than a dozen locals listened to him speak. Some shook their head in agreement.
Doug Knutson, a Belleville filmmaker who has spent the past 20 years working on a documentary about Capt. Meyers, also stepped up to the microphone. “I don’t know how much bearing, if any, that historical significance will play in this decision,” he said. “However, I do feel that this land, as a working and viable farm being tended by the same family for over 225 years, can be seen as a living link to a very important figure in our history. It has the same significance as any monument or historical site. We are a young country yet we don’t seem to treasure our historical legacy, and I worry about that.”

The proceedings were over in less than an hour. The hearings officer, Susan Rogers, has until the end of next week to submit her synopsis to the public works department. “I do not make any recommendations,” she told the crowd, reiterating her role. “I just report what was said. But I’m going to assume the responsibility of reporting what you said in a manner that reflects the passion and intensity and emotion.”
Whatever the government decides, no further explanation will be required. If Public Works sticks to its plan (regardless of what the report says) it doesn’t have to say anything more than what is already mentioned in the notice of expropriation—that the land is required for a “purpose related to the safety or security of Canada.” At that point, the Meyers family will be out of options.

In the meantime, they can do little else but wait and worry. “I feel we’ve done as much as anybody could do at this point, and we’ll keep trying,” John said, after the hearing. “I just feel better that we actually got something directly—hopefully—to the minister. I just hope it isn’t all just a symbolic gesture.”

Like always, his father refuses to even contemplate the possibility that he could lose his ancestral farm. “We’ve done nothing wrong,” he said. “The whole system is rotten and corrupt.”

For the record, a Public Works spokesman says expropriation is always a “last resort” after “repeated and ongoing attempts to negotiate” a purchase price. “Public Works and Government Services Canada remains sensitive to the landowner’s concerns and will provide all landowners with fair market value for their properties, compensation for any disturbances and reasonable costs incurred,” said Sébastien Bois. He also pointed out that a small chunk of the Meyers land, including the family home, is not part of the proposed expropriation.
Which means that Frank Meyers will still be free to sit on the front porch, overlooking the land that no longer bears his family name.

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