May 31, 2013
Catherine Porter, Toronto Star
The Toronto Environmental Alliance celebrates an anniversary and a great victory.
It all started with Janet May and a morning stroll with her little kids through the schoolyard.
A crew of landscapers was spraying something “that smelled really, really evil” on the lawn.
She got to worrying, as moms do, usually late at night in bed, starting at the ceiling.
She went to the library to read up on pesticides, particularly 2,4-D, which the crews were using.
Some of the things she discovered: sterility, respiratory problems, chronic headaches, cancer. Those are some documented side effects from exposure to 2,4-D. “Agent Orange was 50 per cent 2,4-D,” she says.
After one presentation from May, the North York school board banned the use of pesticides on its fields. It was that easy.
Then, she went before the North York City Council and she learned it was just so difficult. “Mel Lastman said it was safe enough to drink,” she said. “It became a big fight.”
Around the same time, a new environmental group had just formed: the Toronto Environmental Alliance. It had a staff of one, and enough money to run for a year. May joined as a volunteer to fight for a ban on chemical pesticides.
How could she have known it would take more than a decade?
The Toronto Environmental Alliance (known lovingly as TEA) turned 25 this week.
You might never have heard of it, but TEA has changed your life. If you haul your green bin to the curb, you can thank TEA. If you share a Metropass, you can do the same.
“There hasn’t been a significant environmental policy in Toronto for 20 years that TEA hasn’t influenced,” says Councillor Gord Perks, who worked at TEA — sometimes without pay — for 11 years before running for Toronto city council.
The story of TEA is inspiring. It reveals how a small group of people, with little money but lots of passion and smarts, can change the world. Of all TEA’s achievements, the citywide ban on cosmetic pesticides is perhaps the greatest. Its campaign should be included in textbooks on strategy.
And it all started with May, who by then was barring city crews from entering parks to spray, along with her neighbourhood moms. They used strollers and bicycles as barricades.
She moved down into the TEA office, which was a one-room affair, not far from city hall.
“We had a rule when we moved offices: You can’t be more than a 10-minute run from city hall,” says Shelley Petrie, who ran TEA for six years. “You can have a great media campaign and the greatest policy, but without convincing councillors, it won’t happen.”
That’s part of TEA’s genius. They figured out that municipal change is easier to influence than national change. Councillors don’t follow party lines. They are much more receptive to their constituents.
And they realized national change could start in the city, where most of us live. If you got the country’s biggest city to ban the use of cosmetic pesticides, well, chances were good that other cities would follow suit. (They were right: Ontario passed a ban on cosmetic pesticides in 2009.)
May worked first on banning pesticides on public land. Then in 2001, she took aim at private property.
“We figured out it was effective to take a doctor with us to councillors’ office,” May says. “One young pediatrician, she was gorgeous, she’d talk about babies being born with testicles that hadn’t descended. You could see the male councillors’ jaws drop.”
Those partnerships were key. If you are going to run a campaign, take note: Find powerful friends, like the Ontario College of Family Physicians and the Toronto Humane Society. They’re good to have around when you are lobbying a dog-loving councillor.
I was covering city hall for the Star by then. It’s hard to believe now how contentious and protracted the debate over pesticides was. The lawn care industry was lobbying like mad too, jamming committee rooms in matching green T-shirts.
The week before the proposed ban was to be debated, TEA members counted their supporters and realized they were one vote short.
They chose former Scarborough Councillor Gay Cowbourne.
“She said she was hearing ‘no’ from her residents. We figured ‘We know how to fix this.’ So we went into her ward and started knocking on doors,” says Petrie.
For three days, a group of TEA volunteers canvassed in Cowbourne’s ward. When they got a supporter to the door, they told them “I have your councillor’s cellphone number. She wants to hear from you.’ Then we’d dial the number on our phones and hand it to them,” Petrie says.
Cowbourne, in the end, voted for the ban. She’d received 10 to 20 more calls in support of it than against, Petrie says.
Twenty calls. A few blocks in Scarborough, an extra hour of canvassing. Change is that easy, and that difficult. After years of campaigning, that’s all it took to dilute the chemical soup we live in. What if TEA’s volunteers had given up that day? Would I be staying up at night, worrying about my kids playing on their friends’ lawns?
“We would not have a cosmetic pesticide ban if it was not for TEA,” says Councillor Joe Mihevc, who was the chair of the board of health at the time.
May left TEA that year. Her work there was finally done. I am grateful for her work, and the work of her colleagues.
Happy Birthday TEA.
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