Canada's greenest communities

Canada's greenest communities



Canada's greenest communities

Okotoks, Alta.: Staying Within its Limits

At a glance
Major green efforts
• A plan to maintain an eco-friendly community, where growth matches what the environment can sustain.
• The town's water use has plummeted by about one-third and greenhouse gas emissions by almost one-fifth.
• Sewage treatment plant turns waste into compost.
• Many town buildings, including the new community centre, use solar-thermal energy.
Future goals/plans
• Hit the targets in its green plan.
• Continue to assess community support for the town's green aspirations.

Kevin Meyers and his family moved to Okotoks, Alta., from Calgary four years ago. He liked the idea of a smaller town that was only a 15-minute drive from the city. He liked the idea of fresh air. He had family living near there. But there was another compelling attraction: "The population cap of 30,000 people was definitely a selling point for us," he says.

The community is totally dependent on the nearby Sheep River for all its water needs, including drinking water and treating and disposing of effluent. "Thirty thousand people is all that the Sheep River can sustain," says Kevin. The notion of limiting the growth of a community to what the local environment can handle sounds smart, but Okotoks is one of the first municipalities in the world to have taken this green approach to growth.

"A fresh look at the future"
This forward thinking was prompted over 10 years ago when the province of Alberta downloaded responsibilities for planning onto smaller municipalities. The residents of Okotoks decided to take a fresh look at their future. "As a town we asked ourselves, 'What do we want to be when we grow up?' and this was the vision," recalls Rick Quail, the town's municipal manager. "There was extensive community [discussion] with the citizens of Okotoks, and that formed the basis of our plan moving forward."

The initiative Quail is referring to is an official municipal development plan, which the town council created in 1998. It limits the town's boundary and population to what the Sheep River can sustain, which means keeping a close eye on all new development, including housing and infrastructure – from water to sewers to roads to recreation and cultural facilities.

But the plan does much more than that; with the community's approval and support, it also outlines many practical ways to keep the town green and preserve its small-town feel. For example, one goal was to reduce the use of cars within the town. The solution? Provide ways for people to work more easily within their own neighbourhoods, or work at home. So, the town, which used to be mainly made up of single-family dwellings, is slowly increasing the range of housing styles within its neighourhoods, such as multi-family homes and commercial-residential buildings.

Page 1 of 6 -- Learn how the town of Okotoks, Alberta set environmental standards and forced building companies to build thoughtfully on the land.
The green plan
The sewage plant has been upgraded to turn sludge into compost. New homes are built to environmental codes set by the town, mandating such features as low-flow plumbing fixtures. Home builders are even voluntarily implementing other water- and energy-saving initiatives. All the houses in Okotoks are on water meters, and there is a watering schedule between May and October that is tied to the climate and the water levels in the Sheep River. During drought conditions, there is an outright ban on outdoor watering.

Recycling within the town has also been ramped up. "You're allowed to have only three bags of garbage a week, unless you pay for special tags for extra bags, and there are two drop-off areas for recycling," enthuses Kevin. "We take our recycling there every week. People are always doing it."

Since the green plan was put into action, the town has conducted community surveys every three years to gauge the community's commitment as well as annual surveys with residents. "Our plan contains hard targets," adds Quail. "For example, water conservation objectives, solid waste limitations at curbside, use of pesticides, which are continually revisited and refined in consultation with the citizens." He adds that as Okotoks grows, the town wants to achieve a 20 per cent reduction in its greenhouse gas emissions. So far, it has been reduced by more than 15 per cent while the population has grown by almost 50 per cent. The town's population currently sits close to 20,000, or about 67 per cent of its population cap.

Solar power
To top it all off, in the early 2000s Natural Resources Canada invited Okotoks to be part of a program to show how solar power could be used in residential communities. The town responded with an enthusiastic yes. Last summer, the 52 new homes in the Drake Landing Solar Community were all tied into the solar-thermal system. In 2005, Drake Landing comprised the largest concentration of solar panels in Canadian history. Solar-thermal panels on the garages are designed to meet a minimum of 90 per cent of Drake Landing's space heating requirements, storing solar power during the summer in the ground for use in the winter.

Jennie Willings is a resident of Drake Landing, and she is pleased with her new home. "We love the idea and the cost advantages of heating with solar energy." It seems many others do, too – the houses were all scooped up as soon as they went on sale, and they have increased in value.

The community is moving confidently along the green route it has charted. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has called Okotoks "the greenest community in Canada, maybe the world." Resident Jeanette Rae is more modest when she describes what she thinks about her town and her neighbours: "We have a sense of pride in knowing we are all taking care of our community."

Page 2 of 6 -- Why are the Poplar River First Nations people worried about 8,000 km of pristine boreal forest? Learn what threatens the land on page 3.
Poplar River, First Nation, Man.: An inspiring ever-green community

At a glance

Major green efforts
• Produced a long-term management land plan.
• Secured short-term protection for Poplar/Nanowin Rivers Park Reserve area (777,270 hectares of intact boreal forest) until 2009.
Future goals/plans
• Permanent protection of traditional lands.
• Continue traditional practices on their land.
• Link the traditional territories of Poplar River on Lake Winnipeg, with Paungassi, Little Grand Rapids and Pikangikum First Nations in order to establish a United Nations
World Heritage Site.

The 1,200-member community of Poplar River First Nation lies 400 kilometres north of Winnipeg at the mouth of the Poplar River and in the heart of the boreal forest. These are the traditional lands of the Anishinabek people. For centuries they have lived here, hunting, fishing, trapping, gathering medicines and coexisting with the land in a sustainable manner.

The people of Poplar River have a special relationship with the land. For countless generations, the elders have been taught that it was given to them from their Creator. It nourishes and sustains people, and needs their protection. John Charles McDonald, an elder in the community, puts it this way: "The land is...  just like sacred or holy ground." The boreal, or northern forest, is important to other communities across not only Manitoba, but also Canada and all of North America. It provides vital oxygen and water resources. It absorbs and stores carbon dioxide, and reduces the effect of global warming. It is one of the largest intact ecosystems on the planet.

But, well over a decade ago, the community elders began worrying that a large and important section of the forest, nearly 8,000 square kilometres designated as Crown land, might be in jeopardy. A transmission line was set to be built through the traditional territories, and the elders warned their community that the province might allow outside developers to use the land without respecting their traditions or values. They reminded people of their responsibility to protect the land and keep it intact for future generations.

Community in favour of going green
The community responded. When hearings were held to discuss the proposal, people united in opposition. They formed a committee and made a formal application to the Manitoba government, asking for protection of their land. Sophia Rabliauskas, a 47-year-old resident who has lived in the tiny community for almost her whole life, took part in the committee. "The land cannot speak for itself," she says firmly. "We need people to speak up for the land…We believe that by protecting our environment and the boreal forest, we are contributing to the well-being of all people on this planet."

In 1999, the community gained the status of a protected "wilderness" park preserve for its territory, but it would only ban hydro, gas, logging, and mining development on the land for five years. This has been extended one more time, for another five years. But the people of Poplar River want permanent protection for their land. They have spent years creating a land management plan, recording their elders' oral histories and conducting studies of the land, including archaeological fieldwork, to show how long their people have lived there. The completed plan explains how the community will manage and care for the area in the future, and in keeping with their culture and beliefs.

The catch is the province has not agreed to this proposal, and the clock runs out on land protection in 2009. "We're continuing to negotiate with the Manitoba government," says Sophia. "We've now reached a common understanding of our respective values and beliefs. It's going in the right direction." To the people of the Poplar River First Nation, their very survival as a community depends on the land. Sophia states it baldly: "If we lose that land, we won't survive as a people. This is our traditional territory." To the rest of Canadians, who are also custodians of the one of the world's last stretches of pristine boreal forest, perhaps the stakes are just as high.

Page 3 of 6 -- Get inspired by a trio of small Ontario towns who took on one of Canada's largest landfill companies and halted the expansion of the local landfill on page 4.
Communities of Greater Napanee, Tyendinaga Township and Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, Ont.: Greener together

At a glance
Major green efforts

• Went to court to stop the expansion of Richmond landfill site.
• Helped protect groundwater in the Bay of Quinte area.
Future goals/plans
• Convince the Ministry of the Environment to close the dump once and for all.
• Increase recycling efforts in their communities.
• Greater Napanee Waste Committee scheduled to present recommendations on a long-term waste management plan in October 2008.
• Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte hope to get much-needed water and sewage treatment plants as soon as possible.

Ten years ago, residents in farming communities in the County of Lennox and Addington in eastern Ontario were concerned. Their communities – Greater Napanee, Tyendinaga Township and the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte – were sitting near the Richmond landfill, which had been accumulating waste for more than 50 years. They were worried about its effect on the local environment.

A citizens' committee was formed, which included Margaret Walsh, reeve of Tyendinaga, Chief R. Donald Maracle of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, and many other concerned community members. In 1999, the predecessor of Waste Management of Canada Corporation (WMCC), the current owner of the landfill, applied to the Ontario Ministry of the Environment for permission to undertake a 25-year, 18-million-tonne expansion of the site. There was "a solid foundation of people saying, 'We want this place closed!'" says resident Steve Geneja.

Although the landfill did not drain toward his farm, Steve says he felt a responsibility to the others in his community, as well as to Earth itself, and joined the committee in its infancy. His "I am my brother's keeper" attitude saw him step into the role of chairman. Soon afterward, the group found a lawyer from the Canadian Environmental Law Association. Community members held public meetings and demonstrations. They signed petitions and wrote letters of opposition – more than 8,000 of them between 2005 and 2006. "Our own communities had to raise the money to fight this. That was a big obstacle," adds Steve.

Winning the fight
A long-awaited victory for the three communities came in November 2006. The Ontario government rejected WMCC's environmental assessment and its application for the expansion. After many years, community members had won their fight. They celebrated with a gathering at the Mohawk Community Centre that included speeches, hugs and a potluck supper.

Alone, members of the three small communities might have felt somewhat overwhelmed, pitted against one of the country's largest landfill corporation. United together, and emboldened by their concern for the land and what might be at stake, they leaped into action to thwart the expansion.     

The corporation will continue to dispose waste at the landfill site until the approved capacity has been reached, which could be several years from now. "We feel it should be closed now...closed properly," says Margaret. She is optimistic that this will happen soon. Why? "We have our communities working on it," she says, confidently.

The town of Greater Napanee and Tyendinaga Township are increasingly committed to environmental stewardship – and dealing with waste remains a major focus. Raymond Callery, Greater Napanee's chief administrative officer, explains one of the most recent commitments to going green: "Council has created a waste committee [with] citizens and councillors working together to develop a long-term waste management plan. As part of this process, the committee will oversee the third waste audit completed over the past five to six years."

Page 4 of 6 -- See why P.E.I. can boast the title "Canada's Green Island," on page 5.
P.E.I.: Canada's green isle

At a glance
Major green efforts

• Recent construction and use of provincially owned wind farms.
• First place in North America to offer a guaranteed price for electricity from wind energy.
• About 18 per cent of electricity comes from renewable wind energy.
• Recycling and composting are mandated.
• Almost all residents have access to at least one recycling program.
• Multiple small-scale community green initiatives, such as the Enviro Church Conservation Project and increased organic farming.
Future goals/plans
• Become a major exporter of wind power by 2015.
• Develop an updated energy strategy, involving the public, that will include reducing dependence on imported petroleum products.
• Finish building Canada's first wind-hydrogen village to demonstrate how wind energy and hydrogen technologies offer clean and sustainable energy.

Canada's tiniest province is an island, and its total population is about 136,000 – smaller than many cities in this country. Call it a community? Absolutely. "People in small communities look out for each other, and you get a sense of that on the Island," says Sandy Nicholson, who lives in Desable, P.E.I., and built a home with her husband "off the grid" in the middle of 50 acres of woodland.

As P.E.I.'s minister of environment, energy and forestry, George Webster, points out, "Because this is an island, our province is very susceptible to environmental challenges such as climate change." Challenges, yes, but nothing the community can't handle. Islanders are not only working to green-up their fair isle, they are leading the way for other provinces.

A green province
Take renewable energy, for example. P.E.I. is the only province in Canada without substantial sources of petroleum, hydro-electricity or nuclear energy, and at one time could not produce any of its own electricity. Now the licence plates on Islanders' vehicles proudly display the claim "Canada's Green Province" along with an image of a wind turbine. In 2004, after consultation with Maritime Electric, the province legally mandated that its electric utilities acquire 15 per cent of their power from renewable sources by 2010. And to support its initiative, P.E.I. became the first place in North America to offer a guaranteed price to anyone producing electricity from wind energy, including community wind farms, farmers or small business operators – even homeowners. 

The aggressive push toward wind energy is a success. P.E.I. now produces approximately 18 per cent of its electricity from wind farms owned by the province and a private developer. And it's still picking up momentum. The private developer is currently exporting wind energy to the U.S. Northeast, and it expects to develop significantly more in the next 10 years, which could make the province a major exporter in this field. In addition, a wind-hydrogen village is being built at North Cape to demonstrate how hydrogen is split from water using wind energy, then stored for use on windless days. "It's tremendous," says Darcy Flynn, a high school teacher who lives in the community of Emyvale. "The more we can do with regards to renewable energy, the better."

Page 5 of 6 -- On page 6, learn how just about everyone in Prince Edward Island jumped on the recycling bandwagon... and what it's meant for the province.
Becoming energy efficient
Energy conservation is also a focus of many community initiatives. When Charlottetown resident David MacKay started up the Enviro Church Conservation Project, dozens of church communities across the Island jumped at the chance to have energy-saving renovations done on their buildings. Many of them were drafty, had high ceilings and were difficult to heat efficiently. David provided the churches with plans to reduce energy and water usage and waste, and the majority of church communities happily put them into action. The results? Up to a 25 per cent reduction in the use of heating oil and a subsequent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Elementary and high school students are also getting on board the green plan – literally. The City of Charlottetown launched its first ever local transit system in 2005 and through a "Go Green" program, the city partnered with school programs to encourage students to ride the bus to and from activities. Ridership climbed, and gas emissions fell. In addition, recycling is now mandatory in P.E.I. for many materials. In 2006, the province led the country in all forms of recycling with 99 per cent of residents saying they had access to, and were using, at least one recycling program. The province has also banned the disposal of organic materials in landfills or incinerators. Today nearly 100 per cent of Islanders say they compost their waste, and the amount of overall waste diverted from landfill sites is currently an outstanding 64 per cent. "As an Islander, I feel proud that we're the only province recycling pretty much almost all household wastes province-wide," Darcy enthuses.

Dealing with pesticides
Pesticide use continues to be controversial on the island because its economy is so dependent on specialized agriculture. Sandy and her husband considered this when deciding where to build their home eight years ago. "We initially thought that we would buy five to 10 acres, but the more we looked around, the more we wanted to have a bigger buffer zone away from potato fields to protect our family." She wishes P.E.I. would become an organic province.

Raymond Loo, born and bred on a 250-acre farm near Breadalbane, is doing his best to make that happen. He remembers his father beginning to farm organically about
15 years ago. Raymond has carried on the tradition, and his two sisters also own certified organic farms. "Organic farmers do not use ammonium or synthetic nitrates. It benefits the community because we’re not adding them to our water," he explains. (Nitrates are chemicals found naturally in some vegetables and oil, as well as in manure and chemical fertilizers.)

Raymond is working hard to inspire others to join him in reducing their use of pesticides. He boasts that there are now 40 organic farmers on P.E.I. Raymond is yet another community member proving that the island truly has a green spirit. Perhaps Laine Brehaut, a 22-year resident of the island, explains it best: "We are all so close to each other here. We really are connected, and we really are able to make a difference."

This story was originally titled "Canada's Greenest Communities" in the April 2008 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!

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Canada's greenest communities