Polling politicians: highlights, challenges and future goals

By Merna Emara
Staff Writer

In about one year, Fort Frances residents will be voting to elect their municipal councillors and mayor. With three years of the term under the bridge, it is about the right time that council reflect on the challenges, the highlights of their tenure and whether they will seek reelection.

Although the pandemic provides a new set of challenges that were not present at the beginning of the council term, future candidate campaigns will not lack pandemic recovery plans.

Current council members and the mayor say there are many files yet to be worked on, including reconciliation, economic development and increasing the town’s tax base.

Factoring in the pandemic, one thing council was not short on is challenges, especially for first-time councillors.

Coun. Mike Behan said with the steep learning curve, getting up to speed on time-sensitive issues was challenging. However, he said the town has worked with community partners, the federal and provincial governments to ensure the town was looked after.

The sense of challenge was also shared by Coun. Rick Wiedenhoeft, who has more than a decade of municipal politics experience under his belt.

Wiedenhoeft said one of the first issues council faced in light of the pandemic is the lack of gravesite and cemetery maintenance.

“Because we didn’t hire any summer students, the deterioration of the cemeteries and the graveyards was pathetic,” Wiedenhoeft said. “We took a lot of flak over that, and deservedly so. But I don’t think it was entirely our problem. I think COVID dictated that.”

Wiedenhoeft sits on the Community Services Committee and the Operations and Facilities Executive Committee. According to Wiedenhoeft, the former was the hardest hit by the pandemic because it overlooked town facilities such as the museum, the sports centre, the Marina, the Senior Centre and the library.

“That was really hard. We lost a lot of revenue because of that,” Wiedenhoeft said. “But the biggest thing was the residents were frustrated with the lack of activity and the restrictions that were placed on them due to COVID. That was probably the toughest one that we had to swallow during the COVID issue.”

Another challenging part is the loss of face-to-face communication. Coun. Douglas Judson says this has led to a disconnect between council members and constituents. Judson said council wants to hear concerns from residents, but some people in the community have developed bad norms for what is an appropriate contribution to the political debate.”

“The community has developed somewhat of an unhealthy online criticism habit,” Judson said. “Some of that demonstrates a robust level of civic ignorance and frankly it doesn’t show me that people want to solve problems, they just want to complain about something. Myself and other members of council have felt a lot of harassment in the community as well. We sign up to make decisions that we know will attract public criticism from time to time, and that’s fine.”

Despite having previous and ongoing challenges, councillors also spoke of achievements during this council term. 

Fort Frances Mayor June Caul is not new to municipal politics. She has served as councillor before becoming mayor in 2018. With COVID-19 in the background, Caul said she is proud of the relationship between the town and neighbouring First Nations communities, marked by the renaming of both Colonization Roads and the friendship declaration signed at Point Park.

“We have to make sure that we can continue to work and follow through on promises to achieve that reconciliation,” Caul said. “We need anti racism policies and education to achieve acceptance of people of all races, religions, genders, sexual preferences, and ethnic diversity through mutual respect and inclusion.”

In order to help with the road to reconciliation, council set up a First Nations Advisory Committee. Coun. Andrew Hallikas sits on the committee and he called it near and dear to his heart.

“We got to know each other better and learn ways in which we can cooperate with each other for the greater good of both communities,” Hallikas said. “We’re moving forward with our relationship and it’s becoming quite a positive relationship.”

Besides being happy with the Colonization Road names change, Hallikas added that the determination to bettering the relationship with Indigenous people led the current council to adopt an acknowledgement that they are meeting on Anishinaabe land of Treaty 3.

Judson has been a strong proponent of the renaming of both Colonization Roads, bringing the motion to the table and pushing for an Indigenous name for either of the roads.

He said while there is overwhelming support for moving forward with reconciliation in the community and the important role Indigenous people play in the fabric of Fort Frances, council missed an opportunity to engage in a thoughtful process and show leadership on reconciliation.

“Instead, council took a very whitewashed approach that I thought exposed the community to a lot of racism,” Judson added.

Coun. Wendy Brunetta said while she believes this was the right step to make, the process was rushed and lacked input from the community.

Brunetta said being a forward thinker, she said council is already thinking about ways to increase the town’s tax base with the Shevlin Woodyard and Gateway Projects.

The recent development of the Erin Crescent subdivision will also contribute to the town’s tax base in the near future as lots get purchased and homes get constructed.

Wiedenhoeft added that the ban of single-use plastics is also a milestone achieved that put Fort Frances on top of the list of municipalities in Ontario to go ahead with the ban.

With less than a year to nomination, some councillors have already decided they want to run again, beginning with Behan who said that he has the simple goal of working towards creating more jobs, tackling the current labour shortage, expanding the town’s tax base, and maintaining and improving services in order to ensure a successful future for the community, residents and businesses.

“That’s my only goal and that’s why I am here in the first place and why I want to keep working,” Behan said. “We disagree on some issues. But I think having a diverse point of view and backgrounds around the table leads to better decisions in the end.”

Brunetta said having enjoyed being on different boards and committees, she will run again as long as she can give it her all.

Hallikas also said he enjoyed working with what he called a more progressive council, while also hoping to increase the diversity of council to represent the full fabric of Fort Frances.

“If I see that there are some young people putting their names forward, I would consider not running to provide a space for a younger person to get on council,” Hallikas said.

Wiendenhoeft said he has decided to not run again, adding that with 15 years of being on municipal council, he’s just about ready to spend more time on the lake.

Judson said he has not decided yet if he will run again.

Finally, Caul is throwing her name in for mayor, adding that she enjoys promoting and getting the town recognized.

“I’m thinking of running again,” Caul said. “I feel like my job isn’t finished. There’s lots of things going on that I’d like to see through. I hope that people are happy with the job that I’ve done, and are willing to have me sit in this chair again.”