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How Climate Reality Leader and Hub member Shelagh McNally saved the Rousseau Forest

· Advocacy Stories

Shelagh McNally, a CRL and Hub member was recently at the forefront of a fight against a development project in Pincourt. In an interview with CRPC she retells the story of how she managed to save the only wetland that remains untouched in the Rousseau Forest.

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Question 1. Please introduce yourself

I am a writer and artist living in Pincourt, a small town on Ile Perrot, an island just outside of Montreal.

Question 2. How did you get into Climate action?

I started writing about the environment while living in the Maya Riviera and witnessing the destruction of a paradise for a tourist infrastructure. I continued working as an environmental journalist until Harper’s moratorium in 2010. At that time I met Peter Schieke who brought me into the Climate Reality Project.

Question 3. Was there something that triggered the need for action?

I started a grassroots organization when our local wetland was about to be developed. Rousseau Forest is a small 4.6 hectare wetlands on the eastern side of the island overlooking the Ottawa River. It’s last one left standing on this side of the island and the local developer wanted to clear cut to build more McMansions.. It was going to be developed for luxury mansions, which Pincourt doesn’t need. Together Pincourt Vert saved our forest and helped started a movement regionally to preserve green spaces.

Question 4. Describe your plight

We had a pro-development mayor who had cut 58% of our forests and had sectioned off every bit of green space for development. Residents woke up to bulldozers when it was too late to do anything. Everyone was frustrated because we didn’t know how to preserve our green spaces and stop developers from overtaking our island. So we started teaching ourselves what to do on a community level.

Question 5. What were the biggest challenges you encountered?

Time and money where our biggest challenges. We were up against developers who had plenty of funds for publicity, lawyers and lobbyists. We did this eco-activism in between looking after our families, working or going to school full time. We had limited resources so we paid for everything ourselves. The time commitment and costs really became overwhelming at times.

Question 6. How did you approach them?

We learned step-by-step what needed to be done. We started off paying for a biological study that was instrumental in pressuring the City to conduct a much longer year-long biological report of the wetlands. We helped educate the community about the importance of the wetlands with pamphlets, flyers and social media posts. We printed postcards and distributed them to the community showing them how to get involved and reach out to elected officials. Two members paid for an environmental lawyer and everyone petitioned door-to-door to collect over 2,000 signatures. We held a musical fundraiser and used those funds to register as a non-profit organization. We attended all council meetings and many meetings with regional environmental committees, and we lobbied the Federal, Provincial and Municipal governments regularly. We were able to get a motion before the Quebec National Assembly to discuss Rousseau wetlands.

Question 7. What was the conclusion?

Due to our efforts, in the fall of 2020 The City of Pincourt voted to buy the wetland from the developer. First they held two unofficial referendums asking residents if they would agree to a $35 per year per household tax hike to cover the cost of buying back the land. Both times, residents overwhelmingly said YES.

Question 8. What’s next?

We are seeing an unprecedented wave of development in our region. Currently there are 10 communities fighting to save their remaining forests. We are advising community groups and teaching them what we learned so they can save their green spaces. We are also starting a campaign to keep our commuter train station open and lobbying the City to improve public transportation. From June 1-15, 2021, we are participating in the David Suzuki Prize Domain as we are one of the 10 finalists. The link is here:

Question 9. Any pieces of advice for climate activists that are taking on similar fights?

Reach out to all the organizations fighting for climate change and ask for their advice. Plan a campaign and then take it one step at a time so you don’t get overwhelmed. Keep recruiting volunteers and people to help so no one gets burnt out. And be prepared for some serious ground- work, knocking on doors, talking to people, connecting with the community. Social media is a great tool but it has to be combined with grass-root organizing, which is feet to the pavement and going door to door. Try to have some fun along the way. Rest and rejuvenate. Remind yourself this is important work and together you can change things.