THE DEMOCRATIC REPORTER
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Toronto Star - Sept. 9, 2009, Wed. - pg. 1 & 2 GTA section - By Mike Funston Urban Affairs Reporter
MAN OF SALVOS
Mississauga citizen watchdog Don Barber raises monarch butterflies at home and raises Cain at city hall.
To friends and neighbours, he is a good man who works tirelessly to protect wildlife and natural habitats. To city politicians and staff, he is a negative force, the reason behind council's recent decision to drop its public question period – a rare tradition for a city government – after more than 30 years.
Barber, who used question period for 15 years to poke, prod and insult councillors over their policies and decisions, won't be able to do that when Mississauga council meets next Wednesday. And he says he won't bother to attend today's committee meeting, which will have no community cable TV coverage and a 15-minute limit on public input.
It was his passion for the environment – one friend calls it dedication bordering on obsession – that turned the 53-year-old burly, bearded bachelor into an activist.
His involvement began in 1994, when the Cawthra Bush, a 21-hectare area in Port Credit that fuelled his boyhood fascination with the natural world, was subjected to the cutting of 1,600 trees. The cull was part of a city maintenance plan that Barber believed threatened a previously unlogged area, rich in plant and animal species, that could take care of itself.
The five-year fight for a ban on tree-cutting devolved into a series of clashes between councillors and Barber, a man who speaks quietly and deliberately but in language that's often sarcastic and insulting.
Councillors "circled the wagons" and tried to shoot him down, as Barber recollects it, but that only strengthened his resolve. The more he came back, the more the accusations and insults flew. Many of his allegations can't be printed for legal reasons.
Over the years, Barber has continued to be a thorn in the city's side while filing frequent freedom of information requests (he wouldn't venture a number). A 2002 decision by Ontario's privacy commissioner, in response to complaints that he was abusing the process, restricted Barber to four such requests a year.
Then there have been his sometimes outrageous allegations about various senior officials. At one question period, to illustrate an unsubstantiated insinuation, he presented Mayor Hazel McCallion with a birthday bottle of Bristol cream sherry.
Neutral observers would agree he sees the mayor and council through a very dark lens – and the feeling is mutual. Animosity peaked in 2006, when Barber was ejected from the council chamber during a heated exchange, and was charged with assault for allegedly pushing a security guard on the way out.
The charge was in the court system for a year before being dropped. A bail condition for Barber was that he stay away from city hall. He claimed he was set up, in order to keep him on the sidelines during the run-up to the 2006 municipal election – in which he ran for mayor against McCallion and came a distant second with 2.99 per cent of the vote.
A judge ruled against the city's subsequent request to have a peace bond issued against him.
Barber doesn't see his ongoing war with city hall as an obsession so much as a refusal to be intimidated by the schoolyard bullies intent on silencing him. He has run against McCallion four times and started a website devoted to Mississauga politics.
As the primary target of his scorn, McCallion makes no secret of her disgust at the media attention Barber gets, suggesting it only encourages his excessive behaviour.
"Unfortunately, (while) he has raised some good points he spoils it in his presentation because he immediately becomes confrontational as well as insulting. That's it in a nutshell," McCallion says.
"The mayor and members of council want to hear his questions, but he refuses to accept answers."
When Barber served on a citizen environmental committee, she says, the city wound up disbanding it after other members quit over his negative approach.
Currently unemployed but trained in repairing printing presses, Barber comes to environmental interests as an avocation.
"I have been successful in many different ways. I stopped the logging and tree farming; I helped advance science through my discoveries about the Cawthra Bush. It went from being a bunch of trees to a provincially significant wetland and declared an old-growth ecosystem," he says.
Bob Morris, a biologist at Credit Valley Conservation Authority, confirms Barber's claim that he discovered the presence of fairy shrimp, tiny freshwater crustaceans, in the bush's wetlands.
"That was new to us," Morris says, adding that Barber also raised awareness about the rare Jefferson salamander found in the bush, a factor in its ultimate preservation.
Still living with his father in the modest home where he was raised, Barber has created a monarch butterfly habitat in the yard.
He collects their eggs and protects the caterpillars until they change into butterflies, releasing hundreds of monarchs every year.
While he may have alienated people inside and outside city hall, he also has loyal friends and admirers.
"As a person he's outspoken, politically incorrect and willing to poke into places people often ignore," said Laurie Kallis, a Hamilton artist who used to live in Mississauga. "And from what I can see, he's paid the price for it."
She credits him, in the Cawthra Bush fight, with saving an extraordinary ecosystem in an urban area.
She and Barber once stopped a developer from chainsawing mature trees on Mississauga Rd. by standing in front of them.
Kallis painted a portrait of Barber at Cawthra Bush for a juried art show, and notes that it later was on display in city hall during a time he was banned from attending council sessions.
Councillors always did want to see him hung, Barber jokes – just not that way.
"He can be a pain in your side sometimes, but he does make sense," says another activist, Roy Willis, who has ruffled a few feathers at city hall himself.
"He's very intelligent, does his homework and his research," says Willis, "but he goes about it the wrong way, in my opinion. (Councillors) get their backs up, get mad at him, and no matter what he says, they will not listen just because it's Don Barber."
John Walker, a next-door neighbour who has known Barber for 50 years, describes him as "a very gentle person. He feeds the squirrels. He wouldn't hurt a flea."
A friend, Virginia Hughes, admires Barber's efforts for wildlife.
"Recently he saved four orphaned baby skunks," Hughes said.
"Whenever I come across an injured bird or animal, I call him and he's there in a heartbeat."
[COMMENTS BY DON B. - ]
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