“The decision to build anything on the Experimental Farm is insane. As artists and citizens, we have to do whatever we can to stop it.”
By Val Swinton
Chis White is a man with a mission. He’s also a man who has marinated in the Ottawa music scene for decades. On November 21, these two strands of his life came together in a Canada-wide musical and advocacy event called Tree Songs 2.
Tree Songs 2 grew from a smaller local event last October. White then joined forces with singer-songwriter Christophe Elie and began planning Tree Songs 2 as a Canada-wide event that would include musicians, poets and visual artists. The November event featured 10 shows in-person and livestreamed shows from across Canada, followed by a national wrap-up concert of highlights from those shows. White tells me that an even more ambitious Tree Songs 3 is already being planned for January 22 and 23.
Asked why he undertakes such large challenges, White responded, “I want to raise awareness about tree-related issues and to expand and strengthen community connections so we can halt deforestation of parklands across the country, including Ottawa’s Experimental Farm.” His 16 years as organizer of the Ottawa Folk Festival and many more as host of CKCU’S Canadian Spaces, Canada’s longest-running folk music radio show, fully qualified him to succeed at the task.
White’s alarm call in Ottawa concerns the loss of 50 acres of parkland in the heart of the city, where 750 mature trees will be chopped to make way for a new hospital. Some are more than 100 years old; many are specimen trees cared for over decades.
City Council, the NCC and the provincial and federal governments have handed over 40 acres of the Experimental Farm, a national historic site that governments have several times promised to maintain in perpetuity as parkland. The remaining 10 acres are on Queen Juliana Park, set aside by former prime minister Pierre Trudeau to commemorate the years Queen Juliana of the Netherlands and her children sought refuge in Ottawa during the Second World War, the contribution of Canadian soldiers in liberating her country, and perhaps as a thank you for the 10,000 tulips the Dutch royal family gifts to Ottawa every spring.
White is supporting ReImagine Ottawa, a citizens’ group trying to prevent development on the Farm. “There is no question that we need a hospital,” says Noel Lomer, a volunteer with ReImagine Ottawa, “but it doesn’t make any sense to build it on the Farm, especially when the National Capital Commission recommended Tunney’s Pasture.”
ReImagine Ottawa launched a petition calling for an inquiry into how and why the results and recommendations of a six-month NCC study were overturned in a few days and the Experimental Farm was chosen instead. It already has over 6,000 signatures and is growing. We know little about why the flip was made, only that the hospital board quickly rejected the recommendation, and negotiations behind closed doors resulted in a large chunk of a national historic site and all of Queen Juliana Park being given to the hospital. No supportable reasons have been given for the decision.
Shovels will be in the ground next March to construct a five-acre, four-storey parking garage on the corner of Preston and Carling overlooking Dow’s Lake, the Rideau Canal (Ontario’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site) and Commissioners Park, where every spring thousands enjoy those tulips sent by Dutch royalty. The thanks we are giving for their annual gift and our shared history is paving over Queen Juliana Park and creating a token park of the same name on the roof of the garage.
“Kris Kristofferson told me once that if you can touch people’s hearts, you have an opportunity to send a message,” says White. “Art is the way to do that. The decision to build anything on the Experimental Farm is insane. As artists and citizens, we have to do whatever we can to stop it.”
Here’s what you can do. Walk through the Farm to enjoy the landscape and understand what will be lost. Visit ReImagine Ottawa’s website and Facebook page, sign the petition and sign up for updates on activities. Visit the TreeSongs2 website and enjoy the shows that are archived there.
Val Swinton lived in the Glebe for 25 years and is a volunteer with ReImagine Ottawa.