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Anne and John Panter Remember the Voices of Central Ontario

January 17, 2023

The Red Casket at Queen's Park

Up to the 1990s, municipal government in Victoria County still in many ways reflected its nineteenth century roots. Then, in 1995 Mike Harris became Premier of Ontario and his Common Sense Revolution included fundamental changes to the relationship between the province and municipalities. Ontario made clear that they wished to drastically reduce the number of municipalities, as they reduced provincial expenditures by downloading services onto the municipalities, while at the same time cutting funding. For better or worse, the Common Sense Revolution forced municipalities to become far more involved in the lives of their residents—gone were the days when they largely just looked after local roads. It was justified by claiming that it would save money, which may have been true for the province, but could never have been true for the municipalities. The municipalities of Victoria County did not agree on a plan to amalgamate, and County Council asked the province to appoint a commissioner to determine how the process could proceed. The final result was the creation of a single-tier municipality, the City of Kawartha Lakes in 2001. In so many ways, it brought far-reaching changes to local government and how it interacted with local residents. From the beginning of the process until today, it was extremely controversial and there remain many different perspectives on amalgamation—many issues are quite complicated.

More than twenty years have passed since amalgamation and this series presents the memories of people who were involved in the process at the time. Given the very different meanings that amalgamation had to the historical actors involved in the process, it is hoped that this series will provide a variety of perspectives, that when read together will explore this pivotal time in local political history.

As it became clear that the Province of Ontario intended to amalgamate Victoria County into a single-tier municipality, regardless of the feelings of the people who lived there, a citizen’s group came together to help advocate for all of the local residents who wanted to keep the existing, two-tier structure of government. “It was so anti-democratic to dictate that we would not longer have town councils,” Anne explains. “The existing villages had been working well. Sturgeon Point didn’t even have to pay their councillors. All the councils consisted of people who were really engaged, they were doing it for their communities. The local councils were really important to day-to-day life. For the province to come in and decide to get rid of all those volunteers was deeply offensive to a lot of people.”

When Harry Kitchen was appointed commissioner to restructure Victoria County, he held public consultations. But it was very clear what direction the process was headed. “I think he knew ahead of time what the desired outcome was. He structured his findings to go along with what the province wanted.” John and Anne Panter were among the many people who attended Harry Kitchen’s public meeting in Bobcaygeon. Trevor Harrison and John stood up to make a presentation, but despite all of the people who were expressing strong reservations, it was clear that regardless of what was said at the public consultations the process would go forward.

People soon realized that in the amalgamation of Victoria County, people from outside the community would come in and decide the future of local government. The interests and wishes of the people who actually lived there didn’t matter very much at all. “I was horrified when I saw the name ‘City of Kawartha Lakes.’” John explains. “Kawartha was already being used in Peterborough. Did all the people who chose to live in the country really feel like they lived in a City? That name was the final low blow.” The newly-created City of Kawartha Lakes came into being on January 1, 2001.

The Voices of Central Ontario did not have a particular founding moment or figure. Lynne Boldt was very important in its early days and Doug Hindson was great at recruiting people. It started off as a group of friends who shared a common cause and soon took on a life of its own. “It was a lot of fun,” Anne recalls. “I met so many people through VOCO. People were so engaged and passionate about it. It was easy to recruit people. And it turned into a lasting group of friends.”

The members who came to the meetings were very eager to help the cause. Anne recounts, “one of the rules of the meetings was that if someone said that we should do such and such, then they volunteered. But that didn’t stop people from taking part.” Other memorable personalities included Faye McGee (who had been Reeve of Fenelon Township), Rose Anne Kulmala (editor of the Bobcaygeon Promoter), Marg & Cy Bolton and Bill Hines.

Their first public meeting was held at the former Fenelon Township building. Though they had advertised the event, the organizers were not sure if anyone would be interested. “Once people started arriving, we saw that there was not enough parking. To have 300 people show up for the first meeting showed us that people really were interested.”

Locally, everyone knew that there were a lot of people who were unhappy that the Province had brought in a commissioner to dictate a restructuring of local government. A lot of people did not like the idea that they would now live in the City of Kawartha Lakes and did not want to abolish volunteer-based community government. But the problem was that the Government of Ontario was deciding the future of Victoria County, and didn’t necessarily take into account the feelings of the people who lived there. So the Voices of Central Ontario worked to keep the issue in the public eye and ensure the wishes of all their supporters could not just be swept away.

VOCO came up with many creative ideas of how to keep public attention. Anne’s mother made numerous public appearances dressed as Queen Victoria, including an entry in the Kinmount fair parade. They organized a funeral for Victoria County, which John initially imagined as a parade through downtown Lindsay. But when they had a hard time finding pipers to lead the procession, the decided instead to hold a ceremony at McDonnell Park. They built a casket and one tombstone for each former municipality, marked with the years that each one served their communities.

The Voices of Central Ontario decided to hold their own Citizens’ Referendums on deamalgamation. The first vote was held in Bobcaygeon and about 1500 people turned out. Even though the City of Kawartha Lakes and Province would not recognize the results, it showed that a lot of people were interested in the question. As public officials asserted the Citizens’ Referendums were not an official vote, it raised the question about whether or not there should be an official referendum on the question.

After much lobbying, the Minister of Municipal Affairs, Chris Hodgson, who also happened to be the local MPP, proposed that a Minister’s Question should be polled at the time of the 2003 Municipal Election.  Since there would be a provincial election before the local vote would happen, they reached out to the leader of the opposition, Dalton McGuinty, and he gave them “a letter to the effect that they would respect the results of the referendum,” John recalls. “We were elated. We had been pushing for a referendum for a long time, and now we had something to work towards.”

VOCO was pleased that they would be campaigning as the ‘YES’ side, and started producing radio ads and bill boards for the campaign. For one sign, they used a hat, with the message that one size doesn’t fit all. “The No campaign,” John explains, “Just had ‘No.’ I remember thinking that we can do better than that. By the time that the vote did take place, the Conservatives had been swept from power, and Dalton McGuinty was the new premier.

The results of the vote were tabulated by the wards of the City of Kawartha Lakes. In total, 16,802 people voted YES to deamalgamate, opposed by 15,918 who chose NO—51.4% to 48.6%. The four wards that contained Lindsay voted strongly to keep the City of Kawartha Lakes: 69%. The rest of the former Victoria County favoured deamalgamation: 58%. The only mayoral candidate running on a deamalgamation platform, Barbara Kelly, was elected, after VOCO helped with her campaign.

The local results attracted a little bit of attention in the national media, as the Globe and Mail reported, “Voters in Kawartha Lakes not only chose a new mayor on Monday, they told the provincial government they want their municipality dismantled.” At the time, the new mayor explained that the creation of the City of Kawartha Lakes wrenched local government out of the hands of the people and caused spending to spiral out of control. Taxes increased in rural areas, so “it has not been a happy time here for the past three years since our forced amalgamation.” But John Gerretsen, the new Liberal Minister of Municipal Affairs would only commit to meeting with Mayor Kelly and listening to her concerns.

John Panter was at Lindsay Town Hall when the ballots were counted. The outgoing mayor, Art Truax was also there, and as the results came in he said, “’well, I guess that is that,’” John recalls. In that moment there was a sense that something big had just happened. “I was quite elated, got in my car and drove home.”

“After we won, I was talking to Fred Brecht. He had been a reeve before amalgamation, and I asked him what we should do, whether we should send a letter to the government, asking them to respect the results. He replied, ‘Let’s not assume they are going to do the wrong thing. Let’s assume they are going to do the right thing.’ I still regret that we did not push the issue more in the days after the vote. After while, it became clear they were not going to do anything, so the issue was left to wither and die on the vine. I can just imagine the cabinet saying that if we deamalgamate them, then other municipalities are going to want to deamalgamate too, so let’s just forget the whole thing, and that’s what they did.”

Ignoring the result “was the path of least resistance. There is always an excuse to do nothing, but sometimes it takes courage and integrity to do the right thing. Looking the other way was the easy way out. There would have been expense in deamalgamating.”

Once it had become clear that the results of the referendum were not going to be respected, VOCO took up the cause of making sure that the province could not just look the other way and fail to notice the results of the vote. They started a postcard campaign, with their new slogan “Here Lies McGuinty.” But they are best remembered for the red casket.

VOCO took a coffin to an auto body shop and had it painted bright, Liberal red. One side was emblazoned “Here Lies McGuinty,” another “RIP Democracy.” They took the casket on the road, visiting many MPPs offices, including Laurie Scott, Jeff Leal and, of course, Dalton McGuinty. They also took the casket to Queen’s Park and Parliament Hill. Some members of parliament would come out and politely listen to them, others did not. At Queen’s Park, John and Lynne Boldt were allowed to hold a press conference from one of the rooms at the legislature. “People reacted very favourably, except the MLAs we took it to.”

Once when they stopped for gas a police officer pulled in behind them to ask what the coffin was about. John jokingly replied that his Dad had always wanted to see Ontario. “I don’t know if the cop believed him or not.” VOCO did succeed in keeping the issue in the public eye, their daughter, who lived in the Northwest Territories even saw them on the news. “Having that Red Casket going around embarrassed them, and they didn’t try any more amalgamations after us.” It was adopted by other causes, including Randy Hillier’s Rural Revolution—remembered for their Highway 401 tractor protests.

In the end, the amalgamation debate proved anticlimactic. After she was elected, Mayor Barbara Kelly proved not to be the supporter that VOCO had hoped as they supported her election campaign. After being elected “we learned she liked being Mayor of the City of Kawartha Lakes.” So VOCO protested at City Hall too. Before council met they would stand out front and sing, The old gray mare, she ain’t what she used to be. “It got the point across… you have to have a bit of humour,” John recounts.

Even if they did not succeed in reversing amalgamation, the Voices of Central Ontario succeeded in persuading the Minister of Municipal Affairs to agree to a vote on deamalgamation, and though he framed it as a non-binding referendum, it was a clear expression of the will of the people who lived in the area. “We had the referendum and we won the referendum, so people were on our side.”

There were no grounds to doubt that a great many people in the City of Kawartha Lakes were deeply unhappy with the Province’s decisions to restructure their government, abolishing the local municipalities in favour of single-tier regional government. The Province chose to ignore the results of the vote, and the City of Kawartha Lakes continued to govern in spite of the fact that in an official vote, a majority had asked for its dissolution. The YES voters then learned that municipalities exist at the pleasure of the province, and legally, even with the results of a successful vote, there was nothing they could do to make the province listen. But because the democratic will of the people was ignored, it is an issue and an historical event that will not be forgotten. “To have an official referendum and then ignore the results was beyond the pale.”

Looking back, Anne explains, “I think we should all be proud of the Voices of Central Ontario. Even if we didn’t get what we wanted, we didn’t get amalgamation reversed, we had some great thinkers who had great ideas to generate publicity for our cause. If you look now at the way things are in the City of Kawartha Lakes, it’s pretty obvious that things have gotten out of hand. The bureaucracy is bigger than ever, government is less responsive to the rate payers. There certainly haven’t been cost savings. We got our point across, and we had a lot of fun doing it. It was a unique organization, and its members made a lot of terrific friends along the way. Everything was done with good intentions. We were fighting something, but it was all positive.”

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