With voting ballots mailed out this past Monday, Sept. 26, WN residents will be making important choices in a hotly contested municipal election in the coming days and weeks. To help, they got the opportunity to compare candidates on Tuesday and Wednesday at two debates hosted by the WN Chamber of Commerce. The “debates” were actually more like Q&A sessions and stayed quite tame, however this was by design. The sentiment in West Nipissing seems to be one of fatigue over insults and lack of decorum at Council, so the Chamber structured the event to leave little room for squabbles, organizers explained.
Each candidate was posed two questions, with mayoral candidates answering 4 total questions over both evenings. The first night saw candidates from wards 1 through 4 (Sturgeon Falls and Cache Bay) join the three mayoral candidates on stage, while the second featured wards 5 through 8 (Verner, Lavigne, Field, River Valley and surrounding areas). Following the formal Q&A period, tables were set up around the Marcel Noël Hall for candidates to answer questions from constituents directly, and to speak more about their platforms. Many people took advantage of the opportunity. Presentations ended around 9:15pm on the first day, but the hall only emptied around 10 pm.
The first debate saw approximately 250 people attend in-person, with another 240 people watching live over Youtube. The next day, the video had been seen over 1000 times.
The night was very tame and featured no sparring, with none of the candidates making use of their 45-second right to rebuttal an opponent. It was a straightforward, calm question period, and even featured a few laughs – quite antithetical to the current situation at city hall.
Perhaps due to the inexperience of a fresh batch of candidates, some were not as prepared to answer questions about policy. Ward 2 candidates Christine Riberdy and Roch St-Louis had a difficult time answering a question regarding the fiscal challenges facing the municipality. “It’s a hard question for me because I do not work for the municipality,” Riberdy eventually told the moderators. Denis Sabourin, Ward 3, also had some issues outlining his solution for attracting and retaining employees. He acknowledged the problem and admitted that his departure from the community years ago was due to this exact issue, but ended his remarks by saying, “at this point I’m not really sure what it is.”
Many questions circled back to the housing issues in some form or another. Questions of attracting and retaining young people and growing the community all seemed to go back to the overarching issues of affordable housing or simply finding any housing at all. Addressing the labour shortage was not far behind as an answer to those questions as well.
Ward 1 candidates Réjean Venne and Kris Rivard’s two questions both focused heavily on these topics. Both candidates spoke to the importance of recreational amenities. Rivard suggested working with provincial and federal governments to build these amenities in our community. “I know when we visit other communities in Southern Ontario, you’ll have all sorts of bike trails, walking paths, things like that, really nice recreational facilities. In Northern Ontario, for the most part, it’s fallen behind. We need to work with our provincial and federal governments and advocate for these things in our communities.”
Denis Sabourin, Ward 3, also brought up the idea of building smaller homes for residents who live alone or as a couple, leaving larger homes for larger families, “rather than having 2 people in a 3000 square foot mansion.” His rival Daniel Gagné responded to the same question, acknowledging that a committee is in place to study housing in the community and deploring that people are unable to find new accommodations within their price-range. Both candidates mentioned working with builders to get more apartments built. Gagné said he would like to work with people building new subdivisions to “make it easier for them to build houses or rental units, I think that would be the fastest way that we can fast-track [the solutions to] the shortage that we have.”
The job needs in West Nipissing were also addressed by ward 1 candidates. Venne showed optimism about West Nipissing’s potential. “We’re perfectly positioned between North Bay and Sudbury. We’re in the perfect spot to be a growing community. […] We need to attract more jobs to the region by making it easier for businesses to grow here.” Rivard’s answer was to look towards young people and ask them what they want, and what would make them stay or return. “I believe it’s important to work with our high school councillors so that they can find out what jobs our students really wish to have in our area, and then maybe we can seek out some federal or provincial grants in order to help with the development of those industries in our community. […] We have to seek out and discuss it with our youth.” He added that housing must also be available and affordable for younger people and families to be able to return to the region.
Both candidates also spoke of Northern Ontario being a more affordable place to live in the province, and agreed that maintaining affordability in West Nipissing will be key to seeing a return of younger residents and families. Venne brought up taxes: “unfortunately over the last four years, we’ve seen 6% tax increases in back-to-back years […] I think we need to make sure we don’t resort to the easy option of raising taxes because we want to continue to be that low cost of living spot in Northern Ontario.”
Ward 4 candidates were asked if they would support having a full-time by-law enforcement officer, and both agreed this would be preferable to the current part-time model. Jamie Restoule said he’s heard many complaints from constituents with regards to people not respecting bylaws, adding “if (…) there needs to be enforcement and there are penalties attached, then we should use those funds as a revenue source to help support a full-time bylaw officer.” Robert Burey pointed out that with the size of a community such as West Nipissing, it would easily fill a full-time 5-day schedule with resolving bylaw complaints from the community. “As neighbours change, you sometimes have disagreements, and people have different ideas of what they can and cannot do on their property. […] We do have rules.”
Issues related to drug-use, addictions, and mental health in the community were also brought up by nearly all candidates. Roch St. Louis, who sits on the OPP Police Services Board, even got emotional in his closing remarks when broaching the topic. “In my line of work it’s something that we see way too often. […] it’s very prevalent in our municipality right now. We need to address this situation, and we need to take care of it immediately,” insisted the Ward 2 candidate.
The question of moving forward from the current council toxicity did, of course, come up, “the elephant in the room” as St Louis called it. When asked about a concern or challenge that was brought up during their campaign and how they would address it, he mentioned this was often lamented by people when he knocked on doors. However, his solution was simply putting his hat in the ring to change things. He then moved on to issues of infrastructure (roads, sidewalks, etc.) and avoided getting too deep into what is evidently a contentious issue.
The mayoral candidates had a bit more to say in this regard.
Dan Roveda, the current Ward 4 councillor seeking the mayor’s seat, stuck to his slogan of “Moving Forward” and focused on future plans and promises he would uphold. Notably, one of those promises was to establish office hours as mayor, to ensure residents have access to him. In closing, he called the event pleasant and very well-organized. “I thought it was going to be, excuse the word, a pissing match and it was not. […] I think we have proven we can all work together,” he stated. Roveda also promised to adhere to Robert’s Rules of Order on council going forward, something that was first brought up by his opponent Dave Lewington in his opening remarks.
Lewington, who operates a farm near Lavigne, brought up the Roberts Rules when speaking of his experience on many farming boards and committees. “I came to really appreciate those rules. […] I see the positive difference that it made, as long as those rules were followed,” he said. The implication was that current council’s discord is due to not adhering to procedural rules. In his closing statement, he mentioned “scary” conversations he’s had with residents about the current situation in West Nipissing. “We’re left wondering, is there an explanation for the fear, the distrust, the unhappiness, and the loss in confidence in our leaders?” He said he was anxiously awaiting a report from Municipal Affairs on their investigation into council’s current dysfunction, in order to learn from the past and fix the issues.
Kathleen Thorne Rochon focused on her background, qualifications, and community involvement, mainly in the areas of community and economic development. The business woman who has worked at all three levels of government has chaired the WN Chamber of Commerce and sat on the museum board and Economic Development board. She compared the campaign to a “job interview” with the residents of West Nipissing being the hiring committee. She did also mention the current municipal government; “I’m independent, I’m not entangled with the conflicts of the current council. To cure the problems that we’ve seen at council, there needs to be a seismic shift. […] I am the candidate that represents change.”
The second debate featured candidates from the outlying areas, who would have had a long drive to Sturgeon Falls to attend in person. This likely explains the lower turnout in the hall, with approximately 120 people, while another 231 watched live online. Hundreds more had watched the following day.