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Canada

Small towns deal with big-city issues in Ontario’s municipal elections

Wendy Landry is worried about affordable housing, accessible public transit and infrastructure.

Her checklist of issues, which reads like a snapshot of big-city newspaper headlines, encapsulates some of the challenges facing the small northern Ontario community of Shuniah, east of Thunder Bay, where she’s been acclaimed to a second term as mayor.

Wendy Landry, mayor of the small northern Ontario community of Shuniah, east of Thunder Bay, is worried about affordable housing, accessible public transit and infrastructure. Her checklist of issues reads like a snapshot of big-city newspaper headlines.
Wendy Landry, mayor of the small northern Ontario community of Shuniah, east of Thunder Bay, is worried about affordable housing, accessible public transit and infrastructure. Her checklist of issues reads like a snapshot of big-city newspaper headlines.  (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Like most of the 417 municipalities where local elections are taking place on Monday, Shuniah’s campaign unfolded quietly in the shadow of Toronto’s more high-profile race.

Most of the airtime was consumed by the city’s bruising battle with the provincial government over the size of city council, but the list of issues dominating Toronto’s campaign trails is known well beyond its borders.

Its contents resonate with voters across the province, Landry said, adding many of the concerns typically framed as unique to big cities transcend town lines and are relevant in communities of all sizes.

Landry cites mass transit as one of the top issues facing much of northern Ontario, including her community of about 2,700 people.

Residents, she said, have few if any options for traversing the hundreds of kilometres between communities and require a broader bus network.

Other municipalities have tried to take action on transit over the past four years, with some turning to the private sector for either inspiration or direct help.

Innisfil, Ont., struck a partnership with Uber that sees the ride-hailing company provide service to designated areas for a flat fee subsidized by the town.

More recently, Belleville, Ont., established an Uber-style bus service in which residents travelling at night request pickups from buses that then follow routes based on demand rather than pre-determined stops.

Landry said accessible housing is another broadly relevant issue, adding the existing supply is not well-suited to the needs of an aging and changing population.

Liz Huff, retiring councillor for Leeds and the Thousand Islands in eastern Ontario, agrees. She said the single-family homes that dominate rural communities like hers become too unwieldy for seniors whose health needs may grow complex over time.

Anecdotes from the province’s many election trails suggest candidates also find themselves frequently fielding questions on the interconnected issues of infrastructure and taxation, according to the Association of Municipalities of Ontario.

Executive Director Pat Vanini said nearly every jurisdiction has a pet infrastructure project that galvanizes local debate, adding they can range from roads to flood-water management systems to internet coverage.

While the projects may vary, Vanini said there’s a universal, perennial question underpinning the discussions.

“The question has always been, ‘how do we pay for it?’ ” Vanini said.

Huff added that taxation becomes a particularly contentious issue in municipalities that don’t provide curbside garbage pickup or local water treatment services.

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