Farmer loses land battle, though military grants him one last harvest

Fighting to save his beloved farm from Canada’s elite soldiers, Frank Meyers is finally forced to surrender
MACLEANS-MEYERS-09.13.13-TRENTON, ON: Eighty-five year-old Loyalist descendant and farmer Frank Meyers, is currently disputing the Canadian federal government’s decision to expropriate his family’s heritage farmland in order to construct a secrect Joint-Task-Force 2 (JTF-2) training facility behind the current CFB Trenton base. The property, dating back to the late 1700’s, was awarded to the Meyers family after proclaiming loyalty to the British monarchy following the American revolution.
Photograph by Cole Garside

In Frank Meyers’s eyes, the view from his dining room window is priceless. Literally. He can see the old wooden house where he lived as a little boy. The family barn, rebuilt with his talented hands. Rows and rows of sweet corn, sprouting from prime Ontario soil. No matter how many federal bureaucrats knocked on his door—or how much cash they offered to pay—the 85-year-old farmer refused, again and again, to sell his beloved land. As he likes to say: “You can’t eat the money.”

But as Frank Meyers learned today—in a heartbreaking moment he’d been dreading for years—you can’t stop the government, either. If the feds want your property (in his case, to build a state-of-the-art training ground for the Canadian military’s elite special forces commandos), fighting back is futile. “In other countries, they’re crushing you with bullets and guns and ammunition and tanks and explosives,” Meyers says. “Not in Canada. It’s pencil and paper here, and then they’ve got control.”

A senior military officer from CFB Trenton—joined, just in case, by members of the Ontario Provincial Police—visited the Meyers farm Tuesday morning to explain the inevitable next step. Effective immediately, for the first time in his life, Meyers has no legal right to step foot on “his” property. First thing Wednesday morning, the Department of National Defence will erect “No Trespassing” signs around the fence line, as contractors begin preliminary work on what will become the new headquarters of Joint Task Force 2. (Those “No Trespassing” signs would have gone up today, a military spokesman says, but the base is doing everything it can to be “sensitive” to Frank Meyers. “We are concerned about his emotions,” says Captain Christopher Daniel. “His condition is our top priority. We want to make sure he’s okay.”)

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Meyers, of course, will never be okay. For a man who knows every square centimetre of his farm—and the rich history that defines it—today’s news could not be more devastating. “I’m going on 86 years old, and they’re harassing a man like me?” he says. “I haven’t done anything wrong and I’m not doing anything wrong. They’re just mad at me because I didn’t roll over and say: ‘Yes, yes, yes, yes.’ ”

Since the Harper Conservatives were first elected in 2006, they have proclaimed their plans to bring a specialized army unit to CFB Trenton, the country’s largest and busiest air force base. In 2009, Ottawa revealed that the incoming unit would be none other than JTF 2, Canada’s top-secret special forces squad, currently based on the outskirts of Ottawa. The move is the highlight of a massive base expansion project that will inject millions of dollars into the local economy (not to mention hundreds of heavily trained counterterrorism troops).

But as Maclean’s first reported, the plan didn’t sit well with a few local landowners, whose properties—unbeknownst to them—had been selected for JTF 2’s new 400-hectare home. “Our world has been crushed,” one owner said at the time. “Somebody somewhere has decided they want to move JTF 2, but did they ever take into consideration what that was going to do to other people? They drew a red line around these pieces of property, and ever since then everybody in there has been screwed.”

Angry or not, the 12 landowners were left with only two real options: sell now, or be expropriated later. One by one, they agreed to sell—until there was just one holdout left: Frank Meyers.

When the government officially filed expropriation papers in February 2012, the Meyers family hired a lawyer and launched their only available appeal: an objection in front of an independent hearings officer. Their central argument was that the military had more than enough land to extend the base, and the Meyers’ 90 hectares weren’t necessary to complete the project. They also trumpeted the historical significance of the farm: the direct descendant of Capt. John Walden Meyers, a Loyalist war hero and founder of nearby Belleville, Ont., Frank Meyers farmed a portion of the very same plot of land King George III awarded to his legendary forefather for his service during the American Revolution. As Frank Meyers has said many times: “This property didn’t come from the Canadian government, it came from the British government. So if the Queen wants it, let her come and see me.”

The Harper government was unmoved. After reading the hearing officer’s report in May 2012, then-Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose declared the Meyers land “absolutely essential for the safety and security of Canada” and rubberstamped the expropriation papers. The final selling price was the only thing left to negotiate.

But in the 17 months since, Frank Meyers has refused repeated offers from the government. He did sign a licensing agreement that allowed him to continue farming the property while he removed his belongings, but when that deal expired at midnight on Monday, the government refused to extend it. Nearly seven years after his fight began—and more than two centuries after his family first moved to the farm—Meyers has no choice but to finally surrender. “Without enough public support, I don’t think there is anything more we can do,” says John Meyers, Frank’s son. “It is difficult to know that you’re losing everything you’ve got. You try to remain optimistic that things will work out, but you just don’t know.”

Technically, the Meyers are not completely banned from the farm. Not yet, at least. Col. David Lowthian, the new wing commander at CFB Trenton, has ordered his staff to be as accommodating as possible as the Meyers adjust to their new reality. For the next month, they will be allowed to enter the property during the day to continue removing their belongings (as long as they notify the base in advance), and when the corn is ready, they can also request permission to harvest their crop one final time. “Throughout the process we have remained respectful and non-confrontational with Mr. Meyers,” says Daniel, the base spokesman. “That is what we have been doing, and that’s what we’ll continue doing.”

John Meyers admits that DND has been “fair” with his family. The department of public works is completely different story, he says, as they continue to haggle over the final selling price, including moving costs. (The Meyers house, and a small piece of surrounding land, were spared from expropriation). But whatever the final result, whatever the final selling price, one thing is certain: at some point, as winter settles in, the gates will be locked for good. And the view from Frank’s front window, a source of pride for so many decades, will be a painful sight to see.