Two senior members of staff and three councillors represented the Township of Wilmot at the annual Rural Ontario Municipal Association (ROMA) conference last week. The three-day virtual event enabled attendees to meet with elected representatives from Queens Park, connect with other municipalities in the province, and learn from experts about rural issues.
Here are some of the highlights.
Working with Indigenous Peoples
In his keynote, former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Perry Bellegarde said it’s important for municipalities to develop relationships with local Indigenous communities.
He pointed out that Truth and Reconciliation are not the same and that the truth must be told before reconciliation can be achieved.
“Many Canadians don’t know our history, including residential schools, couldn’t leave reservations without a permit till 1951, couldn’t vote until 1961. Ceremonies, songs, faith, heritage were banned,” said Bellegarde. “Reconciliation is necessary for every policy, decision and action while elected officials plan for the future.”
Ward 4 councillor Jenn Pfenning said, “Chief Bellegarde is always a thoughtful and inspirational speaker, and his keynote session was a great way to start the event.”
The Role of Science in Policy was an essential session for chief administrative officer Sharon Chambers.
“Dr. Bruce Lourie spoke about the critical role of municipalities in mitigating climate change and the transition to Net Zero,” she said.
In 2021, Wilmot council endorsed Transform WR’s 50 by 30 climate action strategy, with a commitment to cut local carbon emissions by 30% by 2030 and 80% by 2050. Pending approval of the 2022 budget, Chambers said the Township would develop an action plan to achieve those targets.
A joint delegation from the Townships of Wilmot, Woolwich, Wellesley and North Dumfries met with David Piccini, provincial Environment, Parks and Conservation minister, to request financial support for rural communities to develop greening strategies. Director of Corporate Services Patrick Kelly contributed to the memo that was submitted to the minister.
Ward 1 councillor Angie Hallman found the speech that stood out for her came from federal Rural Economic Development Minister, Gudie Hutchings, who said, “Rural Canada is 20 per cent of the population and contributes to 30 per cent of the GDP.”
Support from the Province
Kelly said that the speech by provincial Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark was impressive, especially when the minister gave an overview of existing and future funding initiatives that will support municipalities.
Clark announced the third round of projects under the Municipal Modernization Program (MMP), totalling over $28 million for 322 projects in small and rural municipalities. The funds can be used to modernize, digitize, and improve local operations, including streamlining housing approval processes.
Kelly said, “I look forward to notification of how much Wilmot will be allocated under the MMP. Our application was for funding towards our ongoing Records Management Improvements.”
Chambers and Kelly both acknowledged the challenges of virtual networking, but Chambers felt it was still possible to make meaningful connections with her peers.
“I collaborated with the Regional Township CAOs on delegations to the Minister of Infrastructure on the need to streamline funding approvals and application processes, as well as the Ministry of the Solicitor General on the reporting requirements for annual emergency preparedness,” she said.
Kelly is eagerly anticipating the return to in-person events, but he still valued the substantive joint-delegation meetings alongside other regional rural municipalities.
Hallman said she enjoyed the opportunity to connect with leaders so she could advocate for issues that impact Wilmot.
Ward 2 councillor Cheryl Gordijk felt that her discussion with the leader of the Green Party of Ontario was productive. “It was a great catch-up, as the last time I’d met with Mike Schreiner was in person, at ROMA 2020.”
The ROMA conference has a unique way of helping to re-focus the core mandates of rural municipalities, said Kelly. “We have a great deal of important initiatives already on our plate, including investing in core infrastructure, revitalizing parks and recreation post-COVID, and preparing for significant growth within housing and the employment lands.”
Pfenning said the conference gave her a lot to think about, including creative approaches to decision-making and problem-solving.
“Two of the key areas of focus were the housing crisis and the environment. From achieving a broader understanding of homelessness in our communities to ways to think about climate change impacts to municipally-owned infrastructure, my head is full.”
Polly Smith, Director of Employment and Social Services for Chatham-Kent, observed that “Myths and assumptions get in the way of progress,” which Pfenning said can apply to many of the issues faced by both communities and individuals.
Gordijk said that a session titled Poverty Reduction through Innovation, Partnerships and Service Transformation made a lasting impact.
“We already know the correlation between poverty and an individual’s overall well-being, but the presentations were a reminder that there’s no single solution to eradicating poverty,” she said.
While statistics demonstrated that there are many in the province who need help, Gordijk said there were also a great deal of good ideas, and community groups are making a difference.
“It reminded me of the Wilmot Stronger Together Facebook group, plus the support of residents for local businesses and fundraisers, which has been ongoing since the start of COVID.”
Like Pfenning, Gordijk felt the conference has inspired fresh and creative thinking.
“Sometimes, it’s just one presentation or meeting that sparks an idea. While not all initiatives from other rural communities are transferrable, they can be the start of a dialogue to see if they can be modified to work here.