Fighting to keep his family farm, Frank Meyers has enjoyed precious little public support. The federal government has pushed him out. His Member of Parliament wants him gone. Even the local city council (Quinte West, Ont.) passed a unanimous motion endorsing Ottawa’s controversial plan: expropriating his historic land near CFB Trenton to construct a new headquarters for Joint Task Force 2, the Canadian military’s elite Special Forces squad. Minus his family and his faith in the Lord, Frank Meyers has been waging a very lonely battle.
Seven years after the feds first offered to buy his farm—and 18 months after they took it, his objections be damned—Meyers’s story has suddenly hit a raw nerve with fellow Canadians. Strangers are phoning the house and writing letters. An online petition is collecting signatures (1,095, at last check). And a Facebook campaign (“Save Frank & Marjorie Meyers Farm”) has amassed 3,000 supporters in a little more than a week. “I don’t have no Internet,” says Meyers, now 85 years old. “But I can’t stop people from fighting for me, and I appreciate it. They’ll never know how much I appreciate what they’re doing. I could never repay them.”
Unfortunately for Meyers, all the attention is probably too little, too late. His property already belongs to the federal government, the takeover rubber stamped after an emotional public hearing last year. Only last week—amid news that his lease agreement had expired, and this season’s harvest will be his last—did the story explode on social media. Still, the family is optimistic the newfound publicity may somehow convince the Harper cabinet to reassess its plans. “It seems like it’s pretty late in the game, but you never know,” says John Meyers, Frank’s son. “We always hold out hope that something can happen.”
For Maclean’s readers, the Meyers story has unfolded in front of their eyes.
The direct descendant of Capt. John Walden Meyers—a loyalist war hero and founder of nearby Belleville, Ont.—Frank farms a portion of the same plot of land given to the captain by King George III for his exemplary service during the American Revolution. (Ironically enough, Capt. Meyers was the 18th-century version of a special-forces commando, a crack spy and daring soldier most famous for leading a late-night raid on the home of U.S. general. To patriot children, he was the bogeyman. If you don’t behave, their mothers would say, Capt. Meyers “will come and eat you.”) Signed in May 1798, nearly 70 years before Canadian Confederation, the Crown land patent assigned the property to the Meyers clan “forever.”
Frank has never lived anywhere else, working the family land since he was able to walk. By 14, he was in charge of the entire farm, part dairy operation, part cash crops. “I’ve lived on this farm for 85 years, worked it all my life, and I don’t know why the government wants to throw us out,” he says. “Why does the government have the right to take away our land?”
In 2006, a campaigning Stephen Harper promised to bring an airborne unit to CFB Trenton, Canada’s largest and busiest air force base (and the same hub that welcomed home the flag-draped caskets of every Canadian soldier killed in Afghanistan). Two years later, the news was official: JTF 2 would be the incoming unit. From a strategic standpoint, the move makes absolute sense; the team’s current home at Dwyer Hill, near Ottawa, is famously cramped, and Trenton offers instant access to airlift for rapid deployments. But JTF 2’s new headquarters—slated to be built on 400 hectares of private property directly north of the base—meant that 12 landowners would be uprooted, whether they wanted to leave or not. All the government press releases failed to mention that point.
Legally speaking, the owners had no real options. If the state wants your land (for a highway, a hospital or a top-secret training facility), you can either sell now or be expropriated later. For the feds, expropriation is always a last resort, and Treasury Board guidelines allow bureaucrats to offer up to 15 per cent more than fair market value, plus moving costs and other incidentals. But the bottom line is nonnegotiable: you’re leaving, one way or another.
In this case, each owner did eventually hammer out a deal—except Frank Meyers. For him, the selling price was never the hiccup. He simply doesn’t want to part with his forefather’s land, and he truly believed the government would leave him alone if he kept ignoring their offers. He was wrong.
Rick Norlock, the local Conservative M.P., has championed the base expansion project because it will inject millions of dollars and hundreds of well-paying jobs into an economically depressed region. Moving JTF 2 to Trenton is also the best logistical option for the military, he says. “The vast majority of my constituents—and when I say the vast majority, I’m talking the vast majority of my constituents—want this to go ahead sooner rather than later because they know the economic implications,” Norlock told Maclean’s last month. “I can tell you I’m pushing for this to go ahead, quite frankly, because we made a commitment six years ago. I want to make sure that I can look my constituents in the eye and say we lived up to our commitment at CFB Trenton.”
In fact, Norlock said he personally approached the prime minister before the 2011 election to ask why the government appeared to be stalling on the project. Stephen Harper, Norlock said, was aware of the Meyers’s predicament and wanted to give the family ample opportunity to work out a deal. “The prime minister told me his concerns that he wanted this, as much as possible, to be a negotiated settlement,” Norlock said. “He was aware of the history behind this and the sensitivity that the government should have.”
By 2012, the time for sensitivity had run out. In February, Meyers was served with a notice of expropriation, stating his farm was required “for a purpose related to the safety or security of Canada.” His family did hire a lawyer and file a last-ditch appeal in front of independent hearings officer, arguing, among other things, that the government didn’t actually need their 90 hectares to finish JTF 2’s new stomping grounds. But the hearings officer wielded no rule authority. Federal officials read her report and went ahead with the expropriation anyway.
In a “statement of reasons” dated May 25, 2012, Rona Ambrose, then the Public Works minister, said the Meyers land is “absolutely essential” for national security. “The Meyers family will receive fair compensation for their ownership interests and may utilize proceeds to continue farming on available replacement lands of similar or superior quality,” she wrote. And the property’s heritage value? “It is not considered that either historic landscape or cultural history will be lost,” the document read. “The Meyers family name is also preserved with the existing name of the roadway as Meyers Creek Road and the historical associations are well known.”
Although he doesn’t own the land anymore, Meyers signed a lease agreement that allowed him to continue farming (and finish removing his property). When that lease expired Oct. 1—and the “No Trespassing” sign went up—base officials offered another extension: until his corn is harvested, Meyers can continue to access the property under the watchful eye of a commissionaire. “The military guys have been very nice and supportive,” says John Meyers, who understands that his family’s spat is with the government, not the members of JTF 2. “The bureaucrats are the ones running this show.”
In the meantime, Frank Meyers is no more interested in negotiating a selling price than he was back in 2006, when a Public Works official first called the house. Signing a deal, after all, would be the final nail in his farm’s coffin. “We’ve got to stop them,” he says. “We’ve got to stop the government from doing the corruption they’re doing. You can’t keep burying prime farmland.”
Although the Meyers men are realists—and they fully understand that the government already owns the deed—they’re not ready to give up quite yet, especially now that people are finally beginning to pay attention. “We are going to get our stuff off the property just as a precautionary measure, but it’s certainly encouraging to know that people are supporting us,” John says. “We think this is a larger issue about what the government can and can’t do with our rights, and people support Canadians having the right to own their own property.”
Lisa Gibson had never heard about the Meyers until last week, when she read about their case at macleans.ca. When she posted the link—and her disgust—on her Facebook account, the response was swift enough to compel her to create the “Save Frank & Marjorie Meyers Farm” page. On Tuesday, she even drove two-and-a-half hours to meet Frank in person. “It made me angry; it’s something that shouldn’t be happening,” she says. “I would like to see them allow him to live out his days doing the only thing he has ever known.”
Like the Meyers, she realizes her efforts are likely too late to make any difference. But she plans to keep spreading the word anyway. “There is always a hope,” she says. “It’s not really over until it is over.”
For Rick Norlock, it is over. “It’s a done deal,” he told Maclean’s. “There is no going back. The only thing I want to make sure—that I pray happens, to be quite frank with you—is that to the extent possible, that Mr. Meyers will at least be able to feel good about the compensation part. He will never be happy with the other part. I know that for a fact.”
“I guess the good of the many, in this particular case, outweighs the good of the few,” Norlock continued. “And people will have to make a decision as to whether or not they feel, in this particular case, that it’s appropriate. If not, then I—and we—will suffer the political consequences of it. But to date, after three elections, we’ve lived up to our commitment, and I think overwhelmingly, at least locally, people are in agreement with what we’ve done.”