Well into the year and things were not looking any better. Doug Ford’s April 1st announcement that the province would be entering yet another lockdown was no April Fool’s joke. In the throes of rising COVID-19 case counts, the promise of spring, inspired by vaccination distributions and loosening restrictions, was snatched away.
On April 8th, the Gazette patted the City on the back for the job they’d done managing Burlington during the pandemic, writing “What is visible is how Staff have upped their game to meet demands that change by the day – at times by the hour.” Not everyone felt that way: by April 13th City Manager Tim Commisso had to ask the public to be kind and considerate to City staff doing their jobs and doing their best to serve the community.
President and CEO of Joseph Brant Hospital, Eric Vandewall, asked for public support in staying safe in a piece published in the Gazette on April 15th, the hospital was at 94% capacity, all non-urgent procedures had been postponed, Vandewall implored the public to follow guidelines.
For Burlington school boards it was back to online learning on April 12th. Ontario gave authority to police to ticket folks who left their home without a good reason and restricted outdoor activities, neither of these was well received: both exacerbated stress on Burlington and Region staff. Amid the backlash, the Halton Regional Police Service released a statement on April 17th explaining they would not be pulling people over at random.
On April 20th City Council had a Halton meeting, wrestling with the province’s controversial mandates and not finding much they could do. “We need your help,” said the Mayor, “to be patient; we are all tired, frustrated, and worried.” On April 22nd Municipal leaders in the Region of Halton called for sick pay for workers and a tightening definition of what is essential.
A year into the pandemic COVID-19 gloom continued to dominate the April news cycle, but by the month’s end Halton residents aged 50+ who couldn’t work from home had been approved to book their vaccination in early May.
Earlier in the month, the Gazette brought the exact lack of public engagement in budget building under scrutiny following an influx of cash poured into the city on April 9th, the federal government dropped $1.9 million while the province added its $1.6 million and the city will contribute $1.3 million for a total of $4.8 million all to be used to revitalize Civic Square including a grand entrance on the ground floor. There was very little in the way of public input.
In early April Halton Region asked residents to share feedback on how and where they wanted to see the community grow over the next thirty years. The Province’s Growth Plan required that Halton plan to accommodate 1.1 million people and 500,000 jobs by the year 2051. Halton Region currently had a population of 595,000.
Meanwhile on April 6th City Council outlined their growth plans that included a seven-tower development next to Burlington Go Station that would have a planned 2500 residents. The zoning for the property did not have a height limit. One way or another the development was poised to happen Councillor Kearns expressed excitement for it.
By month’s end, Regional Police Chief Stephen Tanner became the longest-serving Chief in the country.
Elsewhere Burlington traditions continued to take different shapes due to the pandemic, Burlington Mundialization Committee coordinated a virtual celebration of spring, including a live photo stream of the Japanese cherry blossoms in Spencer Smith Park. The virtual Sakura Festival commemorated Burlington’s 32-year twin-city friendship with Itabashi, Japan.
On May 1st, the Gazette reported a Town Hall: Lisa Kearns for Burlington: virtual event where the Ward 2 Councillor set out to tell Burlington why she should be the Liberal candidate in the next provincial election. The Gazette suggested Kearns was in the process of scaring off anyone else who would seek the nomination and throughout the month that looked to be the case. There were even reports Kearns was grooming a colleague to succeed her Ward 2 position.
By May 23rd there were reports of another candidate, days later on May 27th that candidate was revealed as Mariam Manaa, a young woman who cut her teeth working for Burlington MP Karina Gould and Oakville/North Burlington MP Pam Damoff.
Days later Andrea Grebenc, the Chair of the Halton District School Board, announced she too would seek the provincial Liberal nomination. For a short period of time the race looked crowded, but Kearns promptly withdraw on the 28th. Kearns and Grebenc put out a joint statement singing one another’s praises. Gazette commenters wondered where Mariam Manaa fit into all of this, and why neither Kearns nor Grebenc mentioned her, in due time it proved to be an excellent question.
As for day-to-day City Council happenings in May, spending fell under scrutiny. Ward 5 Councillor Paul Sharman wanted to shake up the way the city budget was prepared with a tighter unvarnished look at just what the departments are doing.
In a May 8th meeting, Ward 6 Councillor Angelo Bentivegna announced he didn’t want to be part of a tax and spend council. This followed a report on looking at different operating models for the Tyandaga Golf course, the model was tax-funded. Councillor Bentivegna argued that the spending would normally be part of the creation of a budget and setting the tax rate was instead being debated without input from the finance department. Bentivegna was the lone vote against the golf course funding, despite his colleagues’ assurances the golf course spending wouldn’t be reflected in taxes this year or the next, his point was at some point the public would be asked to pay for this.
Meanwhile, the community remained frustrated under pandemic conditions but there were some positive signs, by May 7th 42% of Halton residents had their first vaccination. Ontario announced that outdoor recreational amenities could reopen if COVID measures are in place, beginning Saturday, May 22 at 12:01 a.m.
In May the Gazette photographed outdoor fun in the sun, children smiling brightly chasing an ice cream truck’s familiar jingle, families headed for the beach with towels and snacks, properly distanced lines to grab a hot dog at Easterbrooks, and couples listening to gentle breaking waves, rhythmic and soothing against the shore. The Farmers Market opened for the season on May 18th to a small but eager crowd.
Of course, there was bad news: City Council went into a Closed Session on May 5th and cancelled their Park Ambassador program. The reports were that this was the result of a city employee harassed or injured by unhappy citizens. City staff member, Amber Rushton, alluded to civil unrest and anti-government movements while discussing the incident. It was truly a disturbing situation, and it seemed any efforts to police outdoor COVID safety protocols had been abandoned.
While all of Burlington continued to navigate their way through the endless pandemic MP Jane McKenna trivialized COVID-19. In a bizarre and tone-deaf comment, McKenna labelled members of the oppositions as “chicken littles” over COVID-19, accusing them of exaggerating the pandemic’s seriousness. However, it offered the Gazette the opportunity for a rare moment of levity amid pandemic news. The Gazette published McKenna’s comments alongside a rubber chicken on life support. That chicken was named “The Dirty Plucker” by Gazette readers.
“June is the Month of Play,” was the first message of the month from Mayor Marianne Meed Ward’s desk, after 14 months of on-and-off lockdown Burlingtonians could be forgiven for thinking they misread the release. Burlington ran a Get Outside and Play Challenge all month where participants learned more about Burlington while completing activities.
On June 2nd Burlington came out of a stay-at-home order that had been in place since April. Ontario re-opened on July 11th, ahead of the re-opening the Gazette was asking the important questions, “Does this mean that one minute after midnight – between the end of Thursday and the beginning of Friday that I can be outside with my ten best friends quaffing an ale?”
School boards began discussing outdoor graduation ceremonies. An expectation was established that students would return to classrooms in September. There were outdoor gatherings exceeding limits and parties that broke the rules that Mayor Meed Ward responded to. But the good was outweighing the bad in terms of progress in the COVID fight.
Amidst the sunnier circumstances, Burlington’s generosity was in fine form for charitable events in June. The Joseph Brant Hospital Foundation partnered with local businesses to raise funds for a hospital that the community needed to lean on more than ever before. The Neal Family bottle drive for the Food Bank and Compassion society had another strong outing. Julie Neal spoke to the Gazette about her role establishing the popular bottle drive, just three years after moving to Burlington, “Who am I? I’m just a nobody loving the community I now live in.” For the Food Bank, their gardens began to sprout, on June 1st there was lettuce, sage, and rhubarb to harvest along with the garlic greens and garlic heads that were planted last season. Aldershot’s Skyway Diner ran a food item collection for the bank all month, finding a way to help others despite being in the hard-hit hospitality industry. Burlington Green announced their city-wide Burlington clean-up was back on for its 11th year on June 17th.
On June 25th St Matthews Anglican Church won a business excellence award for their work in the not-for-profit sector for the work they do for the community, including hosting a weekly drive-through food-drive throughout the pandemic.
In June the community battle to keep the current Robert Bateman High school functioning at some level was won. At their June 2nd meeting, Halton District School Board trustees approved a plan to relocate Gary Allan Learning Centre to Robert Bateman High School.
Elsewhere the City of Burlington Council wanted more rainbow crosswalks, plus benches and banners, to show support for LGBTQIA+2S Community. The Catholic District School Board voted not to permit the flying of the rainbow flag at Catholic schools. As for the locations of Burlington’s new rainbow crosswalks: The people voted to locate one right outside the Catholic Board offices.
Despite a more positive news month for Burlington, national and provincial news weighed heavily on all. The discoveries of mass graves at residential schools were felt throughout the country. For Burlington’s part the Halton District School Board voted to rename Ryerson Public School and the city voted to rename the adjacent park – both had originally been named after Egerton Ryerson for his contributions to the Ontario education system.
On a Friday afternoon the Muslim community held their Call to Prayer in Spencer Smith Park. The Gazette published a handmade sign held up by a Muslim woman that spoke to the editor’s heart, it read:
“I love you. You’re probably thinking you don’t even know me. But if people can hate for no reason I can love!”
On June 28th, the underestimated Mariam Manaa, a young Muslim woman, won the Provincial Liberal nomination.
Ryan O'Dowd, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Burlington Gazette