Register Tuesday | June 19 | 2018

High on the Hog

Can a gentleman farmer's daughter be an activist for one day?

I spent Valentine's Day in black leather boots and fishnet stockings, marching the frozen streets of Montreal as part of a demonstration against hog farms. But just because I was dressed for a romantic tryst (sexy and subversive, I thought) didn't mean that I couldn't swap farm facts with the best of them. After discussing intensive hog-raising operations with a co-worker whose parents are local farmers, and checking out the Haut Saint-Laurent Rural Coalition website, I was brimming with angst about environmental pollution and how corporate pork factories are threatening to eliminate sustainable family farms-the century-old, family-run operations that struggle against financial challenges and urban sprawl on a daily basis.

My parents live on a family farm in upstate Vermont, but they are not what you'd expect. And nor am I. Amongst the true protesters, I felt like a fraud: sure, I own a pair of gardening gloves, but they are fuchsia. Being tired after a hard day of work on our farm usually refers to the exhaustion brought on by slaving over a gourmet meal cooked on our industrial Viking stove, then collapsing into bed on a feather mattress and snuggling under a waffle-cotton duvet (with matching bathrobe and slippers). No one-not the hippies, not the farmers, not the protest leaders-needed to know that my mother mows the lawn in diamonds and Dolce & Gabbana.

My British-cum-Canadian-cum-American parents purchased their little piece of Vermont from a local family in 1993. In the sixties, my hipster-cool folks had cruised through the state in their Morgan convertible and discovered the town of Montgomery and its six covered bridges. They fell in love. But, distracted by debauched weekends at a Memphremagog commune (during which they would tear around town in the middle of the night in top hats and tails, as I slept at home in a bassinet), they waited several years before returning to Vermont to toil the soil, or at least to chase each other around in red-and-white-speckled Esprit galoshes.

As soon as they had decided to settle in Vermont, my parents went through an immediate transformation-unremarkable for them. After all, these are people used to playing a variety of roles: at one time or another, my mother had been a boarding-school brat, a Jimi Hendrix dance partner; my father a Rothmans King Size man in thin tie and leather blazer; they were London hippies at Expo 67; and, later, corporate, Reagan-era urbanites. And then, in 1993, before you could say "Martha Stewart," my mother was sporting tailored lumberjackets with removable shoulder pads and matching quilted vests. My father discovered earth-tone corduroy, understated cashmere and Gap baseball caps. The Mercedes was traded in for a sensible Jeep Cherokee.

I was in my late teens, well past being mortified by my parents' embarrassing behaviour, when I joined my mother on her mini-road trips to find the right house for the land they had purchased. She unabashedly coveted the Greek revival farmhouses in the area and we spent hours driving around Vermont, mentally cataloguing roof pitches and screened-in porches. Blessed with an eye for detail and many years of experience as the designer and art director for a Canadian television show, she would brake suddenly in front of town halls with "fabulous doors" or grange windows she just couldn't live without. She was not shy about ringing doorbells and asking strangers if they might be willing to part with their barn. In no time we had a new house built with the bathtubs, doorknobs and etched-glass windows that had previously belonged to other people. Once we had moved in, the only major hiccup was the house's feng shui positioning. According to my mother, we were in desperate need of two lucky Foo dogs to neutralize harmful, external forces. A male and female dog were adopted shortly thereafter and given matching doghouses on either side of the driveway.

Our neighbours, wary at first of the British accents and my mother's Amélie Poulain haircut, were soon charmed by cups of tea, sausage rolls and my father's earnest inquiries about the responsibility of raising livestock. By the end of the first winter, the metallic-coloured insulation still exposed, locals began to refer to our house fondly as the Silver Palace. At that time, life at the Silver Palace was about salmon koulibiac dinners and paralyzing chocolate martinis, but it was also about a lot more. There was the displacement of vast quantities of soil. There was a lot of chainsawing, too, and transplanting of doomed saplings. There was the constant debate over whether to go with Highland cattle or chickens. Wheelbarrows broke under the weight of rocks and we burned dry things in the middle of a field. There was a pickup truck and the planting of a kitchen garden. My parents applied and received grants on behalf of Montgomery to replace the elm trees that had once canopied the streets of the village, but had died from Dutch elm disease. There was composting as well as scientific discussions with my father (the physicist/energy expert) over dinner about solar energy, wind power and biomass fuel sources. They went to seminars on how to raise happy, well-adjusted sheep.

The morning of the demonstration, I climbed out of the khaki Jeep Libby at the bus stop in Sutton, a small town just north of the Canada-US border. I kissed my parents goodbye amidst words of encouragement about the protest and my choice in attire ("You look fabulous!" and "You go, girl!") before they whisked back to Vermont. Nestled against my black Armani overnight bag on the bus to Montreal, I wondered how many people would turn up at the protest. I played with my fox pompom scarf, wondering if I would know anyone there. Would there be reporters? Television cameras? I crossed and recrossed my legs, the fishnets leaving deep, lattice-like indentations in my skin, and I remembered how shocked I was to discover the price of tights after I was financially cut off by my parents at age eighteen. I did a quick re-evaluation of my outfit and decided that the fox scarf was not needed on the day's voyage. I chewed half a cuticle on my left index finger over being dressed for, but not having, firm Valentine's Day plans. I was sure that the protesters would be wearing ski pants and warm winter boots, and I anticipated questions about my clothing choices. I tried to quash my low-level anxiety about not being a vegetarian and hoped that my obsession with back bacon wouldn't come up.

I also made a mental note not to drink the Montreal tap water-I rarely drank from the tap before, but I certainly wasn't going to do it now: the existing moratorium on industrial hog barns in Quebec has been lifted, which means that these mega hog operations can now move into one of Quebec's last watersheds, the Châteauguay Valley, upstream from Montreal's drinking-water intake. These hog operations generate excessive amounts of liquid manure (a farm of three thousand pigs can generate as much waste as a town of ten thousand people) that is ripe with pathogens, like E. coli, and hormones that cannot be removed by Montreal's water-treatment plants. Farmers spread the manure on surrounding fields to save on the cost of chemical fertilizers, and once the soil reaches a manure saturation point, the contaminants can leak into the groundwater and leach into lakes and rivers. The land south of the St. Lawrence River has already reached that saturation level.

Don't be fooled into thinking that the overwhelming stench is the only symptom of this problem. The link between the "sprayed" manure and various respiratory problems in humans has the Canadian Medical Association calling for a moratorium on industrially raised livestock. These are not squirming, rosy-pink, happy hogs like Wilbur in Charlotte's Web. These lethargic sows are raised in overcrowded conditions, and are force-fed antibiotics because they would not otherwise eat in such a stressful environment. I had high hopes for the protest and was optimistic that Quebec premier Jean Charest would come out of his office to address the demonstrators.

Mohawk people of Kahnawake, local farmers, their friends and families, students, NGO workers, concerned citizens and I all met at St. Louis Square at 10:30 am. Looking around at my fellow protesters, I immediately felt self-conscious about not having a drum. These were people wearing fair-trade sweaters and handknit toques. They discreetly looked me up and down, and I was relieved that, for once, I wasn't clutching a large Starbucks coffee. I knew I was overdressed for an organized march along the streets of Montreal and underdressed for a cold winter morning. But my heart was in it. I grabbed a sandwich board with a cute, hot-pink pig on it and joined the coalition.

Approximately two hundred people marched purposefully across the square and down Drolet, singing, chanting and handing out flyers with detachable postcards addressed to Health and Social Services Minister Philippe Couillard. Cars honked in support, as we tucked flyers under windshield wipers and demonstrators megaphoned their rallying calls across the crowd. I was excited. Having overcome my initial awkwardness, I now felt like a legitimate part of the coalition and sensed that my presence was not only welcomed but valued. Local farmers spoke to me about how agriculture was quickly becoming industry, with many of them losing their independence, and I sang with Mohawk protesters at the top of my lungs. Taking a right on President-Kennedy, we continued along to McGill College, where we congregated outside of Charest's office building. Holly Dressel, co-author with David Suzuki of Good News for a Change and From Naked Ape to Superspecies, was one of the speakers to deliver a rousing message about the "Wal-Mart of pork-raising." Sadly, Noëlla Daoust, the mayor of Elgin, a town in the Châteauguay valley, was intercepted by one of Charest's employees on her way to his office, before she could hand over two valentines she had prepared for him: a bottle of water from Trout River, which runs past a large hog barn, and a "love letter," asking Charest to stop courting the hog industry and to protect the environment. She was later quoted calling the premier a coward.

So what happened next? Was my off-key rendition of "Give Peace a Chance" caught on camera? Did I narrowly escape freezing to death after spending three hours exposed to the elements? The truth is that after the singing and the speeches and the socializing, I was exhausted. Being led through the streets of Montreal by a ten-foot Grim Reaper and a prostrate, toy pig strapped to the roof of a car is a lot of excitement for one person. Afterward, my leather boots were sopping wet and my skin looked bright red through the fishnets. As I walked to my office, I felt some sense of pride in having been part of something larger than myself-even if I wasn't going to be able to give up dates wrapped in prosciutto.

To learn more about fighting mega hog operations, please visit the Haut Saint-Laurent Rural Coalition.

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