The Latecomers

First, some background, so you understand what’s going on a bit better:

In Quebec, what would be called a county elsewhere is called a municipalité régionale de comté or MRC; an MRC encompasses all the towns, villages, townships and other municipalities within its boundaries (with the exception of large cities and reserves). Shawville, the municipality where I live, is part of the Pontiac MRC, which comprises a total of 18 municipalities as well as a vast unorganized territory to the north.

The head of an MRC is called a préfet (or prefect); around here that title is translated as warden. Pontiac MRC’s warden has heretofore been selected from the 18 mayors that make up the MRC’s council. But that changes this year: in Sunday’s municipal elections, the Pontiac MRC’s warden will be directly elected for the first time.

Five candidates are running. Two of them are familiar faces: Raymond Durocher is the incumbent warden and the outgoing mayor of Fort-Coulonge, a post he’s held since 1999. Charlotte L’Écuyer is the region’s former Liberal MNA: she represented the provincial district of Pontiac between 2003 and 2014. But the other three are relatively recent arrivals to the Pontiac: each has been here full-time for only three to six years.

I’m of two minds about this. On general principle I don’t think you have to be from here to be elected here. As someone who arrived in 2003 myself, I can’t take a nativist position. But all the same I’m a little weirded out that people who’ve been here less time than I have are making a run for the county’s top job. I suppose it’s equivalent to the hypocrisy of opposing immigration while coming from immigrant stock: anyone who came here after I did is a johnny-come-lately.

While I process this, here’s a look at the remaining three candidates, who come to our region with some fairly impressive résumés.

A former public servant, Linda Davis was as a regional councillor in the former, pre-merger Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton during the 1990s. In 2011 she bought a home in Clarendon and moved out here. Her literature highlights her family roots in the area: a tactic I’ve seen with other people who come here to start businesses. Pierre Fréchette, another former public servant (he was a director of labour relations), has owned property here for eight years and moved here full-time three years ago.1 He briefly served as mayor of Île-du-Grand-Calumet last year before abruptly resigning.2 If there’s a story there, I don’t know what it is.

As for the third candidate, much more can be said.

We know Jane Toller around here as the entrepreneur who in 2012 bought the Spruceholme Inn in Fort-Coulonge and has since served a number of local committees. But as Jane Pitfield, she served as a Toronto city councillor from 1998 to 2006; in 2006, she ran for mayor of Toronto, winning 32 percent of the vote and finishing second to David Miller. In a 2008 profile she said she had no desire to return to the political fray—but, you know, politics is an addiction. In the 2010 Toronto election, she attempted a political comeback, running for councillor in an East York ward; after a somewhat nasty campaign she came in second, with 28 percent of the vote, losing to then-newcomer Mary Fragedakis. As late as 2013 she was doing walking tours of the Toronto neighbourhood of Leaside, about which she edited a well-regarded book.

Toller doesn’t hide her history: it’s mentioned in the local news coverage, though it’s absent from her campaign literature. (That’s not necessarily notable. With the exception of Davis, most of the candidates’ campaign literature around here focuses on platform rather than personal history, which I find interesting: our politicians do not talk about themselves too much.) Still, her past political career, while not talked about in detail, is something she mentions as part of her experience.3 It’s suggestive. It implies a track record. We do not know whether that track record is a good thing. So I started to dig.

Eleven years is a lifetime in politics; on the Internet it’s a geologic age. Newspaper websites make their old stories disappear, so there’s not much news coverage left online from the 2006 campaign. But what I did find, combined with some comments from politically aware friends in Toronto, suggested a right-wing politician given to making impolitic pronouncements: calling for a ban on panhandling, or phasing out public sector unions. As for her 2006 mayoral campaign, Torontoist called it

one of the weakest and scatterbrained mayoral challenges in a long time. Almost right from the start Jane Pitfield mounted a disorganized campaign that didn’t inspire anything from the fractured right-wing caucus on council. Pitfield couldn’t even get backing from prominent right-wingers and even inspired Stephen LeDrew to muddy the waters even further. During the campaign, the councillor made numerous verbal gaffes, made pandering into an art form and looked like small town rather than a woman who wanted to run Canada’s largest city.

It’s hard not to see the echoes in her current campaign platform and her rhetoric: there are some pronouncements that seem a little too grand to fall within an MRC warden’s purview. A serving of good-luck-getting-18-mayors-to-agree-on-anything with an extra helping of ultra vires and a side order of commanding the rains to fall on schedule. Fréchette’s warning to pay close attention to the candidates’ position and to be careful about their promises4 seems to me to be pointed in Toller’s direction. “I don’t want to over-promise and under-deliver,” Fréchette says; the implication is that someone else—namely Toller—is.

There’s another thing. Unlike the other candidates, Toller isn’t bilingual. She did deliver part of her campaign announcement in French5 and has hired a tutor. At the Pontiac Chamber of Conference’s candidates forum on October 10, the Pontiac Journal reports, “Ms Toller was asked how she will serve francophones, not being bilingual. Toller said she has a tutor and will know her French, cautioning ‘Anyone can learn a language, but not everyone can deliver results.’”

I was aghast when I read that. It’s not that, in practice, she’ll have a hard time communicating with her constituents: 42.4 percent of the residents of the Pontiac MRC are unilingual anglophones, 51.5 percent are bilingual and only 6 percent are unilingual francophones.6 It’s that 40 percent of our population lists French as their mother tongue, and in Quebec it’s politically toxic to expect a francophone to speak English to their representative. It’s also that being a unilingual anglophone will make her dealings with the provincial government—a government whose byzantine way of doing things will not necessarily come naturally to someone who comes from outside the province7—much, much harder.

And finally, it really does take some stones to say that learning a language is easy when you haven’t yet done so, and that “not everyone can deliver results” when concrete examples of said results are thin on the ground.

Honestly, it’s stuff like this that makes me leery of the latecomers as candidates. If you’re going to campaign on solving the region’s problems, it helps if you have a deep, first-hand understanding of those problems. And sometimes those problems can elude a quick study. Sometimes you need the longer view.

This region is in slow decline, a decline punctuated by sudden, jarring events like school and mill closures that are easy to point to, but also through slow and subtle entropy: the businesses that close one by one because they can’t find a buyer; the homes that rot on the market for years, unsellable because they’re priced above the population’s ability to pay but the owners can’t afford to sell them for less. But perspective also helps to see the gains: for all the complaints about the 148, it was in much worse shape when I moved here in 2003: the stretch between Aylmer and Luskville in particular has had a lot of work done on it.

Sometimes a region’s problems defy easy fixes. It’s better that our elected representatives figure that out before they get the job, rather than on the job.

Notes

  1. The Equity, Oct. 11, 2017, p. 2.
  2. The Equity, Sept 20, 2017, p. 1.
  3. The Equity, Sept. 20, 2017, p. 2.
  4. The Equity, Oct. 11, 2017, p. 2.
  5. See also The Equity, Sept. 13, 2017, p. 1.
  6. Census Profile, 2016.
  7. Ask me how I know this.