January to March of 2021 was hard - it didn't get any easier during the balance of the year

·10 min read

The year started out with a sense of caution, within days the caution turned into a lockdown that would last for weeks.

It took some getting used to. Here is how Burlingtonians handled the first three months of 2021.

Life for so many in began in the same way in 2020, isolated and lonely. Lockdown had taken effect once more, Joseph Brant Hospital opened operation of their field unit tent early in the month and the Gazette monitored how and where the city of Burlington would eventually administer the vaccine.

And so, the city of Burlington and the Region of Halton stayed inside, isolated and waited…with one notable exception: Police Chief Stephen Tanner.

On December 21st, Premier Ford announced a lock-down to take effect on Dec 26. On December 22nd, Police Chief Stephen Tanner asked the then Police Services Board Chair, Rob Burton, for permission to leave the jurisdiction to travel to Florida on a private matter. Burton gave permission. However, Burton did not advise the other members of the Police Services Board on what he had done.

On December 26th, Chief Tanner left for the United States. On December 26th, the province invoked a shutdown for 28 days.

There was considerable demand for the Chief to be fired. Oakville Mayor Rob Burton resigned as Chair of the board on January 11th but remained on the board.

Chief Tanner apologized for poor judgment in requesting the travel, and Burton lost his position as Police Services Board Chair for his poor judgment in granting it.

While some like Mayor Burton and Chief Tanner were in the news for all the wrong pandemic-related reasons, charities in Burlington were continuing to find creative ways to make the new normal work.

On January 22nd Ward 4 Councilor Shawna Stolte drove around Burlington to pick up donations left on porches and address the needs of the Food Bank. For their part, the Food Bank was servicing an all-time high of people in need and somehow holding it together.

Stolte’s plan was an early year example of the kind of innovative contactless donation that would run throughout 2021 organized by generous Burlington citizens.

Elsewhere, city council got off to a rocky start in 2021 or rather continued their rocky 2020 trajectory. Reports released on January 11th detailed how COVID-19 had impacted the municipal government: 196 people were laid off; 290 jobs had reduced hours; 68 people were asked to put in additional hours. Morale reached a low point.

The Operations draft budget for 2021 budget came in with a 4.99% tax raise, it was a number Mayor Meed Ward didn’t like the look of, so throughout the month, in a series of meetings, they tried to get that number down to a more palatable 3.99%.

Budget concerns were springing up as a result of pandemic losses. Ward 5 Councillor Paul Sherman made an ominous statement concerning transit losses. “There is a serious concern about a million-dollar loss at transit that we have not been told about and there is another one coming.”

In the calendar year 2021 the city finance department presented two budgets both of which included what they referred to as a COVID budget.

Municipal disappointments relating to development disagreements would become a growing theme through the year’s news.

Rolling into the month of February the city remained in the grip of a low point of the COVID-19 pandemic. A light began to reveal itself at the end of the tunnel: by the middle of the month the stay-at-home order for Halton had been lifted, although with restrictions in the red zone, which Halton was in, remained limiting. Vaccine centers were established, and Burlington looked forward to a post-pandemic oasis. Of course, the pandemic wasn’t over, and we know now the light at the end of the tunnel was but a slightly brighter ongoing tunnel.

On February 1st Burlington announced its COVID-19 Task Force and it was massive. Headed by Mayor Marianne Meed Ward the Task Force contained every name you’d guess may be on there and then some. Various leaders, decision-makers, and experts assembled to assist the hospital and health care workers with anticipated patient surges and broader community efforts with COVID-19 and pandemic recovery.

The Region of Halton saw its lockdown and Stay-at-Home orders lifted on February 16th – those eager to get out of the house found a heavy snowfall waiting for them. A day later the Gazette reported the first case of COVID-19 in a Burlington school – in Mohawk Public school where the classroom had been closed. Other schools in the Region reported cases as well. Dr. Hamidah Meghani, Halton Region Medical Officer of Health, warned of variants of concern and data that could lead to another lockdown.

On February 23rd inoculation locations were announced, Burlington prepared for the vaccine to be made available but just when that day would come remained unclear. Writers and commenters at the Gazette expressed their frustration with vaccine acquisition timelines.

People were frustrated.

The skyrocketing housing market was proving not to be a short term event. The Toronto Regional Real Estate Board Market Watch, was reporting average sale price for a home in Halton was $1,206,016, an increase of 17% from the previous year.

Most disturbing was the report of an uptick in domestic violence. In early February the Halton Regional Police Service reported that if the current trend continued, officers would attend more than 4,000 intimate partner violence incidents by the end of the year.

Early in 2021, it had become clear that the problems of 2020 would not be discarded with that year’s calendar.

Still, there was the promise of change on the horizon, and acts of generosity continued to be a bright spot of Burlington’s pandemic response.

The cultural sector offered impressive contributions to Black History Month. Several of Canada’s finest instrumental jazz musicians were online on February 10th thanks to a grant from the City of Burlington’s Community Support Fund, a program created to support Burlington artists during the pandemic.

The Halton Regional Police Service and its Black Internal Support Network solicited the community’s help in the design and creation of a Black Heritage Police Cruiser.

Also falling under the matter of diversity education was the Halton District School Board’s (HDSB) release of a plan that included an Indigenous Perspective and Awareness area. They appointed Stephen Paquette to a position as the Board’s Indigenous Knowledge Guide and Engagement Advisor, Paquette would participate in Ryerson school renaming later in the year. The HDSB’s plan covered 2020-2024, one-quarter of the time frame had passed making the document, and the world changed as it was written so how much their priorities will have swayed on the document on a whole remains to be seen. But proper education on Indigenous history is always welcome and a lack thereof would come to the forefront of one 2021s defining stories later in the year.

On February 20th Regional Council announced they would make an application to the Federal Court of Canada to review the CN rail hub.

Following several closed meetings, City Council was working to bring a budget to the table with a more palatable tax increase than the 4.99% debated in January. Things were trending closer to Mayor Meed Ward’s vision; the city ended up with a 4.14% increase, which was the largest of her term to date.

Burlington city council had voted for a new Official Plan which almost immediately faced a list of appeals that climbed to 48 – this would be an ongoing story for the balance of the year.

Rolling into March there was news that those over the age of 80 could book their vaccination appointments on the 3rd of the month. At last.

By March 6th, 15,000 people aged 80+ had scheduled vaccination appointments. By the month’s end appointments were available to those aged 65+. More businesses got the go-ahead to open. The winter of our discontent seemed to be ending, not quite made glorious, as the old quote goes, but made something closer to manageable.

Malls opened on March 8th to the highest provincial case count since early February; over 1600 new infections, tempering the good news. On the final day of the month, Premier Doug Ford warned people not to make plans for Easter. The pandemic remained far from over.

Staff at city hall were surveyed on their well being and the results outlined an overwhelmed group. “Workload and expectations” were the top concern, accompanied by “unclear priorities,” and a “lack of breaks, inability led to disconnect, and work-life balance.”

Work-life balance concerns went all the way to the top of city hall with Mayor Meed Ward herself, who the Gazette reported on March 10th had ruffled some feathers by instructing her staff not to email her outside of 9 am to 5 pm.

Despite being overwhelmed, surveys from the staff gave the City a ringing endorsement at the March 3rd meeting, 75% of them believe somewhat or strongly the City had responded well to the changes impacting staff caused by COVID-19.

On March 9th city council hosted a Zoom meeting on the housing strategy they wanted to put in place as part of the Burlington Lands Partnership (BLP). The BLP’s founding, which unfolded late 2020 and throughout the first quarter of 2021, was due to widespread support for the city to take a greater strategic role in targeting municipal land development in Burlington.

The BLP positioned themselves to fill the void of a single entity with a mandate to realize the potential of emerging land development deals. The BLP suggested mutually beneficial partnerships with not-for-profits, developing communities, Halton Region, and the Provincial and Federal Governments. The BLP Steering Committee, poised to do much of the grunt work, was being established, seats on that committee were highly sought after by members of Council. As constructed, the final decision on any development will be made by city council.

There was concern over whether every idea would reach city council, or if such opportunity would only be afforded to ideas the Steering Committee felt had merit.

Young people were also plagued with lagging well being during the pandemic and the HDSB hosted two mental health and well-being information sessions for parents and guardians. There were components of pandemic-related stress among students, but this is an important conversation at any time.

In late March the HDSB aimed to set an example for the community by engaging in environmental learning activities on Earth Hour, March 26th.

Burlington was on its way to becoming experts at socially distanced events and March was rife with them. The Sound of Music, a staple of Burlington tradition, put on a different kind of show. On March 27th, Monster Truck played a Sound of Music Return to Live Series event from the Burlington Performing Arts Center, a ticketed live stream event.

The Burlington Arts and Culture Fund supported Aeris Körper’s PROSPECTS, a virtual contemporary dance routine followed by a discussion affording an innovative night to enjoy arts from home. And the Brant Museum announced the Around the Town Easter Egg Hunt that would take kids around significant Burlington heritage sites and allow them to enjoy time outside.

The Parks and Recreation department opened registration for several programs. As a Gazette contributor at the time wryly observed, “Someone believes there is going to be a spring, followed by a summer during which the city Parks and Recreation department will offer the best program it can.”

And the City reminded everyone to be cautious of salamander mating season; they would be crossing Kings Rd. in heat. It was beginning to look like a normal Burlington spring.

The second quarter of the year will be published on Tuesday.

If readers want to dig in a little deeper on any one story – use the archives. Enter the subject matter and you should get the full story.

Ryan O'Dowd, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Burlington Gazette

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