Summer of 2021 had no real RibFest; no Sound of Music; no Canada celebration but an election no one wanted

·14 min read

The worst of the pandemic was over, for the time being, or so we thought – July was a month of a cultural boom for Burlington.

A dark cloud hung over Canada Day as the national zeitgeist remained contemplative over Canadian identity and its relationship to residential schools and a broader problematic history with Indigenous peoples.

Nevertheless, Burlington pressed onwards. The Sound of Music put on a virtual show featuring some of our top local talent. It wasn’t the same as spending a weekend at a rapturous, muddy Spencer Smith Park enjoying the spectacle but the event was a solid effort to entertain Burlington in a safe, socially distanced way.

By the end of the previous month, online entertainment in Burlington consisted of City Staff and the Mayor starring in productions of Dangerous Liaisons and The Odd Couple. This reporter is sure they did a fine job but is equally as sure they were happy to see the professional entertainers back. The Sound of Music featured Indigenous speakers but as a Gazette contributor pointed out they didn’t showcase any Indigenous artists, a missed opportunity, all things considered.

Education-based events came out of the Performing Arts Centre, which hosted a mid-July Musical Theatre Week. The Burlington Public Library added items to their lending program to encourage outdoor fun, including bikes, games, and hobby items (such as bird watching kits and archery sets).

The library was a great source of entertainment throughout the pandemic, seeing a 103% increase in eCheckouts of books (they also expanded their collection) after closing their doors. Brant Museum re-opened featuring a space exhibit. Elsewhere, the community was beginning to be able to organize again, a bedrock of a functional democracy.

CORE Burlington (Conserving our Rural Ecosystems) hosted their first event since the start of the pandemic to oppose Nelson Aggregate’s Mount Nemo quarry expansion application.

The City of Burlington invested $25,200 into the 2021 Neighbourhood Community Matching Fund recipients. The community investment went towards three community projects, focused on enhancing infrastructure amenities within parks, gardens, and buildings on public lands or on lands that are accessible to the public. The winners were Grow for Change Urban Farm Community Therapeutic Programs, The Orchard Community Garden Project, and Community Garden in Roseland.

City Council prepared to break for the summer but still had their share of business. They began work on the 2022 budget, more on this in the final quarter – an early figure included a city tax increase of 5.57%.

On July 6th Laura Boyd, Executive Director of Human Resources, gave a presentation to staff on the problems the City is facing to attract needed staff, and to keep the staff they had. Despite heading into summer break the City remained in a declared State of Emergency which put the day-to-day running of the city in the hands of the Emergency Control Group (ECG). As a result, Council gave the city manager delegated authority to spend $250,000 without referring to the council before getting the cheque signed in case of an urgent matter, he just had to tell them how many times he spent $250,000.

On July 12th the City had to pony up $165,000 to get parking sensors in downtown Burlington that were accurate, this was a fix to a problem in the completion of a project allotted $525,000 in 2017. Gazette readers wondered if we needed sensors tabulating the number of cars in a parking lot and expressed frustration over the growing costs. The City of Burlington announced the appointment of Maciej Jurczyk as the City Auditor starting August 16, who, arriving at a tumultuous financial time, would surely have his work cut out for him.

Elsewhere, the Gazette continued to follow the rainbow crosswalks story, aside from the vote on location (right in front of the Halton Catholic School Board office), another story was brewing. The Gazette reported belief from observers that Marianne Meed Ward threw three of her council colleagues under the bus when they voted against the Mayor to have six additional rainbow crosswalks done as soon as possible, rather than the more fiscally prudent approach of adding one each year. The Mayor wanted to again raid reserve funds to pay for the additional six – Kearns, Stolte, and Sharman had no problem with the crosswalks – just not all at the same time. The Mayor tweeted out thanks to her councillors other than Kearns, Stolte, and Sharman, which some took as a suggestion they didn’t support the 2SLGBTQIA+ community, which was not the case.

As for regional growth plans, big problems for the city were on the horizon. That sentence is quite literal as big developments in downtown Burlington, begun under the former Major Transit Station Area and Urban Growth Center designations, looked impossible to stop. The Gazette congratulated the Mayor and Council on their achievement in shifting these designations to keep high-rises out of downtown Burlington but some of them were poised to be grandfathered in while the City’s Official Plan stalled. After all the fights, including some successful ones the City waged with the Region, downtown Burlington was fated to be forever changed. The City won but lost.

Halton Regional Police Services announced their use of the Brave App, designed to connect people at risk of overdose with the help they need: an ally they can talk to, a human supporter to help them stay safe, and digital monitoring technology to help them when they’re in danger. The app connects them with a community of overdose responders, and/or professional emergency first responders. The use of the app was in response to what they called an overdose crisis in the community.

On July 20th , a local wheelchair basket player, Melanie Hawtin, was announced to join the Canadian Team representing Canada at the Tokyo 2021 Paralympics.

Rumblings of a federal election call began early in August. In preparation, the Green Party announced their candidate, a young man named Christian Cullis, on August 10th. On August 12th the Gazette began investigating rumours of a Burlington People’s Party candidate, who was revealed to be Michael Bator shortly thereafter.

On August 15th the Gazette reported on some conveniently timed Burlington investment announcements by MP and Cabinet Minister Karina Gould who used the Rock Garden in Hamilton to announce that the federal government had come up with $579, 000 from the Great Lakes Action Plan V – Great Lakes Sustainability Fund for the RBG’s Wetland Rehabilitation Program and the City of Burlington’s Grindstone Creek Erosion Control Planning. The RBG would be receiving $425,000 for their program, while the City will be receiving $154,000.

Ahead of the election call Gazette field reporters surveyed Burlingtonians about their feelings on the election, most felt it was unnecessary, irresponsible, even a dereliction of duty by the federal government in some cases.

Others shrugged it off, believing whoever was in power would make a similar gambit if they liked their chances to re-election. Nevertheless, the election was called on August 15th, that it was called at all would remain a defining election issue.

The Gazette began profiling the players, starting with every major party candidate in Burlington and spoke to those candidates who were interested. In August the Gazette profiled Gould, who championed the $10 a day child care program as the cause dearest to her (upon re-election she would be named Minister of Families, Children, and Social Development). NDP candidate, Nick Page, and the Green Party’s Cullis, shared similar visions of a more equitable society and saw emerging from the pandemic as the opportune moment to consider some foundational changes.

Page and Cullis were so closely aligned that when the NDP candidate pitched proportional representation his pitch was that the Green Party would have a bigger voice in influencing climate change. It was an example that had our editor run a piece with the question “huh?” in the headline. The Gazette’s fruitless efforts to speak to Conservative candidate, Emily Brown, were well documented. They had to be after the first piece on Brown sent readers into a tizzy.

Brown neglected to engage with the media herself so the Gazette dug into what information was available, at the heart of her platform was protecting gun owner’s rights. It was an issue Brown was extremely passionate about, she is an accomplished shooter and held several positions within local shooting groups. For whatever reason Brown supporters didn’t like this, a self-identified, core tenant of her campaign being highlighted, they objected greatly to any Brown article without any factual objections.

Early in the campaign, Oakville/North Burlington NDP candidate Lenaee Dupuis had a lawn sign vandalized with the words “No Commies” spray-painted on it, which would prove to set a regrettable tone for the campaign. The race was afoot and would continue into September.

With City Hall off for the summer municipal affairs in Burlington went mostly quiet, but regional development disputes continued to pile up. Mayor Meed Ward had thus far succeeded – there are new Urban Growth Centre boundaries in place and once the Official Plan gets completely approved – it was in the hands of the Ministry of Housing and Municipal Affairs –all it had to do was get through the 40 some odd organizations appealing – to become the law of the land. But business at Ontario Land Tribunal (OLT) moves glacially. The 40+ people and organizations appealing the adopted but not in force Official Plan wanted to see time frames and firm commitments from the City of Burlington and Region of Halton in order to bring the appeals to a conclusion.

Instead, proceedings got kicked further down the road when the city and region failed to provide a consolidated list of issues by the assigned deadline. The future of development in Burlington hung in the balance and it seemed like the OLT met every couple of months just to schedule their next meeting and break for lunch.

In other city news, staff would be required to be vaccinated. On August 24th an application was made for a holiday market on the Elgin promenade, with no word on who made the application, this story would develop as the year went on.

For most of Burlington not too deeply entrenched in the mire of politicking, August was another promising month. Hassaan Basit, President, and CEO of Conservation Halton said that from January until August, their parks saw around 850,000 visitors, which is a 30 to 40 percent increase from last year. People were getting out in droves, more people were being vaccinated, more businesses were open, the comparatively rosy COVID-19 outlook in July continued in August, as opposed to the taking one step forward and two back we’d grown accustomed to.

The Gift of Giving Back operated an event different from what it was best known for. From its inaugural 2007 event up until 2019 the Gift of Giving Back would pack gymnasiums full of food bins with the help of community sports teams and students.

COVID-19 put a halt to their traditional food collection method in 2020, but they still found ways to contribute.

The Royal Botanical Gardens hosted an Enchanted Garden Tour, a full kilometer long, leading through the Rock Gardens and hosting six different stations for kids to learn about this year’s theme, the monarch butterfly. Kids clad in fairy wings as colourful as the monarch butterflies themselves were giddy on the tour. Burlington Artscape showed off local artists who lent their time to create paintings on leaf canvases sold in support of the Joseph Brant Hospital Foundation.

The Performing Art Center put on sold-out jazz shows on patios, not a computer screen, patios sat with real live people in the flesh. Live shows were put on by Bling International at the pier. The live music events were in recognition and celebration of Black, African, Caribbean, Canadian appreciation month.

The federal election dominated much of September. The Gazette interviewed candidates across Burlington’s three constituencies and by the time ballots were cast most major party candidates had participated. Emerging issues among all candidates included COVID-19 recovery and vaccine passports, housing, cost of living, climate change, reconciliation with Indigenous communities, and that the election itself was taking place at all.

Environmental debates took place, which Conservative candidates in Burlington and Oakville/North Burlington opted to avoid causing latecomer Oakville/North Burlington Green Party candidate, Bruno Sousa, to slam their absences as “infuriating.”

As election night approached, Gazette reporters took to the streets to get a sense of the biggest issues on the public’s mind, there was much overlap with the candidates there. The majority of those surveyed still didn’t want an election to take place, but it had shrunk to a slight majority with nearly half of respondents split between being in favour of the election happening or not counting it among their priorities issue-wise. The Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights arrived in Burlington just before the election. In a note to their members, they said they were there so “voters can learn the truth about the Liberal party. The mainstream media will never give voters an honest overview of a future under more Liberal government.” It’s the kind of fringe language that might’ve done more harm than good but at this juncture, this kind of discourse had been a reality of the campaign.

The ballots were cast, Gould, van Koeverden, and Damoff retained their seats in the Burlington ridings. Nationally the country ended up with a Liberal minority government.

What lingered was the hostility of it all. Several candidates called the campaign the nastiest they’d seen. The Gazette editor posted a similar reflection regarding bitterness in the election comment sections when the dust settled.

During this same month, Burlington’s Community Leaders had to release a statement speaking out against harmful messages, harassment, and misinformation targeted against our medical and healthcare professionals. It is behaviour as deplorable as it is misguided, front line workers do not make policy, and reflected the hostility that defined an ugly election season.

In less vitriolic election coverage news, three-quarters of a million students took part in a mock election, 5,478 schools across Canada participated and votes were cast in all 338 federal ridings. A good step in getting students acclimatized to the voting process.

On September 8th a virtual Pre-Application meeting took place for two towers: a 30 storey and a 24 story on Lakeshore Road between Brant and Elizabeth Street. During the presentation, given by people representing the developer, David Faletta attempted to convince viewers that the old Urban Growth Centre boundary would apply.

The City approved the Holiday Market proposal to run between December 9th and 12th with little in the way of public input and mixed reaction from downtown retailers. What’s more, they seemed to have signed off on the market as an annual event.

Creeping towards normalcy, Ward 2 Councillor Lisa Kearns held her first in-person ward meeting since the beginning of the pandemic – eight people attended. An additional 35 took part virtually.

September saw quintessential Burlington events like the Terry Fox Run at Spencer Smith Park. Team Casey’s Terry Fox Event followed suit, in honour of the late Casey Cosgrove, a man described as remarkable and an inspiring community champion, who too suffered from cancer. They played a baseball game wearing t-shirts with the following quote: “This disease will not take away my disability and wish to inspire,” Casey, 2017.

Rib-Fest returned with a drive-thru BBQ event at Burlington Centre, a Food Truck festival took place at Spencer Smith Park, the month was full of activities.

On September 30th Burlington hosted the Every Child Matters Truth and Reconciliation Day gathering at Spencer Smith Park. Organized by Amber Ruthart, a local Indigenous music studio owner, the event was informative, moving, and a celebration of Indigenous culture with song and dance.

“I hope that education continues and is not just a trend. Also, we hope to be doing more indigenous awareness social events in the future here in Burlington,” said Ruthart.

Speaking to the Gazette, Ruthart reiterated the need for reconciliation to be a constant consideration and not a trend. Event organizer Ruthart, said her native name translated into “loud voice,” her message was loud and clear.

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

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