Artist meets contentious bridge plan with controversial protest

Brent Townsend’s methods may be unconventional, but he sees them as a final, desperate attempt to draw attention to his problem.

At the beginning of April, the 48-year-old artist, a Scarborough native who now lives in Campbellford, Ont., set up a five-metre cross on his lawn with a noose hanging from it. A sign attached to the cross reads “Political cover up drags on.” Late last week, he added a tarred-and-feathered sign to the display.

Townsend, who designed the polar bear on the Canadian toonie, is protesting the town’s plan to build a bridge that would require the destruction of his house. He is also upset at how the environmental assessment has been carried out.

The whole process has taken four years so far and is not yet complete. The town is now looking into the option of a different bridge going through downtown Campbellford, an option that would leave Townsend’s home standing.

“The problem is that I’m still hung out in the process,” Townsend said. “This could go another two or three years.”

The cross, he said, “represents the mistreatment of people and [is] a very strong, powerful image [of] what’s happening.”

As for the new addition to his front-yard protest, Townsend said that’s because the town has brought down the market value of his property.

“They’ve tarred and feathered my life with this thing,” he said.

Hector MacMillan, the mayor of Trent Hill, which includes Campbellford, finds Townsend’s display “repulsive,” especially given the town’s recent history with Ku Klux Klan imagery.

Last Halloween, two people entered a local costume competition. One was dressed as a member of the Ku Klux Klan, leading the other, in blackface, in a noose. They won.

“It was inconceivable that somebody would do that deliberately,” MacMillan said. “The two idiots that pulled that stunt at Halloween, they made a stupid decision and they will be the first ones to tell you that.

“But this decision was made deliberately.”

According to MacMillan, Townsend is getting his way. Around $160,000 is being spent on another study on the existing bridge to see if a neighbouring twin bridge is possible by tearing down buildings downtown.

“It will be dramatic,” MacMillan said. “If it can actually be achieved, the county won’t need his home.”

His problem, Townsend said, is with the municipal council for not disclosing at public information centres that an additional bridge through the downtown core was a feasible option.

“The bridge will go downtown where it should and some members of local and county government have misled the public during the [environmental assessment],” Townsend said. “Why? They won’t answer.

“This will end up being a textbook for municipalities on how not to conduct an [environmental assessment].”

And his protest piece?

“The town has done everything to try and shut it down,” he said. “It’s not meant to be a hate crime … I’m the one who’s been hung out with this whole convoluted [environmental assessment] they’re doing.

“I’m not a racist in any way and it wasn’t meant to be something that promotes that.”

Townsend, who lived near Scarborough Town Centre, moved to Campbellford in 1996. Moving again is not an option, he said. He did try four years ago before he “got locked down in this fight,” which he said broke up his marriage and made him close his business.

“I didn’t move here to be fighting a bridge, that’s not what my life’s about,” he said. “I no longer want to live with this current government … I don’t want to live here. And that’s sad, that it’s come this far.”