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  • Writer's pictureDouglas W. Judson

The Top 10 of 2021: Fort Frances Year in Review

Updated: Dec 30, 2021

Four years ago, I published a column encouraging citizens to look to the new year ahead (RIP, 2018) as an opportunity to drive change in the community. I highlighted examples of citizen-driven advocacy on social and economic issues in the world around us, and opportunities closer to home.

Today, as the holiday glisten gets packed away and we face a new threat from COVID-19, I would be lying to say that the same sense of optimism is so readily at hand. The pandemic has, in many ways, accentuated economic and social inequities, locally and abroad. Many of us are exhausted or worried, and none of us expected to be living in the shadow of COVID-19 for almost 2 years.

Some of our ailments are the unpleasant byproducts of necessary public health efforts. “Social distancing” has literally caused us to grow apart. It has sown a new nastiness in online civic discourse. It has also threatened the sustainability of once-habitual volunteerism and participation in the events, organizations, places of worship, and service clubs that would normally serve as a rally point and help us to look beyond some differences. Those forums once served as a platform for community-building and solidarity.

Much of that momentum and community muscle-memory that we could formerly take for granted has been lost since March 2020. But as we work to reclaim, rebuild, and reinvent our community for the post-pandemic world, we can draw inspiration from those bright lights in our midst that have endured these challenging times.

It continues to be a great privilege to serve on Council, and I draw my energy and motivation by reflecting on the milestones our municipality has achieved this year. I also think of our citizens and local organizations who have shared their talents or resources with others this year, and those who brought or built something new, positive, or inclusive for Fort Frances in 2021. Many have done so with little fanfare, praise, or expectation.

As we count down to 2022, please take a moment to recognize those whose contributions or achievements have made a difference in your year. Here follows – in no particular order – my list of the local "Top 10" big moments, people, and victories of 2021:

1. Health Workers

Health sector workers have been on the front lines of our response to COVID-19 since the alarm was sounded in 2020. Many are under tremendous strain, and continue to perform admirably after almost two years of changing requirements and demands. Many are continuing to perform amidst significant staffing and resources shortages, and in the fact of a vocal minority's evident disrespect for public health measures and the workers putting their lives on the line to provide care to the rest of us.

To be sure, the pandemic has deepened fractures in Ontario’s already-strained healthcare system. According to the Ontario Nurses Association, there are 20,000 nursing vacancies across the province. Physician recruitment is a perennial challenge in the Rainy River District. In my volunteer role with the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre, I hear about these challenges regularly.

If that daunting starting point for any response to a public health emergency weren't worrying enough, the Northwestern Health Unit – the public health agency which serves the Kenora and Rainy River districts – faces some unique challenges. Its catchment contains a number of vulnerable communities. Some are vulnerable because of their isolation or housing overcrowding, and others as a result of finite health resources at hospitals and health centres. This is on top of the well-documented risk of outbreak in schools and long-term care settings.

Yet through this long and evolving crisis, our region’s health workers have persevered. As of December 30, 2021, the NWHU catchment reports that 93.6% of those ages 12 and up have received two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. As of this morning, 158,092 vaccine doses have been administered here since becoming available earlier this year. Because these numbers are drawn from the CovaxON database, it is likely that they are under-inclusive of those organizations that do not feed into these figures.

All of this would not have been possible without the dedication of health workers – and particularly those organizing and staffing vaccination clinics and other front-line activities, such as hospital screening and PPE distribution. Many of these individuals have worked long hours and placed themselves and their families at risk in order to keep our community safe. As we move into a new variant of the pandemic, we must remember that these professionals deserve our respect and appreciation.

(The most basic way some of you can show our appreciation is by following public health orders and getting vaccinated. This is the New Year’s resolution that Ontario’s top doctors and health care leaders are asking you to make. Please get your vaccine or your booster shot as soon as it is available.)

2. Support for the Renaming of Colonization Road

On January 1, 2022, Fort Frances will officially rename Colonization Road East to Agamiing Drive and Colonization Road West to Sunset Drive. “Agamiing” is Anishinaabemowin for “at the shore”, and “Sunset” is a nod to local tourism marketing and the area Sunset Country Métis Community. These changes would not have been possible without the overwhelming public support of this initiative to show respect and inclusion of local Indigenous communities and citizens.

Fort Frances’ Colonization Road attracted national attention in 2019 with the release of local Anishinaabe comedian Ryan McMahon’s landmark film Colonization Road (you can stream it online, for free). While it was always self-evident to Indigenous people that celebrating the legacy of colonization was hurtful – and outright racist – more recent guidance tells us that it is also inconsistent with the guidance of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and policy statements from the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

Locally, this issue dominated headlines and airwaves for much of 2021, and unfortunately Council did not demonstrate appropriate leadership in framing its public consultation. I wrote about this on December 17 and won’t revisit it here.

What we can take away from the saga is that there was an overwhelming sentiment in the community that this was a necessary and long-overdue change. The divide between that fact – as demonstrated by the public record of support before Council – and some vocal critics and skeptics shows the changing social and political fabric of our community. I am excited about that change and what it means for the years ahead.

While the real work to address racism and better understand our local history of colonization remains outstanding, we can take some comfort in the knowledge that we have a strong community of allies to local Indigenous people who are ready to embark on a process of reconciliation. Colonization Road may serve as the first signpost on that journey.

3. Every Child Matters Marchers

On June 1, the remains of 215 children were found buried near a former residential school site in Kamloops, B.C., causing an outpouring of shock, grief, and horror as many settler Canadians were awakened to the gravity of the country’s treatment of Indigenous people. Since that time, hundreds more grave sites have been discovered at locations across the country.

These revelations have been felt locally too, where survivors of the residential school system and their families continue to carry the trauma of those harms and the intergenerational trauma of those racist policy choices.

On July 1, hundreds of people took part in a walk from the Sorting Gap Marina to the former site of the Fort Frances Indian Residential School. On a Canada Day when there were no fireworks, no parades, and no celebration of colonial legacy, citizens came together en masse to stand in solidarity – and to learn – from local Indigenous people.

One of the things that is most remarkable about this event was that it was organized on just a few days’ notice, entirely on social media, and yet it drew out hundreds of participants on what would otherwise have been a long weekend at the lake for many. Community members of all ages and abilities took part – some using the opportunity as a teaching moment for their children.

This moment – and those who were part of it – will stand as an important milestone in the evolving social, historical, and demographic identity of our community. It also sends a strong message to leadership figures that our community expects to see more from them on these issues.

4. Education Workers

Among the unsung heroes of the pandemic are those who work in education, who are in direct service of and care for the future generation of our citizens. While vaccines were widely available for most of the year for those ages 12 and up, our youngest community members have remained vulnerable.

Teachers and education workers – even if vaccinated – have risen to several challenges since March 2020, with often-limited or too-late support from the province. When in-person learning was suspended, educators have had to quickly adapt to online formats and technology for their classroom, and when students returned to classrooms, they were responsible for adhering to health requirements. Many have had to daily expose themselves to work environments that are ripe for outbreaks and disease transmission.

Education workers deserve our recognition and continued support, in large part because their hard work will not end when the pandemic is over. The disruption to classroom learning and switch to remote or virtual delivery has unsettled the development of many young people, and has removed limited structure and support from the lives of our community's most vulnerable youth.

Many of these students may not have a suitable learning environment at home, basic nutrition, or even internet access. The long-term consequence of this will fall to educators, and the pandemic will take the greatest toll on those of least means.

5. The Big Gift-Givers Behind Good Causes

While some organizations have struggled to keep revenue streams running during the pandemic, some private businesses and citizens have continued to step up as generous sponsors. Three especially significant partnerships spring to mind – two of which are from the same donor.

  • In January 2021, it was announced that Beyak Automotive Group had acquired the Club 88 building, and would be continuing its partnership with the Rainy Lake Gymnastics Academy by making the former bar and theatre – with its high ceilings and event lighting – available as a permanent home for the club. This has allowed the club to expand its operations and “settle in” to a space it does not need to share with other users.

  • In September, Beyak Automotive Group gifted a coach bus to the Fort Frances Lakers. Lakers’ President Gary Silander told local media at the time that having their own set of wheels will make a $90,000 difference in the team’s finances. This puts the Lakers – another volunteer-driven organization – in a far better financial position to continue to offer a leading sports program in our community.

  • December 25 marked the third year for the Cridland family’s and Flint House’s sponsorship of the community Christmas dinner. The Cridlands stepped up after the previous organizer was no longer able to move forward with the event. Their initiative mobilizes other volunteers and donors, and sees hundreds served on Christmas Day. The Cridlands also recently made a significant donation to the Riverside Health Care Foundation's "Picture This" campaign.

Local business in Fort Frances – and the families behind them – have a long history of supporting youth and community causes. It is terrific to see them continue to give what they can during an incredibly uncertain and challenging time.

6. Single-Use Plastics Bylaw Supporters

On January 1, 2021, the Town of Fort Frances’ new bylaw restricting the use of certain single-use plastics in the municipality came into effect. The bylaw is the first of its kind in Ontario, and primarily targets single-use plastic checkout bags, foam takeout food containers, and plastic straws. The bylaw was adopted a year earlier, with a delayed coming-into-force date to allow a public education initiative to run its course and for businesses and consumers to have sufficient time to adapt.

The bylaw has proven exceedingly popular in the community. Major retailers like Safeway and Walmart quickly adapted their practices. Consumers, for their part, have embraced the bylaw with open arms.

While monetary penalties under the bylaw are currently supposed to come into force on January 1, 2022, a recent push by some restauranteurs to delay ticketing a further 6 months due to supply chain issues appears to have the support of a majority of Council. Even so, the proponents for the delay have indicated that their consumers largely expect them to comply with the bylaw and vocally raise concerns when they use the prohibited products. The federal government itself has asked municipalities to hold off on regulatory efforts due to ongoing supply chain challenges.

This bylaw initiative and the community’s positive response has cast Fort Frances in a positive and progressive light. The local embrace of this bylaw is getting attention across Ontario (most recently, Sault Ste. Marie). It is demonstrating to municipalities that local government has a role in some of the biggest issues facing our planet, and that there is political will for small communities to adopt these environmental measures.

Hats off to all of the consumers and businesses that have open to new practices and changes to support this initiative.

7. Performing Arts Achievers

It has often been said that northern communities are a hotbed for talent simply because their citizens spend so many cold months indoors refining their craft. At the same time, the pandemic has been a serious challenge for the performing arts – with theatres, youth productions, and musical groups having to suspend operations in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19 among both performers and audiences.

Fort Frances has always punched above its weight in local theatre and musical performance, and many of us were reminded of the role Tour de Fort, Little Theatre, the Townshend Theatre, and even high school productions have contributed to our quality of life. This is what makes two particular artistic achievements this year especially remarkable, and noteworthy for their ability to bring joy to others during a difficult time.

The first shout-out goes to sisters Cassandra and Callahan Armstrong. Cassandra and Callahan are well-known to many for their singing – and Cassandra, in particular, for the popular online “story time” series she launched earlier in the pandemic. In March, the sisters’ Facebook performance of “An Easter Hallelujah” went viral. It now has over 12 million views.

Earlier this year, Cassandra also collaborated with a number of Broadway stars and New York-based musicians to record the music video “Give Love”. TBnewswatch prepared an online profile of Cassandra’s exciting young career, which you can read here.

What is remarkable about the Armstrongs’ success is that it reflects much of the change the pandemic has ushered in – specifically new opportunities we now have to work, learn, and collaborate with others remotely, even from smalltown Northwestern Ontario.

The second musical cause for applause is the November 2021 production of All Together Now, a musical review that was offered as part of a special program by Music Theatre International. Through this program, directors Catherine Bruyere and Renee Martin-Brown were able to secure the rights to perform a series of hits from well-known musicals.

The performance included commentary from members of the cast on the role of local theatre in their lives, and the proceeds from the shows was directed to the musical theatre program at Fort Frances High School. The performance was well-received by audiences and served as a reminder of the importance that local arts and music have played in the lives of generations of local young people.

8. Federal/Provincial Investments in Fort Frances

This past year saw a number of provincial and federal investments in our municipality which are cause for celebration. These include:

This funding will help to alleviate the burden on local taxpayers to ensure that municipal assets are maintained and remain available to support our communities into the future.

I continue to be actively engaged in discussions with officials at both levels of government on other urgent priorities, such as the Fort Frances-International Falls bridge.

9. Best for Kitty Volunteers and Fosters

Best for Kitty came into being during the pandemic to provide fostering care and locate “fur-ever” homes for stray cats and kittens in Fort Frances. With the closure of the border, collaboration with animal service organizations in Minnesota has become more difficult. Best for Kitty has stepped up, and as of November 2021, had successfully found homes for over 90 cats.

Recently, Best for Kitty approached Council to ask for use of our animal pound as overflow space when they do not have foster homes available. Council has yet to reach a decision, but I am continuing to push for us to support this volunteer organization and the good work they are doing for our community and its pets.

10. New Municipal Staff Leaders

The administration of Town of Fort Frances has itself seen a number of big changes in 2021, triggered by the retirements of the former Chief Administrative Officer and Deputy Clerk and resignation of the Clerk and Human Resources Manager, who each pursued new opportunities.

The recent hires include:

These are exciting additions to our staff because they each bring valuable new perspective from other organizations and communities. Their families will also become part of Fort Frances, and their experiences here as new residents will inform their work for the municipality.

I have been very impressed with the work of these new leaders in our organization and I am looking forward to what they bring to us in 2022.

Have I missed anything (or anyone) remarkable? Please let me know in the comments online.

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