Robert Bateman joins fight against proposed highway

Wildlife artist supports group's efforts to preserve escarpment

Irene Gentle, Special to the Post
Oct 2, 2002

A recently-launched citizens' group aimed at putting the brakes on a proposed highway has found a big name to support its cause.

Canadian nature artist Robert Bateman has allied himself with Citizens Opposed to Paving the Escarpment (COPE) in its quest to oppose the controversial mid-peninsula highway.

Bateman was the featured guest at a media conference at Tews Falls in Greensville Saturday to speak out against the road aimed at linking the Niagara region with the 407 ETR in Burlington by cutting a swath through area farm and escarpment land.

"I am very glad to lend whatever small support I can to (challenge) this idiotic idea," a relaxed and casual-looking Bateman told the assembled crowd.

Currently living in British Columbia, the 70-year-old painter began his career in rural Burlington, preserving the area's natural beauty on canvas. He has been a vocal and passionate defender of the environment ever since.

His battle to preserve natural sites began decades ago when he saw the places he had immortalized during his first art show in Burlington were slowly disappearing.

"Virtually every single thing of human heritage I decided to depict was bulldozed in the next several years," said Bateman.

He won some support for his environmental efforts from former Premier Bill Davis, who appointed him to the role of Niagara Escarpment Commissioner for a time.

Currently on an exhaustive book tour, the artist took the opportunity Saturday to blast not only the mid-peninsula project, but what he sees as a continual decimation of the natural world.

He objected to the making of "an instant pudding world that is slick and smooth and sweet and all you have to do is plunk down your VISA card and pay for it and let someone else make decisions for you."

On the proposed road itself, Bateman wondered "do you think we need more cars? Do you think we need to waste money on things like this?"

The escarpment, he said "is southern Ontario's most wonderful asset. But the immediate destruction is just part of it. The (highway) is going through many beautiful parts of Ontario that are not escarpment. Family farms and a lot of pieces of nature are going to be adversely affected."

Bateman was introduced by COPE chair Brendan Kelly, who wondered "there's no one here fighting for the highway, is there?"

Heads swivelled about to see, but if anyone was, they stayed quiet. A few members of the environmental group Oakville Green made their presence known through T-shirts and hinted that they, too, have their sights on nabbing Bateman to support their cause.

Kelly showed confidence that COPE would prevail in the long run. "With your support, and the support of Robert Bateman, we'll do it," he told the crowd before hinting that legal action against the Ministry of Transportation Ontario (MTO) over an alleged violation of due process could be on the agenda if the road isn't blocked at the political level.

Flamborough COPE board member Dave Eckersley said any legal battle is far in the future but noted "In the long term, it's certainly something we'll be thinking about."

Bateman is likely the biggest name to sign on to the COPE cause, but he is still only one of the latest. Launched in June with just six members, COPE's ranks have swelled to about 1,000 today. The group opposes the highway on the grounds that alternative routes or rail and public transit options have not been fully explored. COPE has also challenged the assumptions of the road, including its potential economic benefits.

There is also a growing belief that the road would be tolled if built. Eckersley noted that a recent public information centre held by the MTO contained what he felt was the first tacit admission that the road could be a tolled one.

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