by SUSAN MANN
Kenilworth-area sheep farmer Lorne Small says he has noticed a lot more municipal election signs during this campaign compared to previous ones as he drives around his North Wellington Township municipality.
In addition, many of the council, mayoral and school board positions in his municipality and at the upper tier Wellington County level are being contested this time around rather than incumbent candidates being acclaimed, says Small, who’s also the president of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario. He sees those two developments as a sign of increased interest in the municipal election this time.
“There’s a lot of interest in democracy,” he says. “I see the (voter turnout at) advanced polls in Toronto being higher than normal” and turnout “at our local advance polls were higher than normal.”
But it’s hard for a farm group, such as Christian Farmers, to recommend which matters its farmer members should focus on as there are so many individual and local municipal matters across Ontario.
“We’re encouraging our members to look at some of the local issues which affect farmers and focus on making sure their municipality has the money to do the proper infrastructure and maintain roads and those sorts of things,” Small says. “We’re looking for candidates that are careful with their money and progressive in their thinking.”
Within his own Wellington County area there are 10 different jurisdictions “with some very different matters” ranging from a new hockey arena to concerns about the debt the last council accumulated, he says. “It’s very difficult to give guidance to our members on that board range of matters.”
There are 444 municipalities across Ontario with more than half being small, rural or northern municipalities.
Ontario Federation of Agriculture president Mark Wales says leading up to the election the federation always prepares a municipal election kit that provides information for farmers interested in running for a council position and gives information on major matters related to farmers that rural councils could impact, such as property taxes and tax assessments. It circulated the kit in the summer to all of its county federations.
Some other matters besides property taxes outlined in the kit farmers could keep an eye on include drainage matters, maintenance of roads and bridges, winter snow road clearing and the design of roundabouts, he says.
A roundabout is a circular intersection where traffic flows in one direction around a central island.
Wales says roundabouts that haven’t been designed to accommodate farm equipment make it hard for farmers to move their larger pieces of equipment around some of them. Municipalities “need to really take into account the design of farm equipment when they’re designing roundabouts and building them.”
The same consideration applies to bridges, he notes. “If they put guard rails up and make things too narrow” it’s hard for farmers to move their equipment.
When considering their municipal vote, the National Farmers Union - Ontario is encouraging its members to remember the school board trustee elections and key in on candidates who understand and support food literacy for students at all levels in the system along with the need for agricultural programs particularly in high schools, says president and Region 3 coordinator Karen Eatwell. “We really feel there needs to be an emphasis put on agriculture or farming as a career option.”
There are a few rural Ontario high schools that have an agricultural program but more schools need them, she says.
For broader municipal items, Eatwell says “we’re looking for those candidates who can have that focus of maintaining the rural infrastructure,” such as bridges, roads and road clearing in the winter. But they’re also looking for candidates who understand “the needs of our rural areas” so they can continue being vibrant communities that support farmers and are places where people want to live and work.
Opinions differ on the voter turnout for Monday. Eatwell wonders if the good weather forecast for Monday will mean farmers will be out combining soybeans instead of heading out to the polls but hopefully they will be able to take time out to vote. “I think farmers care about their communities and voting is one way they can show that,” she says, adding in her area of North London there are a lot of fields that still need to be combined.
“We’ve had some damp weather lately so a lot of farmers are just itching to get back at combining those soybeans,” she says.
Meanwhile Small says he’s delighted “people are willing to stand up and seek election for these kinds of positions.” He thinks there will be a good voter turnout.
Wales says he hopes voter turnout will be good. “That’s the level of government that impacts all of us every day. They’re the ones that maintain the road in front of everybody’s farm.”
In other municipal news, Sustain Ontario says in an Oct. 21 press release more than 150 municipal candidates have declared their support for food and farming. The candidates for municipal councils and school boards have taken part in the Vote ON Food & Farming campaign delivered by local food champion groups, such as food policy councils and non-profit groups active within a municipality.
The candidates completed surveys and that provides a way for them to connect with local stakeholders on opportunities to strengthen Ontario’s food system and develop regional food strategies.
The effort was coordinated by Sustain Ontario and the Alliance for Healthy Food & Farming, a group made up of more than 80 member organizations. BF