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Guelph activist remembered as the grandmother of the environmentalist community (10 photos)

This Grounded feature celebrates the life and lasting legacy of local environmental activist Clover Woods

It was New Year’s Day and the freshly fallen snow collected on the few stubborn leaves still clinging to the trees in Clover Woods’ garden. 

Her daughter Bree watched quietly as Peaches, their chihuahua-pug mix, explored the dormant beds her mother had thoughtfully tilled and tended for nearly 40 years.  

Clover lived by the cycles of the seasons and 10 days earlier during the winter solstice — the start of winter and the shortest day of the year — she died.

Gardening was a passion for Clover and her love of cultivating extended beyond her beloved backyard garden. 

“She was committed to fostering community within the natural world,” said Bree. “That includes her backyard and all the different plants, welcoming other folks and sharing the plants and seeds.  Also, listening to the things they wanted to share and what was happening in their lives.”  

She was also deeply passionate about the things she opposed — the things that threatened the things she loved.

“I don’t know how many letters she has written in support of or in opposition to, things and decisions at city hall,” said Bree. “Her passion rose in opposition to anything that degrades or harms the environment.”

That opposition manifested most profoundly in late 1980s when Bree came home from class and told her how many cosmetic pesticides were being sprayed on the grounds and gardens at her school. 

“I was in Grade 4 and when I went to school I could smell it,” said Bree. “I started a petition at Central Public School.”

Clover joined forces with Bree and soon found herself embroiled in a decades-long battle with multinational corporations, agri-chemical researchers, city hall and the local school boards.  

“She fought the school boards first and then she fought city hall,” said Clover’s husband Bob Woods. “Those guys would get up and say you can’t take the tools out of our toolbox.”

The tools in their toolbox were a wide array of commercial pesticides and herbicides.

The chemicals made it easier to control the pests and weeds in the schoolyards and municipal parks as well as the countless flower gardens that beautified municipal properties throughout the city but that beauty and convenience came with a hidden cost, a cost that wouldn’t be fully appreciated and eliminated for another two decades. 

“They used to say, ‘this stuff won’t hurt anybody,'” said Bob.  “Everything she ever said has come to fruition.”

Clover was born in Guelph in 1952, the oldest of Stewart and June Macdonell’s three children. She had a sister Heather and a brother Timothy. 

She went to high school at GCVI and took a number of arts courses at the University of Guelph and Sheridan College. She also worked for a while in a local nursery. 

Bob was born in Niagara Falls and moved to Guelph with his family when he was 17. 

“We met through different groups of friends,” said Bob. “One of Clover’s best girlfriends was going out with one of my buddies.” 

They were married in 1973 and moved to Parry Sound where on Mother’s Day 1978 Bree was born. They moved back to Guelph a year later and in 1983 moved into their home on Elora Street.

“We bought this house from her grandfather,” said Bob. “He bought it in 1940 I think or around then.” 

Clover became a strong presence in the neighbourhood and that was evident in the outpouring of support, food and letters of condolence people have delivered to the house since she died. 

“She was so loved and such a force in the neighbourhood,” said neighbour and friend Susan Watson. “She took that out to the city level and worked on issues like pesticides that contributed to the critical mass and the change happening province wide.”

Clover had become the face of the Pesticide Action Group established by OPIRG and worked tirelessly to keep the issue on the agenda at city hall. 

“They used to call her Clover Weeds,” said Bob. “That was her nickname at city hall.” 

The changing tide was on her side and popular support for tougher regulations on pesticide use was growing in other communities as well. 

In the spring of 2009, more than 20 years after Bree started her petition, the sweeping Cosmetic Pesticides Ban Act came into effect province wide and ended the use of 250 pesticide products and 95 pesticide ingredients for cosmetic purposes.  

“When it was finally over and the regulations were put in place, I think that was when she needed to do the Merry Go Round,” said Bree. “The idea was to not be selling new products so, she could have as little impact on the environment as possible and educate people on reusing things.”    

The used children’s toys and clothing consignment store wasn’t her first entrepreneurial venture. 

“Before that she was a partner at Tributaries restaurant downtown,” said Bree. “They were the first organic market and vegan restaurant in Guelph. They were 20 years before their time.” 

Clover remained an activist supporting a number of causes including water rights through the Wellington Water Watchers and animal rights as a board member of the Guelph Humane Society. 

“She was diagnosed with stage three ovarian cancer seven years ago, likely from exposure to all the things we just talked about.” said Bree. 

The diagnosis did little to suppress her activist spirit.

“She was out like crazy over the last two years going down to the rallies organized by the students,” said Bree. “She must have gone to 20 in the last year.” 

Watson recalls a poignant moment with Clover during an environmental “die-in” rally at Market Square outside city hall last April.  

“Someone asked me to carry this big placard with ‘Love Your Mother’ and a painting of the planet,” said Watson. “When the time came for the die in, I placed the placard down on the ground and Clover and I lay down and curled around opposite sides. I just remember looking at her face and it was just so touching to see her embodying a political action at a die-in while she was terminally ill.”

Clover’s legacy is difficult to quantify. It can be measured directly in the friends she made, the wisdom she imparted and the changes she fought for as well as through the plants she grew in her garden and shared with others — plants that will come up again in the spring.

“Clover was really an elder of the vibrant activist community in Guelph,” said Watson.

“She was the grandmother of the movement against pesticides. With someone like Clover you become aware of the continuity and how some of these things are long battles and you may or may not be around for the tipping point. But certain things don’t happen without the people that came before laying the groundwork.”