A salute to all of our volunteer leaders - Keith Roulston editorial
Uncertain about the actual meaning of the term civic, as in the Civic Holiday, which is this coming Monday, I looked up the term on the internet and found the definition, “strives to help foster the spirit of community among residents”.
Though we’ve come to accept it as if it were, this is not a national or even a provincial holiday. Back in my early days, when I edited The Blyth Standard, Larry Walsh, the clerk-treasurer of the old Municipality of Blyth, bought an advertisement this week every year to declare the first Monday in August a Civic Holiday.
Thankfully, although life has changed so much in my lifetime, ordinary people are still contributing so much to our civic life. Last week in his editorial, Editor Shawn Loughlin pointed out that in the coming weeks, the Huron County Plowing Match, Huron Pioneer Thresher and Hobby Association Reunion, and fall fairs in most local communities will take place, all kept going by community volunteers.
Hockey and broomball will be played, nearly all of it because dozens of community leaders give their time away from the TV set to coach or referee young people. Many other activities are kept alive in our communities by volunteers in Lions and Kinsmen Clubs, Women’s Institutes and church groups.
If you study history, there’s a long tradition of participating to make our communities fulfilling places. Most churches were built, or at least funded, by church members participating in fundraising and sometimes even carpentry and brick-laying. We can often see, around the countryside, one-room school houses that served local communities until the 1960s. Each of those schools had its own school board, when I was a child. My father, who wasn’t a big participant in community affairs, served his term on our local school board.
By the time I was in high school, those one-room school houses were replaced by central schools and township school boards. As I became a newspaper editor, the provincial government had created county-wide boards of education. Later, two counties were joined to further reduce volunteer representation. That led to the closure of schools in places like Belgrave, Blyth and Brussels and a further distancing of parents from the levers of control.
Similar distancing in municipalities began with Premier Mike Harris’s decision to implement municipal reform. Municipalities were given the ultimatum to reform themselves or the government would do it for them. Towns, villages and townships lost their sense of control, and many local politicians lost their jobs.
With the government deciding so many forms of control would be put in the hands of people more distant from the people who paid the taxes to support them, would the sense we had of running our communities be lost? Certainly most urbanites, after whom the government seemed to be modelling rural communities’ future, sit back and let various forms of government offer services.
Local volunteers didn’t follow the tradition of their urban cousins. Perhaps it was because our local schools and municipalities couldn’t afford to provide all the services people wanted. Instead, they continued to be involved to form what makes our communities such interesting places today.
Will this sense of local ownership continue? As senior governments continue to make it seem like our role is to pay taxes and wait for government to provide the services, will we begin to lose services? Already we see local leaders of clubs and organizations complaining that they need members to keep all these festivals and fairs going.
Yet, there are sterling examples of stubborn volunteers who continue to keep things going. This September, the annual Belgrave Elementary School Fair will be held. Last year the fair reached its centenary. It began when there were one-room schoolhouses where students needed to learn that there was a world outside their own school district. When those schools changed, it adapted to serve the centralized schools in Belgrave, Blyth and Brussels. Those closed and again it adapted.
Similarly, volunteers have kept the Belgrave arena going with the annual Fowl Supper. Farther afield, the Belmore Maple Syrup Festival turns the volunteer power of the community into support for the Belmore Community Centre, built by a community that supposedly wasn’t large enough to support an arena when structural changes brought about by the collapse of the Listowel arena meant the futures of most arenas were put on the line in the 1970s.
So, on Civic Holiday, here’s a salute (and a thank you) to the hundreds of volunteers to continue to make our small communities such well served and interesting places to live. Keep up the good work.