Though he had very little knowledge of how the county worked, Rennie was eager to learn. "If you had asked me back then who fixed a pothole on the highway, I wouldn't have known that it was a provincially-regulated area or that if you wanted to put in a culvert and there was a creek with fish in it, even just minnows, I wouldn't have known that you could get arrested for that. So those were things that we're learning curves but also extremely interesting, and I think that anybody can get into that position and learn about it," he explained.
Rennie has entered the last few months of his final term as councillor, and though there are a few sour notes in there, he remains filled with hope that future leaders can right the ship. "I've learned that you can build a relationship for a long time and how quickly the wrong people can take that apart." Speaking of the broken relationship with Woodlands County and the Town of Whitecourt, Rennie said it saddens him and reminds him that the right people around the table can rebuild it. "I hope that whoever is coming into council, whether it's with Woodlands County or Whitecourt, has an open mind and is willing to work hard, listen and make wise choices that will benefit the residents of all parts of our municipality into the future. It's really easy to wreck a relationship, but you have to put a lot of work into building it. I am most proud of having been part of a team that over the years has worked with our partners and built a lot of great things."
Rennie mentioned one negative was social media, specifically, the "community cowards," as he called them. "They hide behind their keyboards. They are so busy being negative when they could use that time to be positive and go out and volunteer. They could be making a difference in people's lives." Future leaders, he said, need to ignore them. "If you are going to run for politics, disregard those people because they have nothing to offer. Are they willing to come out and make a difference? No." Thankfully, Rennie said that it's an exceedingly small number of individuals.
Born and raised in the area, Rennie said he is proud to have been able to serve residents and be part of projects that benefitted many, such as the Allan & Jean Millar Centre and the Casino, which was a partnership with the Alexis First Nation. Another shining light is Hard Luck Canyon. "When I was a kid, I didn't know that existed. When I learned about it as an adult, it was a no-brainer to use a small number of Economic Development dollars from Woodlands County to develop that into something that is now a gem in our community. That's something that I'm really proud of."
First elected in 2001, Rennie took the chair as Mayor of Woodlands County in 2005 and continued in the role until 2019. Aside from his first election, Rennie never had anyone run against him, a testament to the trust residents in his ward had in him. Over the years, he has met many hardworking individuals keen on doing their best for the community, from administrative staff to committee members and everyone in between. He said he is very grateful for their dedication. "I hope that those next to lead look at those people as more than just staff. They need to look at them as people that live in our community, who are helping to build our community, and help promote them so that they know that they have support from council," explained Rennie.
Learning to work with people you might not like was another vital component of being a councillor. "Party in the Park was an idea that came from a County councillor that was one of my not-so-favourite people to work with over the years, but their idea was great. You can't minimize somebody just because you don't get along with them. They still have some good ideas, and they need to be listened to."
His children, Hannah, Isabel, and James, have had unique experiences due to his position on council, and Rennie said those are fond memories. "My children have had the chance to meet the last four premiers of Alberta, and they've met a prime minister. They've also travelled with me to conventions, which I pay for, of course. They have seen the world through the eyes of a municipality." But Rennie said it all comes back to home. "Those things don't equal what my children have had the advantage of growing up with here. We have been blessed. I feel that our entire family is truly fortunate and that we will continue to thrive right here at home."
When asked if any of his children had shown interest in holding public office someday, Rennie chuckled. "My youngest, James, said he would either be a YouTube sensation or Prime Minister of Canada. He wasn't sure in which order he would do it, though." His oldest daughter, Hannah, has also shown interest. "I was at a meeting of mayors, and there was a new person that I met, and I handed my card to him. He started to smile and showed it to other mayors. I asked what was funny about my card, and he showed me. Hannah had crossed out Mayor Jim Rennie and put Mayor Hannah Rennie on the card. She was five years old. Ha-ha! She put that on every card that I kept in my pocket, so as I was handing them out, I was actually handing out her cards," he laughed.
With a new employment opportunity on the go working with a development company on a large piece of land in the area, Rennie is excited to continue doing what he loves. "It's what I've been doing all these years, except, now I'll be on the other side of the table at the Municipal Planning Commission. Instead of being part of deciding, I will be the applicant. I'm looking forward to continuing to build in this community."
Along with his new position, Rennie will continue being active in the local Taekwondo club and will undoubtedly stay informed on how future councils are doing. "I was born here, and I'll spend my last days in this community because this is the community that, not only have I had the pleasure of helping build, but I've also had the pleasure of it offering so much to my family as they've grown. I love this place I call home."
Serena Lapointe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Whitecourt Press