Since the Ford government took power last June, the landscape of Ontario has no doubt begun to change.
After 15 years of Liberal rule, the province is seeing some historic political shifts.
The cap and trade program is history. Changes by the Liberals in 2015 to the province’s sex-ed curriculum have been repealed.
The province is now moving towards taking ownership of the Toronto Transit Commission and recently unveiled plans to consolidate 20 health care organizations into one “super agency” called Ontario Health.
Ford was clear during his campaign that there were going to be “tough decisions” made. It is a mantra that has continued to this day as his government ventures to find $6 billion in savings to bring the province’s debt levels down.
One area the Conservatives have focused their attention on is lower levels of government.
Ahead of last year’s municipal election, Toronto City Council was slashed nearly in half, and the regional chair elections in Peel, York, Muskoka, and Niagara regions were cancelled mere hours before the nomination deadline.
The province also declared it would be undertaking a review of the role of regional governments in the future.
Gerri Lynn O’Connor, now retired, was serving as regional chair at the time, and had some questions about what exactly this review would mean for Durham Region.
“The regional level of government provides (sic) services in Durham because they are best planned, funded, and delivered on a broader geographic scale than by individual municipalities. Working together, we avoid duplication of effort, reap economies of scale and offer more equitable, higher quality services to the regional community,” O’Connor said.
The long-time Uxbridge mayor said actions of the Mike Harris-led PC government in the mid-90s and early-2000s had left longstanding impacts on regional and local governments.
“Many Ontario municipalities have still not recovered from the impact of downloading in several key areas,” O’Connor added.
She went on to state that service downloading and a lack of or reduced funding for transit and roads has contributed to “backlogs and gridlock.”
Regional chair John Henry along with the eight mayors of Durham’s municipalities, Dan Carter (Oshawa), Don Mitchell (Whitby), Dave Ryan (Pickering), Shaun Collier (Ajax), Adrian Foster (Clarington), Bobbie Drew (Scugog), Debbie Bath-Haden (Brock), and Dave Barton (Uxbridge) recently met with advisors from the province to discuss this review.
Speaking with The Oshawa Express earlier this year, Henry said regional and local municipalities must play a vital role in the review.
“They are within their power to [review regional government], but they really need to have a conversation with the regions, the municipalities, businesses, and most of all the public. They need to be involved in this process,” Henry said.
Henry noted “Durham Region is a little unique in that we’re one of the largest regions in Ontario, we cover a land mass half the size of Prince Edward Island. Clarington alone is bigger than the city of Toronto by land size.”
Durham Region was established on Jan. 1, 1974, one of several conceived under the watch of Premier Bill Davis.
The move toward regional governments was not popular at the time, and some believe it contributed heavily to Davis’ near defeat in the next year’s provincial election.
Durham Region encompasses portions of the former Ontario County and the United Counties of Northumberland and Durham.
The boundaries of the regional municipality were much different than what was first envisioned.
It was believed Pickering would be annexed into Metropolitan Toronto, and Durham would extend further into The Town of Port Hope.
Original plans apparently did not include the northern townships of Scugog and Brock.
At present time, Durham remains one of eight regional governments in Ontario.
At 2,523.8 square kilometres, it is the largest in terms of geographical size, and its population of approximately 646,000 is third behind Peel and York.
Walter Beath, served as the first chairman of Durham between 1974 to 1980.
Gary Herrema would follow between 1980 and 1995, and Jim Witty from 1995 to 1997.
The late Roger Anderson began a historic run in 1997, serving until his passing in 2018. He became the region’s first elected chair in 2014 along the way.
O’ Connor was selected as Anderson’s replacement last April, serving until her retirement from politics in October.
Along with the new regional government in the 1970s came a number of amalgamated services previously handled by local cities, towns, and townships.
The Durham Regional Police Service was established in 1974, divided down into several divisions.
The Central East Division serves north, central and east Oshawa, while the Central West Division patrols the western portions of the city.
Durham Region Paramedic Services was established in 2000 to provide emergency services across the region.
Previously, this duty had been performed by companies contracted by the Ontario Ministry of Health.
The region took over transit services in 2005, resulting in a long-standing dispute with the City of Oshawa over unfunded pensions and benefits.
Oshawa eventually agreed to pay the region $6.2 million to settle the dispute.
Fire services remain the responsibility of local municipalities, although there have been discussions of amalgamations in the past.
In fact, Anderson was a huge proprietor of an amalgamated service until his death, including it as a campaign plank in his 2014 campaign.
But the city councils of Oshawa and Ajax both rejected the idea, with then Oshawa Fire Chief Steve Meringer stating fire departments already work together closely and effectively without amalgamation.
Other services offered by Durham Region include public health, child care, social housing, income and employment support, long-term care, and water.
The region also handles the maintenance of numerous roads, some of which have been pegged for possible transfer to local municipalities.
It is expected recommendations from the special advisors will be submitted to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs in early summer-2019.
After the recent meeting with the province, Henry told The Oshawa Express the region will be well prepared.
“So we’ve already started ahead of this conversation [with special advisors] to look at the best ways to rationalize regional government,” he stated. “They collected information and met with each of the mayors of the communities to talk about this, they met with [myself], and we’ve had a really good conversation about what we see and where the region is going.”
Henry believes Durham’s success as a regional government speaks for itself.
“One of the things that makes Durham very unique is that our largest employer is agriculture, and we keep the lights on for 40 per cent of the Province of Ontario,” he explains. “We literally feed Toronto, we’re home to advanced education in Durham College, UOIT, Trent and Queen’s, and we’re leaders in health care.”
Along with his fellow members of regional council, Henry is awaiting the end result.
“It’ll be interesting to see what they come up with.”