I wish it were Civic(s) Holiday - Keith Roulston editorial
The midsummer holiday is coming on Monday and here’s betting a significant part of the population doesn’t even know what it is: they just thankfully take it.
Civic Holiday is a holiday that was originally declared by the local municipality (I recall when the Blyth village clerk used to buy an ad each year in the paper declaring the holiday). In cities like Toronto, it’s called Simcoe Day to honour Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe who was in power when the town of York (today’s Toronto) was formed in the 1700s.
Personally, I wish the holiday was known as “civics holiday” – civics being defined by my ancient version of Webster’s dictionary as “the political science of the rights and duties of citizens, and of civic affairs”. Of course we live in a time when plenty of people are concerned with their rights, but few with their duties.
Okay, I’m going to show my age again, but I remember when people were very aware of their duties, not just their rights.
When I was growing up, there used to be a school board for each one-room school. The 1960s saw central schools set up and neighbourhood boards, in which each neighbour (well men, anyway) was expected to take on a trusteeship at some time or another, were replaced by a township board. Another few years and township boards were replaced by county boards and eventually by two-county boards (with rumours that it may become a four-county board). I don’t know about you, but I don’t even know who my local trustee is. One thing is sure – where once dozens of people felt they had a civic duty to know what was going on in their school, today it’s mostly left to professionals, with a handful of amateur overseers.
Fewer, more professional school boards were so convenient for the provincial government that Premier Mike Harris decided, 20 years ago, that we should have fewer municipalities, and fewer councillors overseeing them. He gave enough leeway in how these were arranged that he probably got more municipal governments in a place like Huron County than he really wanted with Howick standing out on its own, Morris-Turnberry being a two-township merger and North Huron combining only Wingham, Blyth and East Wawanosh Township. Still there are dozens fewer people involved in governing our area than before.
I covered some of those local councils and something has been lost. Certainly, there were some “loco” councillors in some local councils (some Brussels councillors come to mind) but having, say, five councillors in a village meant more people had to care about what happened.
Senior governments, though guilty of reducing the local participation of local people in their governance in educational and local government, sometimes spurred local action. The Canadian government, in the name of Canada’s Centennial in 1967, offered grants to local municipalities for Centennial projects. In Brussels, they used the money plus local fundraising to build a medical/dental centre which still serves the community.
In 1976, perhaps spurred on by the 1959’s deadly collapse of the Listowel arena, the provincial government closed down Ontario arenas that didn’t meet the building code for being able to handle snow loads. Nearly every small town and village was affected with most having to build new arenas. Blyth mobilized in days and had a new arena up over the old ice surface by Christmas. Brussels had bigger plans, but the entire community raised money for a new arena and community centre in the current location. In all cases, thanks to new lottery funds, the province helped local communities meet the enormous challenge.
When I was a young summer reporter for The Huron Expositor, I was impressed to enter the office of my publisher, the late A. Y. Maclean, and see a photo on his wall of him sitting at the United Nations with Lester Pearson, Canada’s representative at the UN. “Andy” was the former member of parliament for the area.
He was also a respected leader in the community and was on the board that built a new community hospital still in use today. It could be frustrating for staff, however, because often when we needed his advice or approval, his office would be full of people from the hospital board, or Lions Club, seeking advice over the Lions Park.
We don’t have nearly as many opportunities to create leaders like A. Y. Maclean these days because we have far fewer councils and boards. At the same time, often we have difficulty filling the fewer posts that are available. The message seems to be sent, and received, that someone else will govern local bodies while we stay home and watch The Bachelor.
So what I’d like to see, this Civic(s) Holiday is more people use the time off to contemplate how we can make our communities better.