Editor’s note: The Voice has invited each Ward 1 by-election candidate to submit an opinion-editorial on the theme of their choice. Find those of other candidates here.
Hopeful action, not wishful thinking
I never met Mike Ciolfi, but I’ve come to know enough of what he stood for to understand how much his family, his friends, his ward, his town have lost. I join the other candidates in recognizing the importance of the role he played on council. By standing for election to the seat in Ward 1, we are trying, each in our own way, to demonstrate the same commitment to serving our community.
Today, I’m taking this space to talk about the elephant in the room: COVID-19. Ward 1 residents, like everybody else, have grown pandemic-weary, and we’re all trying to show this unwelcome visitor the door. We’ve moved it to an armchair, and have started to rearrange the furniture around its looming presence; but the fact is, this elephant is not leaving any time soon. At first we talked weeks, then months, now years. What does this mean to us locally? What is the road to recovery that we need to build?
In addressing the impacts of COVID-19, I will necessarily venture into areas of provincial and federal jurisdiction. The problems resulting from the pandemic also cross ward boundaries; so must our Town’s efforts to cope with the consequences. I’ll begin with the immediate and pressing concern of school reopening plans.
Parents and students have been faced with a difficult decision: return to the classroom and assume the high probability risk that the increased contact and exposure will lead to resurgence of the virus we have worked so hard to control; or keep kids home, and continue to manage the disruption to their education, and to their parents’ work lives, that was felt deeply from March to July. As a community, we need to do our part to support students and their families, no matter which option they choose. Here’s what we can do in Ward 1:
◼︎ Ensure that every student and work-from-home parent has access to the broadband they need for the demands of online school and work.
◼︎ Find creative ways to repurpose and multipurpose community space as learning space. This includes creating outdoor classrooms on some of Pelham’s abundance of land. And of course, the library will become an even more valued resource in Ward 1.
◼︎ Call to service our “volunteer corps”: educators, counsellors, librarians, nurses, coaches, trades people, and other members of the community who are retired, or able to carve out a bit of time to give to students. A significant increase of staffing in schools will be required; however, volunteers with relevant professional skills can help to fill the gaps and make social distancing possible. They could work with students either virtually or with all recommended protective measures in place.
◼︎ Develop a new assortment of safe extracurricular programs that will make it possible for students to let go of their expectations of how school used to be, and to feel hopeful about the school experience still ahead of them. Without the range of music, drama, art, and sports activities that were part of school life in the past, this generation of students will suffer, both in physical and mental health. As a community, we have it within our means to create new options and support them through this.
Our recent graduates have seen their plans for the future disrupted, and their dreams deflated. Each generation may have gone through hard times, but none of us has lived through a global pandemic of this scale before. This is a time, more than ever, when seniors and youth (and everyone in between) need to lean on one another and show empathy and understanding. Finding ways to connect students to older members of the community will benefit everyone involved.
Finding ways to connect students to older members of the community will benefit everyone involved
I’m in no way suggesting that school populations are the only ones for which this pandemic has huge costs. Many sectors have been shut down, and jobs have been lost, temporarily or forever. On the other side, farmers have been left without sufficient work force. Where and how we spend our money has changed. Businesses have closed, nonessential services have ceased. And even if this were only for a time, it’s likely to be for another time again. So, how do we, as a community, help our local farmers, producers, business owners to weather the storm? We can change our buying habits and show a commitment to shopping locally. Avoid funneling money out of the community and out of the country when we could be getting what we need right here. This will also move us towards a way of shopping that reduces our carbon footprint, and the damage that large scale consumerism does to the environment. Online shopping does not preclude buying local. Small business owners in Pelham have been creative in setting up ways to order for delivery or curb- side pick up. And of course, it’s easy to don a mask when you stop at a roadside produce stand. We can also be more mindful when choosing groceries on a weekly shop-up. Last week, I overheard a conversation between a cashier and a customer about the astronomical price of a bag of cherries. Those cherries were from the U.S. They were expensive because cherry season here is done. So, what’s the answer? Buy nectarines and peaches instead. And then buy apples. Buy what’s in season, and what your own community has produced. Put the money in your neighbour’s pocket. Eat zucchinis instead of avocados. Help Pelham spend its way out of these hard times.
We should keep in mind that some members of our community were experiencing hard times even before COVID-19 came along. A neighbour who works in social services once said to me that it’s easy to forget in a town like Pelham that there are people who are precariously housed, whose basic needs are not met. Now, more than ever, we need to safeguard these vulnerable members of our community. We have a fabulous organization that does just this: Pelham Cares. Run by a dedicated staff made up primarily of volunteers, Pelham Cares provides a model for the safety net we should have in place during this pandemic for those who might need it most. Affordable housing, municipal subsidies, employment opportunities that pay a livable wage are other supports that it is within our power to provide.
The first and most obvious consequence of the pandemic was the loss of health and of lives across communities large and small. Although daily case numbers at present are lower than they were, and the demand on the health system is, for the moment, manageable, the spikes that continue to occur remind us how vulnerable we are to this virus. We are learning more about both its short-term and long-term effects on the human body, young or old. With passing months, our initial fear of catching coronavirus has given way to concern for the faltering economy, for the isolation and separation from family and friends, for the sacrifice of daily routines that we didn’t know we valued until we lost them. We need to support community health. To do so, we should think about establishing immediate access to health care for both physical and mental health emergencies. This could mean establishing a walk-in clinic in Pelham, or at least a means of making online or telephone contact 24/7 with health professionals located right in our community. We have yet to experience what it will be like to deal with COVID-19 once the weather turns cold and icy. In a medical or mental health emergency, there would be comfort in knowing that help is close at hand.
Our municipality has received COVID relief funding from both the provincial and federal governments, and council will need to make judicious decisions about how this first infusion can be best used for social and economic recovery. The Town will apply for the second phase of the federal-provincial “Safe Restart Agreement” before October 30th. A compelling case needs to be made for what we, as a Town, can accomplish with this money. The intent is that it will help municipalities see their way through the COVID-19 crisis. On August 26, the prime minister also announced that Ontario will receive $763.3 million dollars to help schools reopen safely. As a small town, we need to advocate for ourselves to ensure that a fair share of this funding comes our way. Through consultation with you, the constituents, my job on council will be to make sure that Ward 1 sees the intended effects of relief funding in ways that reach rural Pelham.
Let’s make the most of the summer weeks we still have ahead of us. The elephant can enjoy the room while we enjoy the patio. If we use this time wisely, we can arm ourselves with resources and new ways of operating that will put us in the best position possible as we pass through autumn into winter. Preventative action now will hopefully mean less yearning for how things were in the past, and more looking forward to how they’ll be in the future. And, with any luck, we can find joy in life as we move along the road to recovery. ◆