Original Published on Nov 16, 2022 at 06:44

How a council report card helped sway an election

By Rachel Morgan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

A little more than a decade ago, a group of senior citizens protested the use of thousands of cubic metres of contaminated soil brought in by trucks for the expansion of a grass-strip airport in New Tecumseth.

There is a loophole in municipal policy that allows contaminated soil from industrial lands to be used for the improvement of an airport.

The protest was led by Kathleen Wilson.

She recalls seeing for the first time how local politics often works, behind the scenes.

“And that’s when I realized—I was pretty naive to think that the people sitting around those council tables were working in my best interests.”

After fighting the council in New Tecumseth, Wilson turned to problems in her own community.

A toxic dump in Caledon was opened on rural residential lands in an environmentally protected area, under a special provincial designation. Council did a $2-deal to allow an abatement company to operate beside the residential area. In 2020 the lands were designated for a temporary rezoning and only then was it revealed that the groundwater, including neighbouring wells, had been contaminated with hydrocarbons, the main compound in crude oil.

After her concerns were repeatedly ignored by local councillors, Wilson spent her own money on drone footage of the area to show what was happening.

Lately, she is best known in Caledon for the creation of a report card detailing the votes of Caledon councillors prior to the October 24 municipal election, and running the Facebook group A Better Caledon.

The decision between the two mayoral candidates, the developer friendly Jennifer Innis, and Annette Groves, whose voting record shows a history of standing up to private sector interests, would determine how Caledon’s future is shaped. Innis was aligned with interests pushing for more sprawl, even on some of the most sensitive natural spaces in Southern Ontario; Groves supported smart growth, walkable communities to accommodate the inevitable population increase and the protection of Caledon’s cherished watersheds and greenfields.

Innis enjoyed support from the seemingly unbeatable powerful development lobby—many saw it as a David versus Goliath fight.

Wilson, who credits senior citizens for inspiring her early activism, knew most residents just like her were fiercely opposed to the destruction of the surrounding natural world, in favour of sprawling subdivisions and a massive 400-series highway.

The developers, who had already bought up much of the prime agricultural land and greenspace where they planned to extract huge profits from, could be beaten. 

While attending Carleton University in Ottawa, Wilson could routinely be found in the thick of protests and movements. Living so close to Parliament, she was introduced to issues that directly impacted her.

“I’m always the person about justice and equality,” she says. “I always fight for the underdog. I just don’t like the fact that the underdog is a greater population and there’s a few, sorry to say it, but very bad white people in positions of [power], white men to be exact.”

Wilson has had to fight against inequality in her day job. Her 30-year career working in the tech sector was carved out during a time when it was incredibly difficult for women in a male-dominated industry.

The experience only emboldened her determination to fight for what she believed in, even if society around her seemed more and more apathetic.

She recognizes that in an era when all levels of government are increasingly populated by politicians acting on behalf of special interests, not the public who put them in power, her own leadership, as a citizen who understands what the majority can accomplish (if armed with the tools of democracy) is more important than ever.

Recent events in Ontario serve as dire warnings about what can happen when citizens allow political power to go unchecked.

Despite only receiving the support of about one in five eligible voters in June’s provincial election, voter apathy likely contributed to a powerful majority government for Doug Ford’s PCs, with only a little more than 40 percent of the electorate bothering to cast a ballot. The early approach to governing has shown how poorly aligned the PCs are with widely held values across the province.

Tensions rose in Ontario after Ford invoked the notwithstanding clause to halt negotiations with the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), which includes 55,000 education assistants, early childhood educators, custodians and administrative assistants. The result was school closures and a two-day strike across the province. The overwhelming backlash forced him to stand down from the heavy-handed, anti-democratic threat to strip away the rights of education workers who were left stunned when their ability to negotiate for a living wage was at risk.

Meanwhile, the same government is now quietly trying to undo decades of planning policy and environmental protection so Ford’s developer friends can bulldoze tens of thousands of acres of agricultural land and greenspace across Southern Ontario for sprawling ‘80s-style suburban subdivisions.

Bill 23, the More Homes Built Faster Act, would be a devastating legislative move, for the environment and the future of the whole region, numerous stakeholder groups have said. But Ford and his PCs can effectively do whatever they want, unless citizens do what Wilson has done for much of her life—take a stand.

She says voter apathy has to be overcome. The stakes are too high.

The June provincial election saw a record low turnout with only 43.53 percent of those eligible to cast a ballot turning out at the polls. Voter turnout at the municipal level was also disturbing with only slightly more than 36 percent of the electorate bothering to participate, the lowest figure ever.

If fewer voters participate governments can claim mandates with very little support to push legislation most people do not want.

Wilson engages the public when it matters, before their values get ignored, to help ensure decision making that represents the people.

“I just don’t want to leave this earth without fighting as hard as I can.”

Wilson spoke with the group A Better Niagara, which motivated her to create A Better Caledon, a non-partisan, non-profit organization that works “to encourage civic engagement and municipal public participation in Niagara.” The group seeks to support transparency in municipal politics.

“They were more self serving than they were about a career of service,” Wilson said about the developer interests that infiltrated municipal politics in Niagara Region and in turn the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority, in what is referred to as the “cabal” era when NPCA board members such as Tony Quirk and David Barrick had close ties to the PC government and developer interests.

Wilson realized Peel Region was no different. Barrick went on to become the CAO of the City of Brampton. Caledon’s ties to the development lobby and the provincial government were seen through the votes of council, and the cozy relationships: Premier Ford attended the retirement party of outgoing Caledon Mayor Allan Thompson; Innis received third-party campaign advertising from groups directly connected to developers. Both repeatedly took votes over the last few years that were pushed by development groups.

“They set themselves up as a corporation, that’s another thing, but as you’re an elected official that people elected you, why wouldn’t you represent their interests?” Wilson questions.

Fed up with feeling unrepresented, she did not want to see another election fall in the hands of the wrong people. With the retirement of Thompson, Caledon had the opportunity to choose a new direction. The election of Innis, who as a council member was aligned with the mayor, would ensure Caledon remained under the influence of powerful developers.

Groves represented hope for residents like Wilson, but the cards were stacked against her, with Innis using support from private interests that were allowed to use third-party advertising. After refusing to support their agenda for years—voting against sprawl growth, standing up against the Highway 413 project and taking on the aggregate industry—Groves was often the target of her fellow council representatives.

Wilson feared the mayoral candidate many residents wanted to get behind, was being drowned out.

Ahead of the October municipal election, keen Caledon Town Hall watchers voiced concern that Innis was suddenly claiming to be a friend of the environment, a protector of the municipality’s vast natural beauty.

Innis began claiming she did not support the Highway 413 project and had opposed the destructive aggregate (gravel) industry.

Her voting record proved otherwise.

Wilson knew just what to do to turn the tables.

“The goal of the report card was to say, ‘guys, you gotta open your eyes,’” she says.

The undertaking to get the report card into the hands of Caledon voters was no easy feat. Wilson spent two to three hours each night for a month gathering all of the votes of councillors over the past few years.

“It was another job on top of my day job as well as my taking care of my animals and my family.”

Between August and election day, Wilson estimates she worked an additional 20 hours a week on the report card. It became an additional part time job for her.

Wilson said she is beyond thankful for the support of her family. She joked with her husband that if Innis won they would have to move. He agreed.

For her daughter, currently studying political science in university, Wilson hopes Caledon is a place she might want to return to.

“I want her to come back and live here and I want her to be able to get employment. I want her to be able to have affordable housing and have green spaces.”

With the type of subdivision growth Innis and Thompson have pushed, with almost no focus on attracting high-return employers and the jobs of the future, the main options have been in transportation, logistics and warehousing, as Caledon has been dominated by huge trucking operations and other sprawling industrial businesses to support the sector. 

Groves previously spoke with The Pointer about her desire to expand the skilled trades in Caledon and offer greater employment opportunities for a wide range of career paths, including high-paying white-collar jobs in the GTA’s largest municipality, geographically (it is bigger in size than Toronto). It’s exactly what Wilson wants to see.

Her daughter has shown interest in her advocacy work, she says, even though family is often sacrificed for the greater good of the community at large.

“I think I have a young woman who’s following in my footsteps.” 

Wilson has worked with other motivated and inspiring women across her community.

With a group of other local female advocates, including former Green Party candidate Jenni Le Forestier, Wilson formed a group called The Cauldron.

“We call our chat group the cauldron because we’ve been referred to as witches,” she chuckles.

Each member of The Cauldron has a role. Wilson’s is synthesizing data and other key pieces of information. It was a natural step to create the report card.

She points to property taxes as an example of how data can be used to show that councillors are not voting in the best interest of the residents they serve. Innis lives on her family farm and does not pay property taxes. Nick de Boer pays farming taxes which are only one quarter the value of residential property taxes and yet both councillors have repeatedly voted for stiff property tax increases that don’t impact them the same way.

“It’s hard being a farmer but I don’t believe that the people sitting on council can make a decision on how that farmland is developed. Because they’re large landowners,” Wilson says.

When Wilson used available data and began asking the Town of Caledon how many acres of farmland were slated for development she could not get an answer. She went through every development application and tracked them on a spreadsheet. She found more than 3,000 acres of prime farmland and environmentally sensitive lands up for development through more than 50 development applications across Caledon.

She also began to see patterns, showing which councillors had been supporting these applications. She did the same with potentially devastating proposals pushed by large aggregate companies, whose open pits and quarries did irreversible damage in some of Caledon’s most sensitive areas.

As her work gained speed, Wilson had volunteers help her distribute the finished report card across Caledon.

“This one guy said this is a gift. This is a gift we need to help you with and I’m like, ‘thank you.’ And he would text me images of all the streets that he did,” Wilson says, reflecting on the citizen effort to get accurate information out to the public ahead of the October 24 vote. “So he was like Santa Claus.”

Due to its large geographic area, Wilson said distribution was a feat she could not have accomplished alone.

The support was overwhelming… but so was the backlash.

“Right now, I’m either the most loved woman in Caledon or the most hated,” she says.

Before she even started on the report card, Wilson was blocked on social media by her ward councillors.

“It’s like, ‘you blocked me because I asked you the hard questions,’” she says.

That kind of petty behaviour only made her more determined. She says she has learned with age to not care about what others think of her. The facts are the facts. Horrible things have been said to her, she says, but their only effect is to motivate her work. She says a strength from working in the tech industry is the use of data and facts to support what is right.

But she admits that events and gatherings at certain public places during the campaign, where those who supported a different agenda would be, often came with adversity she would have to face that day.

“I had people message me and just say ‘thank you, you know, you did a great thing for Caledon.’ I also had people scream at me and call me a liar.”

The mounting, desperate backlash she received made Wilson believe she was making a difference.

“You know when you’re making an impact when you make people scared as well, who have stuff to hide,” she says. “The report card was truthful. But it obviously made a lot of people nervous.”

Wilson received retaliation from councillors who were angry about her holding them accountable. Anne Thompson, wife of Allan Thompson, another registered third party advertiser, spent a great deal of time trying to discredit her work.

Wilson believes her work had a significant impact on the election results, the mayor’s race in particular. Innis, who followed in the footsteps of Thompson, was viewed as a shoo-in by many.

They were wrong. Groves won.

Standing in a crowded former restaurant in Bolton on October 24, after the result was in, Wilson knew she had made a difference when Thompson referred to her report card as he acknowledged the outcome.

The sheer amount of support for Groves at her election night party was more validation.

But Wilson’s work is not done.

With the low turnout, just below 32 percent, progressive candidate Kate Hepworth lost to Ward 1 Area Councillor Lynn Kiernan by only 93 votes.

“A week later I’m angry that a lot of people didn’t get out and vote.” She says many residents are only now realizing that upcoming votes will determine the future of Caledon.

If Ford’s proposed Bill 23 is passed, Caledon will also be responsible for all of its own planning and development, a task that was formerly overseen by the Region of Peel. With a mayor like Groves, it is anticipated she will push back on a lot of development in the area, but the question is whether she has the support from her fellow council members. Wilson said she is proceeding with caution and keeping an eye on some of the incumbents who held their seats.

She believes more residents will become involved in Caledon municipal politics in the near future, with so many crucial decisions ahead. She wants to help by presenting clear, transparent and factual information to residents.

She has already been approached by numerous community members who want to help.

Wilson has taken a couple weeks to catch her breath but plans to attend the swearing in of the new council this week, before jumping back into local governance issues.

She is toying with the idea of publishing a quarterly report card showing how council members vote. She will continue running A Better Caledon as an open political space for anyone to participate.

She wants elected officials to know the truth will follow them.

“I have their literature and I’m going to keep it and I’m going to constantly remind them, ‘You promised to do this for those folks in Ward one that are so heavily impacted by aggregate. What are you going to do about this Interim control bylaw? What are you going to do to make highway 10 safer from gravel trucks?’” she says.

“Maybe I should get a job on council,” Wilson half jokes. “At least I’d be paid to do this.”

This item reprinted with permission from   The Pointer   Mississauga, Ontario

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