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Year in review: A year of political change in Durham Region

The past year has seen a lot of change on Durham regional council, specifically a game of rotating regional chairs.

With three people sitting in the regional chair seat in 2018, each had a distinct voice while maintaining order during their meetings and serving as the figurehead of Durham Region.

The three to hold the position, in order, were Roger Anderson, Gerri Lynn O’Connor, and former Oshawa Mayor John Henry.


Roger Anderson

Roger Anderson held the position of regional chair for 21 years, as he first took over the position in 1997. He was also the first publicly elected regional chair, as he won the position in 2014.

Unfortunately, Anderson lost his battle with stomach cancer on March 24 at the age of 65.

“It is with heavy hearts that the Regional Municipality of Durham announces the passing of Roger Anderson, our regional chair, and chief executive officer, following a courageous battle with cancer,” read a media release from the region. “We send our deepest sympathies to his family, friends, and colleagues at this difficult time. Anderson was a force in our community, and he will be profoundly missed.”

Then Oshawa Mayor John Henry spoke fondly of his former colleague.

“I was privileged to know Roger for a long time, not only through politics but business as well,” Henry told The Oshawa Express. “Roger was always professional in council chambers, and represented Durham Region not only across Ontario but across the country.”

Henry says the regional chair was always quick to provide advice and helped him as an elected official.

“The skill set that I learned from Roger is you have to be able to separate what you do in the council chamber from what you do outside it. It’s really about working as a team and moving forward.”

Oshawa Councillor Bob Chapman recalled first interacting with Anderson as an officer with the Durham Regional Police Service, a position Anderson also held.

At the time, Anderson was the chair of the region’s Police Services Board and Chapman a union representative.

“The one thing I do remember with Roger is you had to be prepared. You got a lot of ‘why’, ‘when’ and ‘how come’ so you had to be prepared when you were bargaining,” he said.

Later on, Chapman would join Anderson at the council table, and their friendship grew.

“He was the one who nominated me to be vice-chair of the financial administration committee, which I learned a lot from,” he says.

Chapman recalls at conferences how recognized and respected Anderson was by others in the municipal world.

“It wouldn’t be unusual while we were having a coffee for someone from another municipality, and not even in Ontario, coming to Roger for advice on how to do something,” he says. “I considered him a friend and I will miss him.”

Current Oshawa Mayor Dan Carter says Anderson was “very impactful on my life” and supportive when he lost members of his family.

“He was there for me and my family time after time and I was proud to call him my friend.”

Ajax Councillor Shaun Collier admitted he was opposed to Anderson continuing as chair in 2010, but he had been proved wrong afterwards.

“Nobody knew Durham like Roger,” he added.

Whitby Councillor Joe Drumm observed that he brought “respectability” to the region.

“The region needed a Roger Anderson, and Roger Anderson needed the region,” Drumm said.

With Anderson’s passing, the regional chair position was vacant for the first time in almost a quarter century.

But a family face would soon take over.


Gerri Lynn O’Connor

Uxbridge Mayor Gerri Lynn O’Connor was unanimously appointed to the position on April 11.

When she took on the position, O’Connor was in her 28th year as the head of Uxbridge’s council and 34th as an elected official, having only been out of office between 2006 and 2010 since 1980.

O’Connor yielded the position of chair of the Durham Police Services Board to Pickering Councillor Kevin Ashe and Pickering Mayor Dave Ryan became Durham’s representative on Toronto Global, an organization that receives federal, provincial and municipal funding with the mandate of attracting international businesses to the GTA.

O’Connor, who retired at the end of her term as Regional Chair, was the fifth person to hold the position in the region’s history.

“I want to say a huge thank you for the privilege you’ve given me to finish off my 34 years as a member of council in this fashion. I will never be able to fill Roger’s shoes, but I will make a commitment to do the best job to the best of my ability,” O’Connor said, noting she was accepting the position with a hint of sadness.

“I think everybody knows we never wanted to be in this position,” she added.

Although she was set to retire at the end of the term, O’Connor showed she was not taking the position lightly.

She was critical of the Doug Ford-led Conservative government on the issue of cutting Toronto city council in half, and stating the role of regional government would be reviewed in the future.

O’Connor also said the province seemed to be playing hardball in giving the region a unambiguous answer on whether tolls would be taken of Highway 412 and the future Highway 418, the only connector roads to the 407 which drivers must pay for.

All local PC candidates had committed to removing the tolls during the 2018 campaign, but O’Connor said she had been having an extremely hard time meeting with them on the issue.

“We are all representing the same people. It is a huge issue for all Durham Region, not just one municipality,” she says. “We’re not enemies. We are partners of the provincial government, and we all want good things for our constituency.”


John Henry

Former Oshawa Mayor John Henry moved up in the political world after his election as Durham’s new regional chair and CEO in October.

He is the sixth person to hold the position.

On winning the election, Henry said, “I am so proud of the team that I had. Of all of my volunteers, all of my friends that are here tonight.”

Henry served as Oshawa’s mayor for eight years prior to being elected regional chair, and sat on council before that.

Henry also owns an Oshawa based company called Office Products and Services.

He was the second person to be elected into the position, as Anderson had won it the first time in 2014.

Henry won the position handily, receiving 69,804 voters for 54.99 per cent of the ballot. Tom Dingwall finished second with 25,662 votes, John Mutton third at 16,795 and Peter Neal fourth with 8,324. Muhammad Ahsin Sahi placed last with 6,346 votes. The election wasn’t easy for Henry, as he says he knocked on approximately 40,000 doors around Durham, and lost many pounds in the process.

He also says, “This has not been the campaign that you would normally see. It’s been really… Yeah, it’s been a tough campaign all the way around.”

Henry was proud to say that his team never crossed into a negative space.

Henry took over the position from O’Connor on Dec. 1, and had his swearing in ceremony during the first regional council meeting of the new term on Dec. 3.