Peter Orphanos 1945-2012

Sierra Club Peel Group Chair Peter Orphanos died on December 17th after a long struggle with cancer. His funeral in Mississauga was overflowing with individuals who knew Peter as a knowledgeable and determined voice for his community and its natural environment, most especially, his beloved Credit River.

Peter and I first connected over the phone about twelve years ago. He phoned the Sierra Club Ontario office looking for advice and assistance with his campaign to relocate the Streetsville based Kraft Inc. flour mill. During this call Peter thoroughly presented his case for the Kraft mill being removed from the Credit River Valley. He established his logical position that stewardship of the Credit Valley needed to be based on the principles of environmental sustainability and the preservation of natural areas. The presence of a large industrial plant in Streetsville’s stretch of the Credit Valley was a holdover from a bygone age that no longer fit with the new millennium’s priorities of a natural watershed and greenspace, a wildlife corridor and habitat and a place for the enjoyment of nature.

I was soon to discover that Peter’s determination and commitment to the Credit was of long standing. Others in the environmental movement shared with me their interactions with him. I was forewarned as to Peter’s persistence and resistance to taking no for an answer. Armed with this information I was not surprised when Peter’s calls became more frequent and his requests for Sierra Club involvement more regular. One day I decided to cut to the chase. “Peter” I said, “I could justify the time I’m spending on this issue a lot easier if you would join the Club”. So he did. And as was true of everything Peter Orphanos did, he committed himself fully to Sierra Club.

The match was a perfect one. Sierra Club is unique in providing citizens like Peter Orphanos with an organizational base to carry out grassroots environmental advocacy. But Peter didn’t stop there. Working with Sierra Club organizer and now Sierra Club Canada Past President Paula Boutis (known with affection as the Bylaw Queen) he created the framework of the Sierra Club Peel Region Group. Peter then set about recruiting other Peel Region based individuals to work together under the Club banner to achieve their common goal of an environmentally sustainable community.

Under Peter’s leadership Sierra Peel effectively addressed a broad swath of environmental issues affecting the land base of Peel Region. The preservation of the remnant natural areas of the community became the unifying theme to Sierra Peel’s work. At the centre of this mission and work was always the Credit River watershed.

The proclamation of the Greenbelt in 2005 added immeasurably to Peter’s campaign focus. The promise of the Greenbelt provided a framework for Sierra Peel’s vision for protecting watersheds, natural areas and farmland. There were only two big problems standing in the way. The Greenbelt, as originally proclaimed, included only a relatively small portion of Peel Region. Only part of the Credit River was in the Greenbelt and Mississauga was entirely left out. The second problem was that no mechanism existed for expanding the Greenbelt.

Still, the Greenbelt provided a base for the concept of preserving Ontario natural areas and farmland. Peter, along with many other environmentalists, set to work on fulfilling the promise of the Greenbelt. The Government of Ontario’s subsequent announcement of criteria for Greenbelt expansion provided the impetus for active campaigning to grow the Greenbelt. Peter immediately set to work with citizen advocates, government officials and conservation agencies, with special emphasis on Credit Valley Conservation (CVC), to expand the Greenbelt in Peel and Halton regions. The Greenbelting of the Credit River in its entirety was foremost in his mind.

It was at this stage in his Sierra Club work that Peter clearly expanded his focus to include the provincial government. His network of friends and contacts already included Peel and Halton Region based MPPs (and MPs) as well as prominent Ontario bureaucrats. His expertise was such that if I had a question regarding the Places to Grow Act, as but one example, I would phone Peter.

Perhaps the single occasion that showcased Peter’s amazing ability to bring everyone from cabinet ministers to community based volunteers together was the June 2010 Sierra Peel annual celebration.  Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Jim Bradley was the featured speaker. He was introduced by Ajax Mayor Steve Parish who stepped in for Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion, when she cancelled at the last minute. There were probably twenty elected officials in that room in conversation with Greenbelt and environmental advocates from throughout Southern Ontario. It was a night for all to remember and an occasion when everyone present came together with a common purpose.

Peter’s work to protect the Credit River and the remaining natural areas of Peel and Halton through adding them to the Greenbelt kept moving forward and his stature within an ever widening sphere of the conservation movement continued to draw respect. It was my personal honour to be seated with Peter and his family on the March 2011 evening when CVC bestowed on him its highest honour, the Award of Excellence.

In September of that same year Peter was involved in an auto accident that resulted in his hospitalization. This disturbing news only grew worse as it was discovered that the real threat to Peter’s health was the cancer that ended his life on December 17, 2012. During the course of his illness Peter continued to campaign for the Greenbelt and for the permanent protection of the Credit River.

His work continued to be honoured. Just a month before his death the Latornell Symposium presented Peter with their Latornell Conservation Pioneer Award. I had planned to be there to see Peter receive this high honour. Unfortunately this came at the point where his condition had deteriorated and he could no longer travel. I traveled with Sierra Peel Co-Chair Rosemary Keenan to be on hand as CVC’s John Kinkead accepted the award for Peter. In a moment of inspiration the three of us decided to visit him that afternoon and give him this hard-earned recognition of his life’s work.

Peter was surprised and happy to see us. He was joyful and emotional as he held the Latornell award. This lasted for about a minute. Then Peter was on to the next task of engaging the three of us in his continuing plans for protecting the Credit, his river. This was to be my last chance to speak with Peter. It was fitting that this last conversation was on the point that had brought us together many years before, Peter’s passion for the environment and for the permanent protection of his beloved Credit River.

I had this memory fresh in my mind as I found myself in conversation with Peter’s army of environmentally committed friends at his funeral. It was most fitting that we were all focused on Peter and the work we shared with him. We all knew what Peter would have wanted us to do and it lifted our spirits to be continuing the struggle that he had led us through for those many years. As I made my way home that December day I thought about what Peter would have said to me in parting and I found myself responding out loud. “We will protect the Credit River Peter and we will insure that it is your lasting legacy for generations to respect and enjoy”.

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