Skip to content

OPINION: Group therapy now required for new mayors

Of course politics has always been a tough game, but there is a patina of distrust and hostility that is new and disquieting.
Michael Atkins, president, Northern Ontario Business

In a few days, communities across the North and around the province will wake up with new municipal councils and mayors directing traffic in their communities. In some markets it's been a bruising battle and in others a little more genteel. A quick visit around Northern Ontario's news websites reveals some of the skirmishing.

In Timmins there are two big topics. One is the expense of an eight-day music festival called Stars and Thunder championed by incumbent Mayor Steve Black, which has lost $2.2 million in the last couple of years but also brought 25,000 visitors into the city. His chief opponent, George Pirie, is unimpressed. The other big debate is about a $48-million multi-use recreational facility. More than 200 people came out to the first big debate. This is a long way from the historic hegemony of Leo Del Villano and Vic Power, who shared running Timmins off and on for 50 years. This is a political battle.

In North Bay, it's gotten personal between incumbent Mayor Al McDonald, who is running on his record, and Gary Gardiner, who is happy to criticize it. They are accusing one another of various nefarious intentions and going at it pretty good. The underlying issue, as it is in most parts of Northern Ontario, is taxes and economic stagnation.

In the Sault, there are only four candidates for mayor and two fighting it out seriously: that's incumbent Christian Provenzano and challenger Rory Ring. There seems to be modest disagreement between them on the issues but plenty of tension to spice up the discussion. The real story is who wants to be in charge in the Sault, which has more to do with who is supporting these candidates than the candidates themselves. Sault Ste. Marie has suffered a great deal with the insolvency of Essar Steel and its impact on local suppliers over recent years. Things may finally be on the upswing there if they can survive steel tariffs.

In Thunder Bay, there are 11 candidates for mayor and a number with substantial political experience, including Bill Mauro, a previous provincial cabinet minister, and Frank Pullia and Iain Angus, long-time councillors. Sadly, the biggest issues appear to be concerns for personal safety (gangs and guns) and perennial tensions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.

In Sudbury, there are 11 candidates for mayor, with three or four viewed to be competitive. The big issue is the Kingsway Entertainment District, a massive $100-million investment moving the arena out of the downtown and establishing a casino and convention hotel in the same location. It has been hugely controversial and the only one running strongly in favour is incumbent Mayor Brian Bigger, which may be enough to get him elected as anti-development candidates will split their votes. Four candidates want to turn it back and everyone else is unhappy with one element or another. The development has been appealed to the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal.

Politics is changing weekly. Our inclination is to be more tribal than collegial. Of course politics has always been a tough game, but there is a patina of distrust and hostility that is new and disquieting.

Although this evolution is least pronounced in municipal politics, it is in full bloom provincially. The first words out of the premier's mouth with the settlement of the NAFTA negotiations and the protection of tens of thousands of jobs in the auto sector in Ontario was that our milk farmers, who continue to have access to 90 per cent of the supply management milk market, were thrown under the bus.

A required new skill for a new mayor is to learn how to tiptoe between an extraordinarily politically aggressive provincial government and an acknowledged small-L liberal federal government.

It will take a miracle to get them to collaborate, and collaboration is required in Northern Ontario. We need the support of senior levels of government to prosper in this neck of the woods, and group therapy is now a required skill set at the municipal level.

Welcome aboard.