In some ways, John Walden Meyers was the 18th-century equivalent of a special forces commando. A New York farmer who sided with the British during the American Revolution, he became a legendary loyalist spy, a giant of a man with fire-red hair and a gift for infiltrating enemy lines. Two centuries later, some of the stories have morphed into myth (according to one uncorroborated tale, he wore moccasins that were pointy at both ends so his footprints couldn’t be tracked), but the historians do agree on one detail: patriot children considered him the bogeyman. If you don’t behave, their mothers would say, Capt. Meyers “will come and eat you.”
The good captain is most famous for directing a late-night raid on the Albany 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 somehow survived the ensuing gun battle and led his troops back to Quebec. “He had plenty of close calls and narrow escapes over the years,” says Doug Knutson, a filmmaker who has spent two decades researching Meyers’s heroics. “He was a strong individual, but more than that, he was very innovative and resourceful.”
Meyers, of course, ended up on the losing side of the revolution, but in recognition of his exemplary service, King George III granted him hundreds of acres of waterfront farmland in what is now Quinte West, Ont., home of Canadian Forces Base Trenton. Today, what’s left of the family property (about 220 acres) belongs to Frank Meyers, an 84-year-old direct descendant who is now embroiled in a losing battle of his own.
Nearly 200 years after the death of his historic forefather—crack spy, elite soldier, loyal subject—Frank is being pushed off the family land by federal bureaucrats armed with expropriation papers. Their plan, ironically enough, is to use the farm to build a new military training ground for Canada’s top-secret special operations unit, Joint Task Force 2.
“I’m not moving,” Frank says, sitting behind the wheel of his blue GMC pickup truck. “This property didn’t come from the Canadian government, it came from the British government. So if the Queen wants it, let her come and see me.”
Meyers has been saying much the same thing since 2006, when the feds first decided that his land, and 11 other properties north of the air base, would make an ideal spot for JTF 2’s next headquarters. Back then, he was among a group of angry owners vowing to fight the project, but one by one, his neighbours have weighed their options (leave now or be forced out later) and decided to sell. At last count, Ottawa had purchased nine of the 12 properties, spending close to $7 million.
And then, a few weeks ago, after so many years of dead-end negotiations, the feds took a drastic but inevitable step, filing expropriation notices against the final three holdouts. According to the paperwork, the land is “required” by the state “for a purpose related to the safety or security of Canada.”
Meyers, though, isn’t surrendering just yet. In a last-ditch attempt to keep their acreage, the family has hired a Toronto law firm and filed a formal objection. The next step will be a public hearing in front of an independent body, likely in the next 60 days. “The Meyerses want to review whether the federal government can meet its objectives without taking their land,” says Paul Scargall, one of their lawyers. “That is the key issue.”
One thing is already certain: the Meyers family will be fighting alone. Neither of the other owners filed an objection; one is close to reaching a settlement, and the other has decided to let the expropriation process run its course. “It’s stress on me,” Meyers says. “Does the government care? They don’t care.”
Ottawa is under no legal obligation to pay a penny more than fair market value. But because the feds always prefer to negotiate a settlement rather than dictate one, Treasury Board guidelines do provide the leeway to offer up to 15 per cent above the appraised amount, as well as out-of-pocket expenses such as moving costs, legal fees and cable installation. “The theoretical goal of expropriation legislation is to place the owner in as good a position as they were in prior to the imposition,” Scargall says. “But it’s difficult to do that with the blunt tool of money. There is nothing in ‘fair market value’ for the emotional attachment to a property.”
Federal real estate deals are handled by the Department of Public Works. When asked if the ministry sympathizes with Frank Meyers, a spokesman said expropriation was a necessary “last resort” after “repeated and ongoing attempts to negotiate with the landowner have been unsuccessful.” The department also pointed out that the family will be allowed to keep both the house and a small portion of land. (National Defence was unable to answer any questions before press time.)
As for the city of Quinte West, its position could not be more clear. The arrival of JTF 2 will be an economic windfall for the community, creating millions of dollars’ worth of construction jobs and bringing hundreds of new homeowners to the region. City council even went so far as to pass a unanimous motion supporting the expropriation of their fellow residents. Evicting a few, in other words, is good for the many. “I just let it go in one ear and out the other,” says Meyers, who, despite his age and a bad left leg, still works his land. “I’m still going, still driving tractors, still driving the truck. When you don’t do anything, that’s when you don’t last long.”
Meyers’s son shares the name of their celebrated relative and, like his father, grew up on this plot of prime farmland. Although he also operates a glass installation company, John Meyers continues to help his dad run the original family business. They grow corn, soybeans and other cash crops. “The odds might be slim that we can win this, but we feel that we have a pretty good case,” John says, dressed in dirty blue jeans and a red cap that says CANADA. “I don’t have any problem speaking out as long as I’m fighting for what’s right and what I believe in.”
Despite the city’s official stance, many locals are rooting for Meyers—including Phil Jordan, one of the owners who reluctantly sold last year. “Sometimes you just have to cut and run, unfortunately,” he says. “It’s not what I wanted to do, but I was worn out after five years and couldn’t take it anymore.”
Frank Ashmore can also relate to his neighbour’s plight. A contractor by trade, he is one of the other two remaining owners (the one on the brink of selling). In yet another ironic twist to this whole saga, the Ashmores only moved to Quinte West because they were forced out of their previous home in Clarington, Ont., to make room for a hockey arena.
Ashmore insists he isn’t bitter about his incredibly bad luck. The feds have treated him fairly, he says, and it’s actually a relief to finally know what’s happening. But he feels sorry for Frank Meyers. “I know his priorities,” Ashmore says. “He could win a super lotto and he wouldn’t change at all. It’s a personal thing with him because of the history of the land. I understand fully.”
JTF 2—a 600-member counterterrorism squad 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, CFB Trenton is the obvious alternative because it provides five times the space and rapid access to airlift. Somehow, Meyers’s lawyers must convince the hearings officer that the army doesn’t actually need their portion of the land in order to build the new headquarters.
But here’s the biggest twist of all: no matter what the officer concludes, the government can expropriate the land anyway. The decision is not binding.
Frank Meyers doesn’t even want to ponder that possibility. “What are they going to do, send a task force in to take me out?” he asks. “I’m not going yet.”
Somewhere, Capt. Meyers is smiling. “This is a situation that he would have fought too,” says Knutson, the filmmaker. “If he saw injustice, he stood up.”