Wal-Mart, Jesuits square off

Ontario board to rule on Guelph megastore
Church calls plans incompatible with rural sanctuary

GUELPH —The world’s largest retailer is taking on one of the Catholic church’s most respected religious orders.

In a hearing that started this week, a two-member Ontario Municipal Board panel will decide whether a 135,000 square-foot Wal-Mart store is compatible with the adjacent Ignatius Jesuit Centre, a 242-hectare rural property that includes a retreat house to which people from all over the world come for prayer and reflection.

The Jesuits say the Wal-Mart proposal, at the junction of Highways 6 and 7, will spell the end of the spiritual nature of the centre.

“This is sacred ground — a sanctuary for people, a sanctuary for wildlife,” said Rev. James Profit, the centre’s director, as he looked out over wetlands, an organic farm and quiet forested spaces that the Jesuits have occupied for almost a century.

Profit believes that God is on the Jesuits’ side.

“We’re not walking this path alone,” he said. “There is a greater power on our side.”

There are three cemeteries nearby, but the modern world can be seen and heard. There’s a plaza anchored by a Canadian Tire store and from the west, there’s a persistent hum from the ventilators of an Imperial Tobacco plant.

But Profit said the megastore, on land currently designated industrial, will spawn a new level of commercial activity and traffic and give impetus to greater development in the city’s north end than is presently envisaged.

Wal-Mart Canada spokesperson Kevin Groh sidesteps questions on whether the retail giant is taking on God.

“We have been very cautious about how we have proceeded,” he said in a telephone interview from the company’s Mississauga headquarters.

“We have consulted for almost a decade, and that includes the Jesuit group. The changes that we’ve made to the original design proposal are significant.”

They include a reduction in the size of the store, protection for the wetlands and more trees in a buffer zone.

Does the spiritual dimension raised by the Jesuits enter into the equation?

“It absolutely does,” Groh said. “For every development we undertake coast-to-coast in every community, we give a great amount of thought to compatibility. We need to know that ultimately a new store is going to be a good fit for everyone involved.”

Profit acknowledges that Wal-Mart has made changes to alleviate some concerns, but he points out the Jesuits — who have been in Guelph for 152 years and built a noviciate here in 1913 — won’t be able to make similar demands of other businesses attracted to the area if the rules change.

Wal-Mart should locate in space designated under the official plan, in areas where the city’s major growth is taking place — to the east, west and south, he said.

OMB panellists Bob Boxma, a Toronto lawyer, and John Aker, a former Oshawa and Durham Region councillor, are hearing arguments this week and next from lawyers representing Wal-Mart and the city on one side, and the Jesuit Centre and a citizens’ group on the other.

One major critic of the mega-store that isn’t present at the hearings is the Downtown Board of Management. Chair Jack Allan said in an interview the decision to withdraw as a participant was made for financial reasons, but the board would express its continuing opposition at the OMB’s public session tonight. For eight years, Guelph council — headed by smart-growth proponent Karen Farbridge — refused to approve the Wal-Mart store. Farbridge was defeated in last November’s municipal election by pro-development Mayor Kate Quarrie. In May, after hearing from 36 deputations against the project and six in favour, council reversed its position and voted 10-3 to allow it to proceed.

“What was amazing was that there was no debate despite all the people coming forward,” Profit commented.

Groh pointed out that council’s about-face reflects the will of the people as expressed in the municipal election and in a petition signed two years ago by 10,000 people.

Profit agreed there’s passion on both sides of the issue.

“It’s our spiritual connectedness to the land itself which gives us the passion to persevere,” he said.

“It’s made me reflect on the consumer culture and the perception that people have that there is nothing wrong with our consumption in the world today and the amount of it,” Profit said. “What we have here also has value — in our busy lifestyle, people more and more need sanctuary places to touch into the spiritual, the divine.”

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