by Larry Powell
His name is Joe Leschyshyn (above), a first-generation Canadian of Ukrainian descent. Some of his indigenous friends (who can't handle his hard-to-pronounce last name) know him endearingly as "Joe the Crow."
Joe is 72 now. While he'll likely never be rich or famous, his refusal to accept injustice lying down, has made him distinctly well-known in certain circles, at least.
So it would be a mistake to call him "ordinary."
For the pain and suffering he has come to endure at the hands of factory hog barns and uncaring governments, and the courage and tenacity he has shown in the face of it all, are anything but.
"I have been fighting these barns since 1996," Joe writes, "and blame the governments that allowed these to be built with no plan, impact or risk studies, open-house or self-policing policies."
Joe was born in Chatfield, in the Interlake region of central Manitoba and left home when he was only 15. He spent much of his younger life exploring Canada, from Vancouver to Toronto and several places in between.
"I became quite wayward," he writes, "learning about my country."
He guided hunters in northwestern Ontario, built sawmills and maintained an entire ferry fleet in northern Manitoba.
After his "wayward" years, in 1982, Joe decided to go back home. He settled down on a family farm, again, near Chatfield. He even built a new house there.
His marriage failed in 1989.
Then, in 1996, events began to unfold which would surely add to his emotional turmoil.
"Interlake Swine Breeders," built a factory hog barn less than a mile from his home. Soon, the slurry, or liquid waste from the pigs was being applied to nearby fields, running off into major waterfowl habitat and then into Lake Winnipeg.
A drainage ditch near a factory barn in the Interlake region.
It drains into Lake Winnipeg. Photo by Peter Marykuca.
Joe describes it this way. "When the first spreading took place, it was by water cannons, bellowing crap into the air like there was no tomorrow. The low-lying area had an intense cover of this atomized mist. I was awakened by friends to get out of my home and spend the night elsewhere. It was a choking ordeal. The winter of the following year also brought on a similar scene. I was awakened as I was choking, I could not get my air. I was hyperventilating like a pregnant mother giving birth. That was a scary experience. It occurred four different times. I was spitting gobs out the size of a split peanut and the same colour. Disgusting!"
He faced a litany of abuses by the barn, followed by nothing but excuses from politicians and government officials. For example, he says the "piggery" would over-apply on fields as close as a-quarter-mile from his home. And it didn't seem to matter that those fields had been officially declared as "GPHZs," Groundwater Pollution Hazard Zones.
"They also used this cattle pasture (also declared a GPHZ) as a spread field…The cattle were bawling for food and would be huddled into the corners of the field where the poop was not spread!"
(1)"Steve Ashton (then the Minister of Water Stewardship in the NDP government of (2)Premier Gary Doer), wrote me and said there was no problem since that area yielded a great crop of hay! I coined Lake Winnipeg 'the Doer Sewer' after his government was allotting big sums of money to keep the hog business alive and killing the lake."
As the years went by, Joe would become an increasingly sharp pain in the sides of politicians at every level and political stripe. He wrote reams of letters and e-mails, begging them to do something. He also went to bat for fellow citizens who found themselves in the same predicament, fighting existing and proposed barns against hopeless odds.
"Our pleas to the Local Council ran off like water off a ducks back! Months of meetings brought no resolve. News of new barns were in the making and we had to go and try to help others stop this onslaught. Meetings and more meetings. Our concerns were totally ignored by all other RM Councils. Certainly this was all a planned agenda."
So it's hardly surprising that Joe's memories of these events are far from fond ones.
"The gullible Reeves, provincial and federal governments all were and still are purveyors of environmental terrorism!"
He can still recall in some detail, the circumstances leading up to the hardships which he and many others in the province would come to suffer .
"The ordeal faced by thousands upon thousands of Manitobans started when then (Conservative) (3)Premier Gary Filmon came back from a Trade Mission to Asia. Factory hog barns were to be the salvation of all Manitobans. This was endorsed by the entire caucus and headed by the late Harry Enns." (Enns was Filmon's Minister of Agriculture at the time.)
"Neighbours were in total disbelief and we started to head up to local council and RM chambers. When we the people seemed to have the upper hand, we were visited by an 'agricultural guru' by the name of (4)Andrew Dickson who said that orders were in hand that these barns go as intended and that Interlakers like ourselves had no say! A bit of Fascism in a free and democratic society!"
Joe says the piggery would not buy his land. He was forced to abandon his family farm and watch the house he had built himself, hoping to retire there, "fall into ruin."
While in Opposition, NDP MLAs expressed concern over the environmental damage the big barns might cause. Once in power, however, they embraced the factory style of production.
"I recollect, in 1999, when the NDP got elected, (5) Rosanne Wowchuk (Minister of Agriculture) went over the speed limit to carry the manifesto of Harry Enns; contrary to previous statements by Mr. Doer and her. Doer's government was allotting big sums of money to keep the hog business alive and killing the lake."
In 2006, the current NDP government eventually placed a moratorium on new hog barns in certain areas of the province, including the Interlake.
But, as Joe laments, the moratorium has done nothing to protect people from the established barns, including the one which so diminished his own life, many years ago.
And it has cost him more than just blood, sweat and tears.
"I have spent a lot of money on this issue, hiring lawyers, consultants, renting halls for meetings, telephone, gas and the list goes on. I am thankful to the support I get; they keep me going!"
Joe still lives in the Interlake region, but now in the small community of Eriksdale, with only one hog barn in the vicinity. His reputation as a fierce opponent of the barns seems to have preceded him and lent strength to others of like mind. He says the former Reeve of Eriksdale, for example, was happy to see him in his area because "There'll be no more hog barns built here now!"
These days, he keeps busy with many things.
"I'm trying to build additions to my cabin so I can have some sort of a home. That is very hard for an old man with health conditions."
He remains close to his daughter, Maria, who lives in the same region.
His hobbies include, collecting antique guns and building miniature stagecoaches.
But he still finds the time to take jabs at those behind his long ordeal, whenever he can. "Most of my time is spent writing to friends that share the same views and blasting the people that allowed this to happen…."
Joe observes, "There is so much to be reviewed and it is hard to follow the exactness of time periods. Obviously, we are looking at a long time ago, but the memories are bitter."
Where are they now? A glimpse at the main players in Joe's story.
(1) Steve Ashton is now Minister of Infrastructure and Transportation in the NDP government of Greg Selinger.
(2) Gary Doer is now Canada's Ambassador to the U.S.
(3) Gary Filmon is now retired from politics and works as a private consultant in Winnipeg.
(4) Andrew Dickson is General Manager of the Manitoba Pork Council and lives in Winnipeg.
(5) After serving as Minister of Agriculture, Deputy Premier and Finance Minister, Rosanne Wowchuk has also left active politics and lives in Swan River, Manitoba.
Author's Note: Rest assured, for them, there is nary a hog barn in sight! l.p.