Imagining the Future

It’s called community-based planning, and with it citizens hope to shape a sustainable future in the hills.

June 15, 2010 | | Environment

As I write this a fan-created Facebook page touting 79-year-old William Shatner, better known as Captain James T. Kirk of Star Trek fame, to become Canada’s next Governor General has more than 41,400 members. Shatner is well ahead of Man-in-Motion Rick Hansen who has 727 members, and the Father of the Reform Party, Preston Manning, who has 526.

The thousands who responded to the Facebook call to “back the Shat” are part of a new engagement by Canadians with public life. Another online petition, this time calling on the federal government to cut off serial killer Clifford Olsen’s old age pension benefits, gathered 46,000 signatures in a matter of a few weeks.

The movement to recruit Shatner – who hasn’t even said if he’s interested in the job – is part of the increasing influence of online networking sites, which are inviting more participation in the public process. So are blogs, media comment sections and YouTube. Access is easy, and often anonymous.

However, the Internet is not the only place this new democratic zeal can be found. Here in Headwaters, several groups of private citizens have begun banding together. In person, even. Using their real names!

The purpose of the gatherings sounds like crystal-ball gazing, but it’s actually called community-based planning. In differing ways, each group’s purpose is to have a say in the decisions that are shaping the destiny of our region. They’re attempting to peer into the future, pick and choose what they like, and then plot co-ordinates that will propel the good ship Headwaters in that direction.

Like Kirk, Spock and the gang, they’re determined to explore new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no resident of Headwaters has gone before. All without leaving home turf.

Along the way, it’s a great excuse to visit with the neighbours.

As a nation, we’re a conflicted bunch. A 2009 report on democratic engagement by the Canadian Index of Wellbeing shows that only a little more than 7 per cent of us claim we have no interest in politics. Presumably, this means that over 92 per cent of us do. Yet, only 59.1 per cent of us bothered to vote in the last federal election – an all-time low. Participation rates are even lower for provincial elections, and lower still at the municipal level.

So while more people than ever are interested and prepared to get involved, they aren’t participating in the traditional political system. Instead, they’re looking for new ways to make a contribution. The rise of community-based planning groups gives them an opportunity to do just that.

The Mono-Mulmur Citizens’ Coalition, or (MC)2 – pronounced Emm-See-Squared, is one such group.

(MC)2 was born in 2000, when separate ratepayers groups in each municipality banded together to fight the threat of amalgamation in Dufferin County. In the early years, (MC)2 focussed mostly on specific situations, such as opposing a factory farm proposal in Mono, a proposed aggregate operation in Mulmur, and the spreading of sewage sludge on Dufferin farm fields.

One battle in particular seriously tested the group’s mettle. Test pumping by a proposed water bottler in the area affected some local wells. (MC)2 took on the issue and delivered a 7,700-signature petition to Ontario premier and local MPP Ernie Eves, demanding that the planned operation be put on hold. Their efforts were successful; the province placed a moratorium on new “permits to take water.”

Along the way, however, the water bottler filed a civil lawsuit against several (MC)2 members.

Such suits are referred to as “SLAPP” suits, or “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.” Normally in such suits, the plaintiff does not expect to win. Rather, the purpose is usually to silence and distract critics with the cost and effort of mounting a legal defence.

Taking the threat very seriously, (MC)2 hired the best lawyer they could find, and though they eventually won, they also ran up a huge legal bill. Board member Harvey Kolodny says, “We won big time, even getting the province to stop the water taking, but seven of our board members were held personally responsible for the cost.” Indeed, (MC)2 continues to fundraise for legal expenses.

Since then, (MC)2 has evolved its role in the community. These days, rather than taking sides on specific issues, coalition president Don MacFarlane says that now “We see ourselves more in a communications role. We want to make sure that citizens are informed about important issues in the community, and that they have a chance to participate in the decisions being made.”

In an effort to do that, the group monitors every Mono, Mulmur and Dufferin County council meeting, reporting back to the membership about the goings-on. They hold all-candidates meetings at election time, publish a newsletter and issue other alerts about brewing concerns.

A couple of times a year, (MC)2 also hosts public forums, including a recent one on potential Green-belt expansion. But perhaps the surest sign of the group’s evolving preoccupation with consensus-building rather than confrontation was the “Mono Visioning Conference” they hosted this spring to explore how citizens want their town to look in 2025.

The meeting attracted about fifty residents. It was facilitated by an (MC)2 board member who is bucking the trend of engaged citizens who eschew conventional politics. Elaine Capes has filed nomination papers to run for Mono council. Capes says her children were a big part of her decision: “I want my daughters to know that they have the opportunity and the responsibility to be a leader in the community.”

Headwaters Communities in Action

Sylvia Cheuy, a paid consultant for Headwaters Communities in Action (HCIA), puts it slightly differently. Rather than leadership, she says, “There is very much a hunger for citizens to contribute – and be part of – their communities.”

Community-based planning, or to use her term, community collaboration, is an emerging option for people who in days gone by might have found that connection through more traditional volunteering opportunities, such as organized religion, the Women’s Institute or the Legion.

Only a little more than seven per cent of us claim we have no interest in politics. Yet, only 59.1 per cent of us bothered to vote in the last federal election – an all-time low. Participation rates are even lower for provincial elections, and lower still at the municipal level.

Established in 2004, HCIA bills itself as a cross-sector, collaborative, grassroots organization. Its goal is to promote “a vigorous, sustainable and resilient community” in Dufferin and Caledon.

Under the initial leadership of retired Orangeville businessman Cam Ballantyne, the group attracted a large following of active volunteers, including numerous prominent names in the community. After consultation with various community groups, HCIA decided to focus its first efforts on two areas: assisting with regional trail development and production of a community well-being report.

Based on the broad framework set out by the Canadian Index of Wellbeing, and with inspiration from similar reports in other communities, the HCIA report will aim to provide a baseline measure of the community’s economic, social and environ-mental health. The selection of the critical issues and indicators by which to establish that measure have been the subject of wide cross-community consultation by HCIA over the past three years.

Although it’s been a long process, Marg Long, chair of the report committee says, “We haven’t lost many members. I’m actually pretty amazed, but people tend to keep showing up.” She feels that the social aspects of the group have helped. “Absolutely. Getting to know people in the community has been a big part of it. I come away from every meeting feeling so energized.”

In Long’s view, the membership has a “tremendous amount of integrity.” And furthermore, because active politicians are not permitted, “There are no hidden agendas around the table. This helps ensure that everyone is heard, their opinions are equally valued, and we come to a consensus that will move the Headwaters region forward as a whole.”

“Everybody has a voice, and it leads to robust conversations,” says committee member Kerry Braniff. “Even at our Christmas party we find ourselves in deep conversation about issues over a glass of wine.”

“There is very much a hunger for citizens to contribute – and be part of – their communities.”

“We’re not a political organization,” says Long, “but we know that our work on community well-being will feed into the political process. Our hope is that the politicians will take it and use it.”

Holly Greenwood, HCIA’s other paid consultant, adds, “It’s difficult for politicians to make good decisions if they only hear the squeaky wheels. HCIA is in a position to provide the decision-makers with unbiased information.”

As the Canadian Index of Wellbeing describes it: “This collective action can indeed be a powerful force – refocussing the political discourse … helping to reshape the direction of public policy that will genuinely improve the quality of life of Canadians, and holding decision makers to account for whether things are getting better or worse.”

This sculpture by Kristina Priebe, 16, a Grade 11 student at Robert F. Hall Catholic Secondary School, was one of the winning entries in a competition sponsored by the Town of Caledon asking students to visualize the town’s future.

This sculpture by Kristina Priebe, 16, a Grade 11 student at Robert F. Hall Catholic Secondary School, was one of the winning entries in a competition sponsored by the Town of Caledon asking students to visualize the town’s future.

Meanwhile, down in Caledon, the planners seem pretty excited about the Community-Based Strategic Plan they’re developing. An introductory page on the town’s web site describing the process contains no less than six exclamation points!!!!!!

Unlike the work being carried out by (MC)2 and HCIA, development of Caledon’s plan is being driven by the town itself, with the help of a consultant.

Over the last eight or nine months, a series of public consultations have been held to hear residents’ hopes and dreams for the town’s future. Looking ten years down the line, the town’s goal is to “achieve continued economic, social and environmental success in the Town of Caledon.”

Planning director Mary Hall says the provincial Places to Grow legislation triggered the work.

“The growth plan created the White Belt (the portion of south Caledon that was left out of the Greenbelt) and some day, we assume, the White Belt will be developed. So councillors wanted a vision for that. We’ve always used a community-based approach to planning in Caledon, so the planning department made a proposal to council to do a Community-Based Strategic Plan for the whole town.”

In a relatively short period of time, they set out to get as many comments as possible from as many sectors as possible.

Some 20,000 surveys were sent out, one to every property owner and business in the town, and an impressive 500 of them were completed and returned.

A hundred organizations, from the Federation of Agriculture to residents’ associations to town committees to environmental, senior and athletic groups, were invited to take part in a stakeholder advisory group, and about twenty of them did.

Extending the conversation even further, the consultant sent people out to arenas and other public gathering points to speak informally with residents and encourage them to participate. And council attended five one-hour workshops on the process. As well, an art contest was held for students in grades six to twelve, as a technique to include the opinions of the town’s youth.

Attendance was slight at four town hall meetings on the topic, with the final drawing the largest turnout of about fifty. However, Hall says that sometimes a small turnout can be a good thing, in that people are more willing to speak up. “Small groups can have great ideas,” she says.

Patti Foley, president of Caledon’s Green T environmental group and a declared candidate for municipal councillor in Bolton, says “In all I’ve been very impressed with the efforts to engage the community in what truly is a distillation of what is really important to us.”

From what Hall describes as “a lot of dialogue,” six primary goals emerged, together with supporting objectives and actions.

While the process has been municipally led, Hall points out that some elements of the plan are outside municipal jurisdiction. “Some suggestions from the community would certainly benefit the town, but we don’t have the power to do it,” she says. As an example, she points to health care. Some participants, including those who submitted entries to the youth art contest, envisioned Caledon having its own hospital.

This sculpture by Aislinn Cicinelli, 16, a Grade 11 student at Robert F. Hall Catholic Secondary School, was a runner-up in the Caledon student art competition.

This sculpture by Aislinn Cicinelli, 16, a Grade 11 student at Robert F. Hall Catholic Secondary School, was a runner-up in the Caledon student art competition.

As a result, simply preparing and releasing the plan, due in July, isn’t enough. Hall says, “The next step will be looking for assistance from the stakeholder groups to implement it. We don’t know about buy-in yet.”

As the years pass, and other issues come up, how will the plan remain relevant? Hall says “A lot of municipalities use their strategic plan to work through what the municipality is going to do. If something comes up and it’s in the plan, it happens. If not, maybe we don’t focus on it at this time.”

So, will community-based planning be Headwaters’ salvation? May-be. Maybe not. Be that as it may, it will, as Patti Foley says, “tell the rest of the world what we are about and what matters most to us. And that’s important, because if you don’t define yourself, someone else will.”


They call it Dotmocracy

When the Mono Mulmur Citizens’ Coalition, or (MC)2, held its “Visioning Conference” this spring, it involved a lot of sticky dots and big sheets of brown craft paper.

(MC)2 is just beginning a process that other groups in the community have been at for some time. The Town of Caledon began developing its Community-Based Strategic Plan last November, and expects to release its final report this July. Headwaters Communities in Action began work some three years ago on its Community Well-Being Report, and plans to publish the final document this fall.

While (MC)2 is looking at a small rural municipality (population 7,000), Caledon at a much larger municipality (58,000) with a more urban mix, and HCIA is considering the whole Dufferin-Caledon region (112,500), common themes have emerged in all three community consultation exercises.

At the Mono Visioning Conference, display boards along one wall each described a different element of a possible future for Mono. Participants were asked to place sticky dots next to the statements they supported most. Among those that got the most dots were “respecting the community’s agricultural roots,” despite the fact that farming has already largely disappeared from Mono.

Environmental protection was also a top priority, distinguished from another high priority: preservation of the rural landscape. The former focusses on air and water quality and the like, the latter more on scenic qualities. Encouragement of arts and culture also figured prominently in the priorities of Mono citizens.

All of these factors likewise emerged as high priorities in the community consultations conducted by both Caledon and HCIA.

Economic prosperity is also identified as important in all three initiatives, but it is described with adjectives such as “sustainable” and “resilient.” That is, a healthy economy is no longer attached at the hip with “growth.” Indeed, containment of growth is another concept expressed frequently across the board. One factor that is deemed critical to prosperity by all groups is the need for region-wide, high-speed internet access.

Although it’s something of an amorphous term, maintaining a “small town feel” is also cited as crucial to the region’s future. On “mind maps” developed by each table at the Mono conference (this is where the craft paper came in), at least one group envisioned establishing a population ceiling.

In Caledon, where the population is expected to nearly double between 2006 and 2031, the small town concept is expressed as “completing our community of communities,” by maintaining the town’s current urban/rural mix and applying “Smart Growth” principles to any development that does occur.

In its analysis of measures that enhance the “small town feel,” HCIA includes mixed-use neighbourhoods, downtown cores as a hub of activity, and preservation of architectural and landform heritage features.

Responsive municipal governance and involvement in community life are also significant concerns for all the groups.

However, there are also some differences in the three initiatives. HCIA has includes more focus on social health – issues such as poverty, diversity and mental illness. Caledon does make mention of primary health care, under its “live healthy” goal, and touches on affordable housing and aging at home, but does not speak directly to broader social concerns. At the Mono conference, the concept of social health barely came up.

Transportation, too, is highlighted in all three projects, but in different ways. In Caledon, the talk has an urban flavour: provision of transit and sidewalks, street beautification and traffic management. HCIA identifies commuting as a community issue, and considers the negative social impact if Headwaters tends more toward becoming a bedroom community.

In Mono, meanwhile, conference participants suggested less, not more, was the route to go on transportation issues: there were calls to stop using winter salt and to stop paving any more country roads. Transit also came up in Mono, but the focus was on re-establishing passenger rail service to Toronto, and the possibility of providing environment-friendly rural transit to seniors so they could remain in their country homes as they age.

As is the way when it comes to visioning, conflicting objectives have also begun to emerge. In Mono, for example, residents expressed great support for living “green,” and for small scale, personal-use renewable energy production. In an ideal year 2025, they imagined the whole community being off the grid and no longer using fossil fuels. At the same time, they wanted to ban all commercial-scale production of renewable energy, including wind turbines or solar panels.

HCIA faces an additional challenge. Over three years, they have amassed a vast amount of research. While it is hoped that all of the research can be made available on a web site, it will be a Herculean task to distill the material and produce a meaningful document.

It’s early days yet for all these initiatives. Whether they effect real change, or just turn out to be feel-good exercises, remains to be seen.

Still, the fact they are happening at all illustrates the strong sense of stewardship Headwaters residents feel about the place they call home. Perhaps, over time, fostering that will be the most important result of all.

About the Author More by Jeff Rollings

Jeff Rollings is a freelance writer living in Caledon.

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