Picturesque Perth: A model of sustainable, independent living in Canada

Tay River in Perth, Ontario
The scenic Tay River that runs through the centre of Perth. Photo by Liam Barrington-Bush

Written by Jen Wilton
Originally published by Contributoria 

Visiting Perth, Ontario, during Canada’s summer months, it is hard not to be impressed by the town’s natural beauty. Tell-tale signs also hint at the ecologically minded movement that exists in this small town of just 6,000 people. Whether strolling past a “forest in the making”, comprising indigenous tree species planted by Eco Perth alongside the picturesque Tay River, or attending the bustling farmers’ market across the waterway, you start to get a sense of the innovative initiatives currently being implemented.

Perth is located 85 km from Canada’s capital city Ottawa, in the easternmost tip of the province of Ontario. Initially founded as a military settlement, what is striking about this small town is the way residents have come together to share ideas and work towards creating a sustainable future.

‘Our best defence is a strong community’

The Transition Town movement, which began in Totnes, England, in 2006, sprang up in response to the twin challenges of peak oil and climate change. Transition initiatives (whether towns, cities or neighbourhoods) foster community-led projects that promote environmental sustainability and economic resilience.

Four years ago, Perth residents Sébastien Bacharach, Bonita Ford and Peggy Land founded Transition Perth. It has become a banner under which a range of sustainability projects have come to light, such as a bike repair workshop, a project for harvesting neglected fruit trees and establishing community gardens.

Bike repair workshop in Perth, Ontario
Perth’s bike repair workshop, where ‘old clunkers’ are fixed up and made usable again. Photo by Jen Wilton

“What I like about [transition] is that it is solutions-oriented and positive”, Bacharach, a permaculture designer and teacher, explains. Originally from France, he moved to Perth with the desire to bring to life his vision of a better world. He doesn’t think lasting change will come from above or by pushing for a different government. “I believe more in community-based actions and building alternatives for ourselves”, he says.

Transition Perth co-founder Peggy Land has a long background in activism, having worked on issues like mining and pesticide use. “I am really more concerned about the next generations and my grandchildren”, she says of her motivation to get involved in the Transition movement, “so I’m doing it for them.”

Bacharach says that it has taken a few years to gain momentum and move beyond “the usual suspects”, but that in September 2013 they organised a brainstorming event that became a turning point for Perth’s fledgling transition movement. The event was attended by more than 100 people, who came up with dozens of new project ideas, some of which are evident in the town today.

“There is an aspect of transition that is community-oriented and fun, and I think that’s important for people who are not involved in that kind of stuff”, says Bacharach. He recognises that a lot of people are interested in climate change and sustainability issues, but acknowledges they can seem like daunting problems to tackle. “My hope is that we can create such a strong [community] network that if the banks or the supermarkets close for a long period of time, we will not be in total disaster.”

“The biggest strength of the transition movement is that it’s not political, we’re not waiting for the council to come up with these wonderful ideas”, Land states. “We’re just forging ahead. We think our best defence is a strong community.”

Perth Farmers' Market. Photo by Jen Wilton
Perth Farmers’ Market. Photo by Jen Wilton

Sustainable local agriculture

There is a growing movement in Perth to promote locally-grown food. The Perth Farmers’ Market plays a key role, helping to connect the public directly to local growers. The market hosts dozens of vendors who set up early on Saturday mornings, with stalls that sell anything from maple syrup to organic greens and locally-crafted jewellery to handmade soap.

Sarah Mackenzie has been selling produce at the market for a decade. She has also been the market’s president for the last five years. “If you’re reliant on only buying from large corporations, then you give them all the power. They will do what is best for their bottom line”, Mackenzie says. “By buying local you are much more likely to be able to maintain innovation, high quality and choice.”

She laments the loss of “the flavour dynamic” as a consequence of long transportation routes. A green bean, for example, that has travelled thousands of kilometres from California to Canada will no longer taste the same when it ends up at the dinner table. “You will want to cook it, because who would eat that fresh?” asks Mackenzie. She explains that buying locally produced food leads to less waste and a longer shelf life.

Stall at the farmers' market. Photo by Jen Wilton
Stall at the farmers’ market. Photo by Jen Wilton

Mackenzie has also been involved in efforts to set up a local food hub. “The idea is that we would be a centre for aggregating, distributing and processing local food”, she explains. “It will have freezer storage, cold storage, dry storage, commercial kitchens and a vegetable processing line.”

Cheryl Nash, founder of Eco Perth and Lanark Local Flavours, has been instrumental in getting the food hub idea off the ground. Beyond the immediate benefit it will bring to farmers in the region, she sees it as a “critical element that must be in place to ensure we’ll be able to feed ourselves as the impacts of climate change continue to increase.”

Recalling the 1970s oil crisis that caused steep rises in the price of fuel in the US and Canada, Mackenzie agrees that being able to buy produce that has only travelled a few kilometres offers greater food security in the long run. “Anything that keeps smaller to medium-sized farmers going in this region is only going to help sustainability”, she adds.

Another Perth initiative making a difference to local nutrition is The Table, a community food centre, where people can access food bank services, be dished up healthy meals free of charge and attend a wide range of programmes. “We are becoming a hub for a range of different services, beyond just providing food”, says vice-chair Murray Long, “including community health services and advocacy support. But food and nutrition are always at the heart of things for us.”

The Table uses a more holistic model than many traditional food banks and service users can volunteer to work in the kitchen or learn a range of other skills. “It’s not patronising. We’re involving people in a participatory way”, Long says. “Our goal is to try to strengthen the individual, not just to feed them, so that we build a stronger, more vibrant community as a result.”

The Table has its own vegetable patch out back and established a community garden nearby to help meet the growing demand for food. Long says that as more people use their services, funding has become increasingly challenging. However, he maintains the benefits to participants are tangible and extend beyond physical sustenance. “There are quite a few people who may not have felt much engagement with the community, but now see The Table as a place where they are welcomed, where their services are appreciated, where they are respected”, Long says. “It’s great.”

“It’s been a really inspirational place to be involved with”, Long adds. “We are creating social change here. So it’s important.”

The Table's community garden
The Table’s community garden. Photo by Jen Wilton

Experiments in independence

Perth is also home to a number of people who are looking for more radical solutions to our current ecological woes, including off-grid living and back-to-the-land communities. Rather than waiting for government policy to change or for the rest of society to get on board, some resourceful residents are forging ahead and creating solutions to some of our most daunting problems.

Grace Main and Doug Barr own 21 acres of land, located a 20-minute drive from the centre of Perth. They are developing the property with the ultimate goal of self-sufficiency and environmental sustainability. They currently live in a simple, single-room, straw-bale structure. This method of construction is considered ecologically friendly as it uses renewable resources that provide good insulation.

The site is powered by four small solar panels, while back-up generators are used to help smooth out dips in solar production. The couple have painstakingly researched the best ways to dispose of waste, produce electricity, insulate their home and have drinking water available. They use a water-free, composting toilet and non-pressurised shower. “We’ve learned a lot, but know nothing”, Main says of their ventures into sustainable, independent living, acknowledging that there is still a steep learning curve ahead of them.

Barr has been involved in Transition Perth and regularly attends Green Drinks, an organic self-organising network with chapters across the globe, where people get together to discuss ideas for sustainable living. Barr thinks these are good ways to connect with other people and share learning.

They are working hard on plans to build a larger house to live in. So far they have three raised garden beds to grow food in, with plans to install a further six so they can ultimately live off what they can grow. According to Main, the aim of the project is to create “happy, healthy living for three generations”.

Community as inspiration

“I love working with groups of people”, says Transition Perth founder Bacharach. “It’s been exciting and frustrating at the same time, but there is something magical and really empowering in trying to build community.” He says he feels secure knowing that there are a dozen people within a five-minute walk who are willing to help and that they can tackle large problems together. He concludes: “It’s a community that feels very tight, where there is a culture of helping each other.”

“If you prepare and nothing happens, you’re fine. But if you prepare and the worst happens, you’re safe”, says local farmer Mackenzie. “You don’t know what the future holds. You don’t know that there won’t be another oil crisis.”

“If we’re excited about the bike co-op or the farmer’s market, it brings a whole new energy and a hope for a more cohesive community”, says Land. “We’re seizing the day and getting on with enjoying living in ways that are truly fulfilling.”

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