Big city issues resonate across town lines in Ontario’s municipal elections

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Wendy Landry is worried about affordable housing, accessible public transit and infrastructure.

Her checklist of issues, which reads like a snapshot of big-city newspaper headlines, encapsulates some of the challenges facing the small northern Ontario community of Shuniah, east of Thunder Bay, where she’s been acclaimed to a second term as mayor.

Like most of the 417 municipalities where local elections are taking place on Monday, Shuniah’s campaign unfolded quietly in the shadow of Toronto’s more high-profile race.

Most of the airtime was consumed by the city’s bruising battle with the provincial government over the size of city council, but the list of issues dominating Toronto’s campaign trails is known well beyond its borders.

Its contents resonate with voters across the province, Landry said, adding many of the concerns typically framed as unique to big cities transcend town lines and are relevant in communities of all sizes.

Now that the Toronto fight has come to an end, Landry said she hopes those in higher orders of government can work with newly minted councils to tackle universally pressing issues.

“We weren’t getting any of our issues addressed,” Landry said in a telephone interview. “But they’re the powers that be, so you have to let them get through their stuff and then hopefully come back and take a look and hear what we have to say about our issues.”

Simon Jefferies, a spokesman for Premier Doug Ford, said Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark “has been working day-in and day-out with local governments on the priorities that are important to them.”

Landry cites mass transit as one of the top issues facing much of northern Ontario, including her community of about 2,700 people.

Residents, she said, have few if any options for traversing the hundreds of kilometres between communities and require a broader bus network.

Other municipalities have tried to take action on transit over the past four years, with some turning to the private sector for either inspiration or direct help.

Innisfil, Ont., struck a partnership with Uber that sees the ride-hailing company provide service to designated areas for a flat fee subsidized by the town.

More recently, Belleville, Ont., established an Uber-style bus service in which residents travelling at night request pickups from buses that then follow routes based on demand rather than pre-determined stops.

Landry said accessible housing is another broadly relevant issue, adding the existing supply is not well-suited to the needs of an aging and changing population.

Liz Huff, retiring councillor for Leeds and the Thousand Islands in eastern Ontario, agrees.

She said the single-family homes that dominate rural communities like hers become too unwieldy for seniors whose health needs may grow complex over time.

That supply is stretched even thinner, she said, by an influx of both retirees and working professionals relocating to areas beyond the expensive cities where housing may now be unaffordable.

Huff said the growing shortage forces life-long residents to uproot themselves and relocate in order to survive, adding incoming local governments are increasingly forced to confront the issue.

“We don’t have suitable housing for aging in place,” she said, echoing sentiments expressed by other municipal politicians across the province. “People have to leave and go to … assisted living or retirement communities because they can no longer take care of their farm or their waterfront property.”

Anecdotes from the province’s many election trails suggest candidates also find themselves frequently fielding questions on the interconnected issues of infrastructure and taxation, according to the Association of Municipalities of Ontario.

Executive Director Pat Vanini said nearly every jurisdiction has a pet infrastructure project that galvanizes local debate, adding they can range from roads to flood-water management systems to internet coverage.

While the projects may vary, Vanini said there’s a universal, perennial question underpinning the discussions.

“The question has always been, ‘how do we pay for it,'” Vanini said. “If you don’t want your taxes to go up, what services don’t you want? Those are the things that councils deal with daily. Voters don’t necessarily deal with it in the same way. They deal with it in an emotional piece, for sure, but they’re not…trying to figure out how to thread the needle on all of this.”

Huff added that taxation becomes a particularly contentious issue in municipalities that don’t provide curbside garbage pickup or local water treatment services.

Gary McNamara, recently acclaimed to a fifth term as mayor of Tecumseh, Ont., said taxation has loomed large in every municipal campaign he’s witnessed. This year, however, he said local governments across southwestern Ontario and beyond are wrestling with a new arrival on the municipal scene — legal cannabis.

The provincial government, tasked with creating the framework for the new federal law lifting the ban on recreational pot, has allowed municipalities a short window in which to decide whether to allow private cannabis retailers to operate within their boundaries.

That issue, plus decisions around welcoming cannabis-affiliated businesses and absorbing the potential influx of people that come with them, has engaged voters so far and promises to keep freshly elected councils busy early in their new mandates, he said.

“After inaugurations, boom, that’s probably the first piece of business that’s going to have to be dealt with,” McNamara said. “There’s still some uncertainty there.”

Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press

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