November 22, 2021 Report to Council
The following are the prepared remarks delivered by Councillor Douglas W. Judson at the meeting of Committee of the Whole of Council on November 22, 2021. Check against delivery. |
I have 3 updates to share this evening. I have not given an update in some time, so I will ask your indulgence for a few minutes to catch up.
First, as we will get into later tonight, the future of the International Bridge remains a live concern for our community and a top priority for the Economic Development Executive Committee.
On November 12, I attended a meeting with local MP Marcus Powlowski, along with Councillor McTaggart, Mayor Caul, and Mr. Anwar. At that meeting, we reiterated the Town’s concerns with any change of ownership of the bridge that does not have significant and enforceable public interest criteria as a condition of Transport Canada’s approval.
From my discussions and correspondence with officials, it seems self-evident at this point that there is limited prospect that the bridge will transition to public ownership, particularly with the American half of the bridge already having changed hands.
For that reason, the focus of my comments during our discussion with Mr. Powlowski was to urge the federal government to ensure that their approval comes with strings attached that protect our community.
We have all gotten a taste over the past 2 years of what happens to our region’s economy when the bridge is not open for use. While I am confident that Transport Canada requires that the bridge meet safety standards, I am concerned by the language of the correspondence we have seen that suggests this is a self-monitoring exercise in the hands of the owner.
If the bridge were ever to close for repairs or because the required rehabilitations were unaffordable, the impact on our region’s economy would be absolutely devastating. And when I say region – I mean the entire region. This crossing is a lifeline for Northwestern Ontario. Businesses, families, and tourism operations from Kenora, to Sioux Lookout, to Atikokan, and every municipality and First Nation in between and beyond are dependent on this vital transportation link.
The fact that Transport Canada wasn’t even aware that Resolute had struck a deal to sell the bridge until they read about it in the news and heard about it from this council also tells me that a guess-and-check approach to monitoring this asset isn’t going to cut it.
What might work in Detroit and Windsor – where there are multiple, free or cheaper crossings close by – is not good enough for Fort Frances and Northwestern Ontario.
On November 19, I held two additional meetings on this file to make sure that our concerns are reaching as many federal ears as possible.
First, I held a meeting with my friend, Kenora MP Eric Melillo. I briefed Mr. Melillo on our concerns with the bridge and the status of its sale. In addition to the issues I have already described, I expressed my view that Transport Canada’s limited consultation with just Fort Frances wasn’t enough in light of the interest of communities in his riding and elsewhere. I also asked him to raise these issues with MP Melissa Lantsman, the Official Opposition’s transportation critic.
The second meeting I held was one I arranged through another friend – federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra. The Minister had his office connect me with representatives of Transport Canada and the Department of Justice with carriage of this file. I repeated my concerns about the maintenance of the bridge, the long-term affordability of the tolls, and informed them of the critical economic role of this bridge in our region. I made clear to these officials that their consultation was under-inclusive.
My specific request of Transport Canada was that they do more to prevent the kind of corporate mischief our community has been victim of with other key economic assets. You will all recall that back in 2006, it was reported that millions of dollars would be needed to upgrade the bridge in about 15 years’ time. We were always told that that is why our tolls to cross are so high – to save for that rainy day. But, lo and behold, we are now at the other end of that 15-year timeline, and Resolute is once again walking out the door on Fort Frances. They are doing the same thing they did with our mill, with our local wood rights, and with the taxpayer-funded biomass facility just across the street – they are trotting off with the money our community and taxpayers have paid them, while dumping a challenging asset with the first bidder before it requires any reinvestment.
This disturbing pattern is why I asked Transport Canada to require an asset management fund be maintained for this bridge, if it is to be privately owned, and that that fund follow the asset and change hands with it in the future. I emphasized that any closure or restriction on this bridge or toll hike would be economically devastating for our community and region, and would not be forgotten by our citizens. I also asked Transport Canada to look into the fact that the tolls are collected on the U.S. side of the bridge, and whether this allows Canadian officials to regulate them or intervene if they become even more exorbitant.
The Transport officials I met with encouraged community and municipal stakeholders to submit their comments and concerns so that they could be considered as part of their approval process. We are encouraged to do so quickly, and I am sure we will have that discussion later tonight.
New Park Development
The second matter I would like to report on tonight relates to items which appeared before the Planning and Development Executive Committee last week. These are both initiatives that I brought to council and I am pleased to see them moving forward.
The first one is the project to expand the existing Phair Avenue Park, which, if approved, will provide new greenspace and recreational amenities to that east-end neighbourhood.
The second one is the proposal to build a splash pad water park in the community, which will fill a much-needed recreational gap for young families and children. The committee has proposed two potential locations, which will be costed and submitted to the capital budgeting process.
Both of these projects – if they are endorsed by council – will be some of the first new park developments we have seen since the construction of the skate park many years ago.
I want to spend a moment talking about these projects because I think that council’s willingness to pursue them will say a lot about our commitment to the next generation of our citizens and our openness to renewal.
Since moving my permanent address here in 2017, I have watched a steady flow of young families, young professionals, and youth leave the community for new opportunities.
Just a few weeks ago I heard of someone – with local roots here – who turned down a professional, well-paying job because they would prefer to live in another city in the region with more developed amenities. And that is the reality – we are competing for citizens with every other community in Northwestern Ontario and across Canada. And as housing prices and rents climb ever higher, the affordability case alone isn’t enough to bring people to or keep people in our municipality.
I have done what I can to welcome newcomers to Fort Frances, and soon after settling, many have lamented a lack of recreational spaces for their families or themselves – and the apparent disconnect between the wilderness destination we say we are and how inaccessible many of those experiences are to anyone without the benefit of intergenerational cottage ownership or the financial capacity to own snowmobiles and boats.
I have spent time in similar-sized communities across the province, and the reality is that we are behind in making some of these investments. Part of that comes from almost two decades, before this term of council, of levying taxes at rates less than inflation – trying to do more with less year after year, snubbing the investments we need to maintain our youth.
The next version of Fort Frances is one that needs to be built – and to be an attractive home – to people who need to live their lives within the four corners of the municipality. They don’t have cabins. They don’t have boats. They don’t have snow machines. They may not have the financial capacity to leave the community on trips. But we need them to fill a growing labour shortage and maintain our tax base into the future.
To do that, we need to have proximate and diverse recreational amenities for their families. We do not need to look far to see what happens to communities that do not change their priorities when a major employer or industry shuts down or moves on.
My purpose today is not to gloom-and-doom our discussion of these projects. It is to underscore that we have real opportunities to reinvent our municipality, and we must do so mindful of the moment of transition we are in, mindful of the political opportunities we have at both levels of government and with local Indigenous governments, and with a view to the changing demographic makeup of this municipality.
My third update is a comment. I want to give an official welcome to our new clerk, Ms. Lecuyer, and offer a belated official welcome to Mr. Anwar, because I don’t think I have used my update since he started in this role.
The CAO, the Clerk, and I have had several discussions over the past few weeks about governance challenges and opportunities for the municipality and I have very much enjoyed their policy-mindedness, professionalism, and strategic thinking.
I am really looking forward to what you both bring to this organization.
As a final word, I want to thank the numerous constituents and community members who have reached out to express their support for me using my platform to speak out against bigotry and racism in our community, to provide a voice to young families and the challenges they face, and to hold other public officeholders accountable across the region.
I am going to continue to do that work, and I am not going to apologize to anyone for it. I am pleased to know we have community members who understand that, and who see through the vitriol and irresponsible newspaper reporting of recent weeks.
Those are my updates. Thank you for listening.