It seems strange to think now that, back in 1997, when amalgamation was the main topic of conversation, the Council of the Town of Kemptville were deeply concerned by the fear that the town’s residents would find themselves unrepresented in the new North Grenville Council. (See the final article in the series “Road to Amalgamation” in this issue). With no ward system, the fear was that no-one would be elected to represent Kemptville and argue its cause. As it happened, that was one danger that did not materialise under amalgamation: it seems that quite the opposite happened instead.
This coming weekend, the Rural Summit takes place at Parish Hall on the newly-acquired Kemptville Campus. It is one attempt to bring to the forefront of peoples’ thinking the issues that matter to rural residents in the municipality. A small step, as it happens, as the agenda doesn’t seem too taken up by rural issues, but it is a step in the right direction. As readers may remember, last year’s Summit, organised by municipal staff, included a bus tour of the rural area, as if it was some kind of safari park full of fascinating creatures.
The fact is that rural North Grenville contains the majority of residents and the largest part of the municipality, and has been neglected for far too long. The main hamlets have slowly been losing those assets which give life and vitality to the local community: general stores, schools, libraries and churches. While the Municipality have been spending large sums on trails in the Kemptville zones, local residents in Oxford Mills have had to pay themselves for a new gazebo in Maplewood Park, in spite of it being a municipally-owned park and gazebo.
The Public School in the same village is about to be closed, and it seems it is only the local parents and children that are at all concerned about trying to keep it open. The Community Association in Bishops Mills had to campaign for years to be provided with any kind of financial support for their community hall. Burritts Rapids had to agitate to have any say in the plans to use the village for Fire Service activities or road alterations. Since amalgamation took place in 1998, South Gower no longer has a core hamlet, and, without the efforts of local business in maintaining a successful general store, it, too, might have become a dormant community.
The neglect with which the rural areas have been treated by local government has been disgraceful. As Kemptville develops more concrete-filled developments, the potential of the rural parts of the municipality has gone unrealised. The acquisition of the old Kemptville College might have been seen as an opportunity to change that, but it seems doubtful.
But beyond the hamlets, there has been a drop in the quality of life in rural parts generally. The latest surveys by the Rural Ontario Institute show that Ontario’s rural communities experience a much higher level of isolation, lack of access to services and transport, and a bigger impact from things like high hydro rates.
This is the problem, but what is the solution? It seems strange that three of our small five-person Council members live in the rural parts of the municipality, yet it is really only Councillor Jim Bertram who has shown the level of interest that one would expect from them. Jim is the one who came up with the idea of a Rural Summit, although his current state of health means he will not be present next Saturday. His hope has been that the Summit could lead to a more permanent process by which rural concerns could be addressed; specifically through a Rural Affairs Committee of Council.
There used to be an Agricultural Committee, but it was left to die by previous Chair, Tim Sutton, who preferred to focus on Economic Development, not rural issues. The Summit will only address the more peripheral issues involving rural affairs, but it is at least an acknowledgement that rural residents exist and have issues that are quite different from those in the urban area. Perhaps if farmers, business people, and residents in the municipality outside Kemptville could be allowed to meet and share problems and concerns on a regular and official basis, solutions could be found, initiatives discovered, and steps taken to promote rural agri-business, local growers, and producers for farmers markets and agricultural co-operatives.
In this election year, it may be opportune for rural residents, and those prepared to support them, to find candidates and platforms that express their hopes and ambitions. It is not just a cliché to say that “if you eat today, thank a farmer”. The future of North Grenville must not be built on more and more houses and less and less agriculture. If we really want to be Green and Growing, we had better remember where the Green part comes in. Our hamlets are in danger, they are neglected and left to wither. Our urban area is in danger of becoming even more of a dormitory town for people working in Ottawa and Brockville than it already is. Things have to change.