Paul Hughes and Donna Clarke continue a fight they see as social justice

Food and poverty are two words that register most with a couple of local activists who have brought their social causes to the forefront.

Paul Hughes and Donna Clarke began working on urban agriculture projects in an effort to initiate change on municipal, provincial and even national levels. This is of course, before they were shut down.

Both are still voicing their concerns for the local food movement. 

”Food permeates through all of poverty,” said Hughes as he describes the importance of sustenance and shelter, and the strain on the health system that poor nutrition can cause.

The initiatives

Hughes has been a crusader for the right to keep hens in his own backyard – which breaks a bylaw in the city – as a way to provide for himself and his son.

“In order to have a robust food environment in our city we’re going to have to wrap our heads around having some form of livestock in certain areas,” he said.

Clarke’s agricultural initiative, “Potatoes for the People,” started by growing potatoes in recycled tires on the abandoned property next to her house in Killarney. She describes this enterprise as three-fold: to involve others, beautify the community and finally, to donate produce to The Mustard Seed.

“I look out my bedroom window at an empty lot,” she said of the derelict space that could have been used to create community cohesiveness and ward off petty crime and vandalism – but was shut down last May – as the city said their hands were tied by the MGA and that managing the issue was out of their jurisdiction.

The impact

Hughes, leader of CLUCK (Canadian Liberated Urban Chicken Klub) — which has 40 chapters across the nation — has compiled a lot of documentation in his fight for food liberty.

He said people had contacted him during the trial to say that they had difficulty with their own city’s bylaws regarding chickens.

A painting recognizing the efforts of the now shut down initiative “Potatoes for the People” is bound to the fence on Clarke’s property.

Photo By Olivia Guy-McCarvill

Hughes presented a pilot project of the backyard chicken movement in June 2010 while running as a mayoral candidate, in front of the Standing Policy Committee of Community & Protective Services for the City of Calgary & Council.

Alderman John Mar’s response to the motion was, “I get my eggs from Co-op and that works for us,” to which Hughes responded, “Yes, but does that work for the hens?”

After the committee of aldermen denied the pilot project, they reapplied the charge of possession of hens.

Hughes Charter argument tied to section seven in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which the Centre for Constitutional Studies at the University of Alberta writes is an individual’s right to “life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice,” and was presented on the second charge where he pleaded not guilty and a trial was set.

It was then that he filed a Charter Challenge to the province and federal government.

The judge, Catherine Skene deliberated for 180 days and agreed on five items presented from the Canadian Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which Hughes wants to take to the next appeal level, which is the Court of Queens Bench.

“I don’t want to buy eggs from an industrial factory farm operation,” he said forcefully.

The reach that both Clarke’s and Hughes’ initiatives have had is evident in the attention they have received from the media as well as the support from the community.

One of the people who have been touched by their efforts, Eliese Watson, owner of a local bee business, has been vocal in her support. 

”I feel that initiatives like Paul’s and Donna’s are so important because these are citizens, people like you and me, who are eager to change their community’s relationships with food access,” said Watson via a Facebook message.

Watson communicates the strength of keeping food local. 

”Of course you can’t grow everything, but it does represent your interest in supporting local food initiatives, and the importance of whole, healthy, and clean food in your home,” she said.

What is being done?

The city’s position on how community initiatives stave off crime and contribute to food banks echoes Clarke’s reasoning for growing produce within the community. Yet, her potato garden no longer exists and sits as fallow land beside her home on 17th avenue.

However, there is hope for more community grown food as the city has since implemented pop up parks and gardens for the interested gardener.

Aaron Taylor, community recreation coordinator, says that there has been a growing interest from local residents to pursue a Community Garden (livestock on urban residences in Calgary is outlawed) through the Community Association.

“There are multiple examples of successful gardens that have sprung up in the last five years,” Taylor said.

Clarke was offered the opportunity to have a space in a community garden, but wanted to begin her own initiative on land that hadn’t already been tended to, and that could have included the dwellers that had been sleeping on the vacant lot. So the question remains: why are initiatives like her own and Hughes turned down?

Clarke said that it is not only about doing what they please with their own property and the 100,000 empty acres within the city.

It’s also about engaging the government and asking “what can you do as our elected officials to improve the situation for the people?” she said.

“Why not spread good food to your community?” Hughes adds.

While Clarke’s initiative has not had any traction since it was demanded by the city and property owner for the project to stop, Hughes is still interested in exhausting the legal system until he reaches the Supreme Court of Canada, which he sees happening about four to six years down the road. He won’t be “surr’hen’dering” anytime soon.

oguymccarvill@cjournal.ca