While every calendar year has its own trials and tribulations, the year 2020 was a particularly challenging one, and is unlikely to be remembered fondly by most people.
Timmins Mayor George Pirie has seen many ups and downs this year, but he feels there is some positive momentum heading into 2021.
As he reflects back to this time one year ago, the COVID-19 pandemic, which would soon become all-encompassing, was in its early stages of development.
“I don’t think anybody really understood what this virus is all about,” said Pirie.
He said city officials saw what was happening in Asia, Italy and other early hotspots and had their fingers crossed the spread wouldn’t reach North America, Canada and Northern Ontario.
“Suddenly, we’re into February and the beginning of March, and here it is with a vengeance.”
He said it was a situation no level of government was genuinely prepared for. There was no playbook. No way to please every citizen. No way to prepare for the extremely tough decisions that would follow.
“It dictated everything the city was doing. I don’t think anybody could have been prepared for it, or knew exactly what to do other than follow the very simple advice from the health people: wearing masks, hand washing, and physical distancing.”
Public health officials took the lead in many major decisions, so Pirie and city staff held 58-straight days, including Easter Sunday, of noon-hour media briefings from city hall, which included Dr. Lianne Catton of the Porcupine Health Unit as she provided daily updates on the situation.
There was a point in the springtime when the number of local cases was rising. Pirie said the prospect of imposing a curfew was briefly discussed, but was never really close to being implemented.
With much of the year marred with cancellations, setbacks, closures and countless other complications, Pirie said there were also some positive developments that occurred throughout the area.
“We had some remarkable stories, like Irene Parcey, 96 years old and she had COVID-19 at Spruce Hill Lodge and survived.”
While it was wonderful to celebrate the successes, he said it was truly devastating to announce COVID-related fatalities.
“The families that were affected will always be affected by that.”
Pirie said that moving into 2021, the early stages of the vaccination process does provide a beacon of light at the end of this long and dark tunnel, but that a cautious approach is still the right thing to do, as it will take at least six months to reach the approximately 75 per cent needed to achieve the so-called herd immunity.
“We can’t let our guard down. Let’s get through this Christmas safe with our own family bubbles intact. We don’t want to see what we've seen happening, even to the west of us in Thunder Bay. Their situation has worsened considerably.”
There are COVID-19 hotspots popping up around Ontario and with case numbers rising, Pirie bluntly stated, “We don’t want that here.”
He spoke with tremendous pride about the tireless work and dedication of those in charge of keeping the elderly safe throughout the entire ordeal.
“We’ve had remarkable leadership through this. When I take a look at people like Carol Halt (Golden Manor administrator) and the other people who are in charge of our seniors facilities, they have done yeoman’s work, and their teams, to keep their folks safe — the most vulnerable population safe. They’ve done an incredible job.”
He said thanks to local diligence and co-operation, Timmins has been quite successful in keeping the number of local COVID cases down, and for the most part, off the board in recent months. The massive outbreaks that have occurred in other centres have not happened here.
“I know we have isolated people who don’t want to wear masks and such, but they’re a very small number. Because the advice that we’ve had from the Porcupine Health Unit and all our health professionals has been correct.”
He said he is very proud of the entire City of Timmins corporation for being able to keep a positive attitude and an ability to adapt to an often unconventional work day.
“You can look at Thunder Bay. Thunder Bay laid off 1,000 people, and Sudbury it was over 660. These are permanent employees. North Bay, they thought the best idea might be to handle their water treatment facility with contractors.” He said the City of Timmins’ administration had their own philosophy.
“Not a single full-time employee was laid off. The part-timers were. People found themselves doing strange things. Different jobs,” said Pirie, adding the whole idea was to keep as many people working as possible.
Of course, not everyone works for the city, and it has been a very difficult year financially for thousands of households. Pirie said the city did the best they could to help.
“We did all the right things from the point of freezing leases, deferring all payments, all of that to help the people who needed help.”
He acknowledged the inevitable economic shortfall to the city's bottom line.
“We know we'll end up with a deficit between the revenue and expenses, but far less than what you’ve seen with other communities. We wanted to get people back to work as soon as possible.”
He applauded many city departments, including transit services, for being able to adapt and manoeuvre their way into providing safe and functional service to the public.
He was also warmed by the generosity and charitable nature of the city, from the business sector to everyday citizens who have stepped up to help. He mentioned a recent major donation to The Yo! Mobile which helps feed and warm the homeless and struggling.
“Mario (Dussault) had a relatively small bus, and he couldn’t help as many people as he wanted. Well, Ron Malette of Tisdale Bus Lines donated one of his big luxury buses. So that type of generosity within our community is typical of the way people pull together and work together,” said Pirie.
Fortunately, the local and regional economies in Northern Ontario have maintained reasonable strength under the circumstances in 2020. Pirie feels many people throughout the province have realized the importance of resources, particularly after they were designated as an essential service by the provincial government.
“It was almost like a light went on again about what we do here.”
There were some exciting announcements and developments in 2020. The Côté Gold Project located near Gogama and its estimated 20 million ounces of gold are expected to be a huge economic benefit to Timmins in the coming years.
Kirkland Lake Gold also announced its plans to build an administration and office centre in the city which is expected to employ between 120 to 170 people once fully operational, as they forge ahead with their Detour Lake Project.
There are several exploration projects ongoing to the west of the city centre. Pirie is excited about the potential.
“Everyone is busy, and as a mining guy, you’re not going to find it, unless you’re drilling it, and they’re drilling and they will find.”
Canada Nickel Company could have a monumental role in the future of the city with its carbon neutral open pit plan. Palladium and Platinum deposits make it highly attractive to the emerging electric vehicle market.
“I'm very confident that project will be a go, and the size of that project is one that will fundamentally change the economics of the city of Timmins,” said Pirie.
With some of the major projects developing in the area, Pirie believes there will be an uptick in the local and regional population numbers in the coming years.
“There should never be another year in the North where our population is declining. Never. We’ve got what the world needs. Let’s go after it and get it.”
Concerning the much-anticipated Ring of Fire developments, Pirie remains steadfast that the Noront Resources ferrochrome smelter will eventually be coming to Timmins, despite the current plans for it to be located in Sault Ste. Marie.
“Noront won’t be the company that builds that. Just two weeks ago, I was talking to Al (Coutts, president and CEO) and those discussions are still ongoing. We know Sault Ste. Marie has had a few setbacks. We want and we will get that smelter here in Timmins.”
The plan is still to host the smelter east of the city at the Kidd Metallurgical Site, well away from homes and businesses.
“Development is favoured if you have a brownfield site, and we have a brownfield site. It sits there because of 150 million tonnes of polymetallic material that has been mined over the last 50 plus years, and why would you want to develop another one of those.”
Pirie feels that Timmins has a leg-up moving forward.
“Sudbury doesn’t want it. Thunder Bay doesn’t want it. There are some questions with Sault Ste. Marie.”
The issues of homelessness and drug abuse continue to be an everyday issue in the city, although the situation is not exclusive to Timmins.
“These are tough topics. The opioid crisis is something that is huge within the country.”
Pirie pointed to the leadership of Dr. Louisa Marion-Bellemare and Dr. Julie Samson in combination with the Cochrane District Social Services Administration Board led by Brian Marks and Timmins and District Hospital president Kate Fyfe as all working tirelessly to bring the situation under control.
“All of the agencies within the city are working together, and it’s getting better.”
Pirie said with some assistance from the upper levels of government, Timmins could become a beacon for mental health and addiction treatment facilities.
“I'm very, very impressed with the leadership and abilities of those people to ensure we’ll have a world-class program here in Timmins.”
The city is a regional hub for the area, and does attract some seeking assistance and resources that are unavailable in smaller communities.
“These aren’t the topics you’d perhaps hear talked about at a municipal level, but we must talk about them, and we must drive towards those solutions because it impacts the citizens here in the city of Timmins.”
The opioid crisis isn’t new. It was an issue long before COVID, and will unfortunately continue to be an issue in the coming years.
“It’s happening here in Timmins, and we’re looking at it, and dealing with it head-on and so are our agencies; they’ve responded remarkably well,” said Pirie.
As city council meetings now take place in a room filled with Plexiglas dividers, Pirie is also proud of the efforts of council.
“We've got a great group of people that are working together, and are committed to making Timmins a better place.”
He is also proud of city administration and staff for their efforts throughout 2020.
“They've been working in very, very difficult circumstances, and they’ve responded positively as you’d expect they would, and they have, and we're saying thank you to them for their efforts. It’s been a difficult year for everybody.”
Looking ahead to 2021, Pirie said there will be many challenges.
“I’m hoping that we’ll be out of COVID-19 sooner rather than later. I expect there will be some hiccups with the vaccine process.”
“I’m hoping that we adopt rapid testing. It hasn’t really been endorsed in the public sphere but has been in the private sphere. I think we would be a little bit naive to think that it’s going to disappear forever, and if we have rapid testing facilities, for instance for our more vulnerable population, I’d like to see that enhanced.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge is diversifying the local economy. Pirie said the reality is that Timmins competes with cities like North Bay for big employers.
“We’ve always got to be vigilant about our tax rates, and controlling them.”
One of the top priorities for city officials in 2021 is to focus on attracting other industries, aside from the mining and forestry sectors.
“We have to have more of the industry and service companies locating right here in Timmins, and we should be able to do that. As I say, we’ve got a number of things that are happening here that can differentiate us from the pack and we're working hard to make sure that happens for the City of Timmins.”
Pirie points to the steady local real estate market, and recent announcements of land for sale to home developers, as well as a strong immigration program to show the city is on its way to rebounding and growing.
“The individuals that we’re attracting to the town, they want to stay here, they want to have their families here, they want to attract their families here. They are entrepreneurial people, and they’ll create their own businesses.”
Bottom line, Pirie says, is that the area needs more people.
“Again, we’ve got to grow our population. In the whole region, 74,000 people is not a sustainable number. It’s not big enough to drive your own markets. So we’ve got to be focused on that goal.”
Concerning tax rates, Pirie said they are constantly monitoring other municipalities’ rates and making comparisons.
“We’ve got a particular challenge here in Timmins, in that it’s a geographically big area. As opposed to North Bay ... Sault Ste. Marie or Thunder Bay, Timmins has a big area to serve. “There isn’t a problem we have in Timmins that can’t be solved with responsible development in the region, and as we’re successful, you will see on a per capita basis, the taxes will be lower.”
It’s been an absolutely brutal year for the tourism and hospitality sector. Live events were all but quashed early on in the year, leaving many local groups and organizations scrambling to find ways to generate even a bare minimum amount of income.
“It’s very difficult to have a tourism industry when it’s been frozen,” said Pirie.
On the plus side, the recent expansion of city streets being legal for snowmobile use could be a boost for winter tourism moving forward.
“We’ve got six months of snow on the ground. Well, let's take advantage of that.”
Speaking of snow, the recent name change to Mount Jamieson Resort from the former Kamiskotia Ski Resort and that organization’s goal of having activities year round was pointed out by Pirie as another positive moving into 2021.
“I think we’re laying down the foundation for a very solid tourism industry — an all-seasons approach.”
When Pirie was asked to summarize 2020, he found a single word.
Despite the dark times and setbacks felt by everyone this year, Pirie is hopeful Timmins residents can keep their heads held high, moving into perhaps a much more prosperous 2021.
“I think we have emerged stronger. We’re a much stronger community because we’re working closer together to make positive change. So if there is a silver lining to this cloud, it’s the fact that a lot of silos were broken down, and I see this city working together better than ever before, and I think that bodes well for the future.”
Andrew Autio is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter for The Daily Press. LJI is funded by the federal government.
Andrew Autio, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Daily Press