This story is part of our partnership with Maryboro Lodge The Fenelon Falls Museum and was written by Glenn Walker. This will be a six-part series.
KAWARTHA LAKES- Up to the 1990s, municipal government in Victoria County still in many ways reflected its nineteenth-century roots. Then, in 1995 Mike Harris became Premier of Ontario and his Common Sense Revolution included fundamental changes to the relationship between the province and municipalities. Ontario made clear that they wished to drastically reduce the number of municipalities, as they reduced provincial expenditures by downloading services onto the municipalities, while at the same time cutting funding. For better or worse, the Common Sense Revolution forced municipalities to become far more involved in the lives of their residents—gone were the days when they largely just looked after local roads. It was justified by claiming that it would save money, which may have been true for the province, but could never have been true for the municipalities. The municipalities of Victoria County did not agree on a plan to amalgamate, and County Council asked the province to appoint a commissioner to determine how the process could proceed. The final result was the creation of a single-tier municipality, the City of Kawartha Lakes in 2001. In so many ways, it brought far-reaching changes to local government and how it interacted with local residents. From the beginning of the process until today, it was extremely controversial and there remain many different perspectives on amalgamation—many issues are quite complicated.
More than twenty years have passed since amalgamation and this series presents the memories of people who were involved in the process at the time. Given the very different meanings that amalgamation had to the historical actors involved in the process, it is hoped that this series will provide a variety of perspectives, that when read together will explore this pivotal time in local political history.
Wayne Hutchinson grew up in Lindsay and moved to Fenelon Falls in 1978, working for 31 years at the LCBO. One day he was complaining to Gord Goddard about the state of the roads and downtown parking, so Gord encouraged him to run for council. Elected in 1980, Wayne served on Fenelon Falls Village Council until amalgamation, and was the final deputy reeve of the village. Back then, councillors were practically volunteers, being paid $25 per meeting—a pittance for all of the work involved. They shared a sense of wanting to improve their community. Over the years, Wayne has volunteered for many community organizations including the Rotary Club, St. James Anglican Church and Maryboro Lodge Museum.
“The first time that we heard about amalgamation was at a Rural Ontario Municipal Convention. Al Leach, Minister of Municipal Affairs, stood up and said half of you are not going to be here because we are going to amalgamate you.” One of the townships was squabbling with Victoria County at the time, and wrote to the province supporting the idea. Then Harry Kitchen, a veteran of the controversial process of amalgamating other municipalities, was sent to begin consolidating Victoria County.
Whenever these municipalities were undertaking a major project, like replacing bridges, acquiring land or constructing buildings, each would apply to the province for a grant. Al Leach was in his own way bluntly telling the municipalities that the province was tired of dealing with so many incorporated entities.
Victoria County consisted of 13 townships and 6 incorporated villages/towns, plus the county government—a total of 20 municipalities. Over several months, Harry Kitchen travelled around to each municipality, explaining the process, and saying that if the local municipalities could figure out amongst themselves how to cut their number in half, then the province would try to accommodate their wishes. But “Harry had made it quite clear that it was going to happen whether we wanted it or not.”
Amalgamation was terribly divisive locally. Many municipalities tried their best to go along with it, while others were dead set against it. In the end, many municipalities worked out informal agreements with each other about how two or three of them could work together. Some were considering transferring to a different county. “I remember talking to Harry about what we were trying to work out, and him saying he didn’t think it was going to help. One of the options was to create a single-tier municipality, and at that time I realized that was what it was going to be.”
“In my heart, I believe that the reason that things turned out the way they did,” creating the single-tier City of Kawartha Lakes, “was because the townships and villages couldn’t figure it out on their own. There were a lot of personalities that just didn’t get along.”
Harry Kitchen came to Fenelon Falls to present his report, which laid out various options for amalgamation, and, as expected, Harry implied a preference for a single-tier municipality. Amalgamation was justified on the basis that it would save a lot of money, but it was clear that replacing the village’s volunteers with paid municipal employees would never be a cost savings. Plus, there was an expectation that they could not lay off any employees. At the same time, the province was downloading many services onto the municipalities. Whatever was said publicly, “the true reason, I thought, was the province was tired of dealing with so many municipalities.”
Wayne recalls that the meeting when the report was presented was the craziest from his entire time on council. The room was full of people, who were full of emotion. “Two or three people got up and said, ‘You son of a bitch, I’m gonna shoot you!’ We left the council chamber for the municipal office in the next room and called the police. They sent two cruisers down and cleared the room. After that the police escorted Harry Kitchen to the meetings… he would arrive in a cruiser and they would stay with him. There was no need to threaten him. Harry was just giving his report that he was well paid for. I felt sorry for him the way he was treated.”
It was a well-organized opposition, backed by elected officials of some of the local municipalities and many others who played a prominent role in local affairs. But “once it went to province and they approved it was a done deal…. They were not going to go back on it.” In the years that followed “the political scene of the City of Kawartha Lakes was terribly divided. Half thought it was good. Half thought it was terrible.” And a few people were talking about getting a gun.
After amalgamation the opposition remained vociferous. “Then there was the referendum, which was more or less evenly split,” though de-amalgamation did produce a majority. “Referendum or no referendum, it was the way it was going to be. The government had told us at the convention that they were tired of dealing with every little municipality on every little thing, dealing with bridge problems, road problems and everything else. They would much rather send a cheque for millions of dollars to larger municipalities and have them deal with the whole thing—to leave it up to them to spend the money where they needed it. And that was the way that things were going to be.”
After the decision to amalgamate was made, the municipal councils were asked to stay on to help with the transition. “Harry had a long chat with both [Reeve] Roger [Bellwood] and I and asked us to run for the new council, but we knew there were going to be a lot of problems, trying to straighten everything out. We knew that all the issues that other municipalities had would be coming here.” Bringing together so many separate administrations certainly was not easy.
“The last meeting of the village council was sad or bittersweet…. We knew it was all over.” There was a lot of practical business to do, disbanding committees, so the new council could create its own committees. For the occasion “we had a farewell cake, and said to each other, ‘it’s been good knowing you.’” The government of Fenelon Falls had been close-knit, and “we really did stay in touch.” Though they no longer worked together on council, many of the former councillors and employees continued to volunteer together, supporting community organizations, as they continued their work of trying to make Fenelon Falls better for the people who lived there.
Maryboro Lodge, The Fenelon Falls Museum has been hit hard by the pandemic. If you want to make a donation to the museum, you can e-transfer to: [email protected] or mail a cheque to :
Maryboro Lodge Museum
50 Oak Street
Fenelon Falls, ON