Pat Warren Remembers Verulam Township
December 14, 2022
Verulam Township Council and Staff: Back - Ron Betts, Pat Warren, Katie McIllmoyle, Sandy Cowan, Front - Gladys Harkness, Neil Oliver, Margot Brown
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.
In 1995 Pat Warren was elected to serve on Verulam Township Council. At the time, she was operating an X-Ray clinic in Bobcaygeon, that she had opened ten years earlier and set to purchase another in Fenelon Falls. Though she was born and raised in Oshawa, her family had deep roots in the area. Her grandparents, Fred & Ethel Warren operated a variety store, and Ethel’s father, W.L. Robson had a general store, all on Colborne Street, Fenelon Falls. For many years, Fred was the village’s Santa Claus and served on the school board, when the nucleus of the high school was built. As a child her family often visited the village, and returned to the Kawarthas as she set out on her professional life. Her uncle, Dr. Doug Warren, served on Fenelon Falls village council and, generations earlier, W.L. Robson served as Fenelon Falls’ Treasurer.
When she was elected to Verulam Township Council, it was still a rural municipality, but things were beginning to change rapidly. In those days, the press seldom attended council meetings, and there were few deputations to council, other than the odd farmer coming in to talk about a wolf or dog killing a cow, or a fence viewing issue. Once a month the road superintendent would come in and report on how road work was going. “At least once a year the council would travel the township to look at the state of the roads and what was needed, “I think this would be a useful thing to do now so councillors can see what is needed across the City of Kawartha Lakes.”
Much of the business of Verulam Township concerned road maintenance. Arnie Coumbs was the long-serving roads superintendent, “he had a good sense of humour at council meetings and the crew really respected him.” Arnie was devoted to doing the best he could to maintain local roads. Barb Meacham was Verulam’s clerk, who helped Pat learn the ropes when she was first elected.
In the final years of Verulam Township, Neil Oliver was Reeve. Neil farmed just north of Bobcaygeon with his wife Florence, and is remembered for raising Suffolk sheep. “Neil was very well respected, he never got mad and was a real gentleman.” Though Neil was naturally shy, when election time came, he went door to door, and made the effort to talk to everybody in the community.
“Neil was a really nice man, but he was quite deaf which may have been caused by serving in the Netherlands during the Second World War. Because he had such a hard time hearing, council helped to run the meetings.” In Neil’s day, council proceedings were very relaxed and council really was devoted to community service, “he really understood and cared about the agricultural community that populated Verulam Township.”
When a group of local artists and heritage enthusiasts imagined creating a community cultural hub, Neil quickly became a devoted supporter of Kawartha Settlers Village. Verulam Township had long been very practical in its expenditures, and “never gave a grant.” But when Settlers Village needed help moving Henderson House from Front Street to host activities at the old Murphy Farm, Neil ensured that they gave $1000, which came out of reserves. “It was the one and only grant that we ever gave.” Pat and Neil served on Settlers Village’s board. Before long, the new organization had grown into something that would enrich the lives of practically everyone in the community.
Back then, during that last two terms, there were more women than men on Verulam Council. Other councillors included Sandy Cowan and Deputy Reeve Margot Brown. Ron Betts and Jim McGregor served at different times. The councillors played an important role in the community outside of their political contributions. Jim and his wife Pat owned McDoo’s restaurant and Ron was a successful plumber. Margot was the secretary of the Bobcaygeon-Verulam Fair for 33 years. Sandy has volunteered for many community organizations over the years including the Fair Board and now Settlers Village. The Reeve and Deputy Reeve would also serve on Victoria County Council. The township employed about 4 office staff, plus the roads crew. “I have fond memories of them all.”
Both Neil and Pat sincerely cared about the environment. Verulam Township worked together with Kawartha Conservation to create a trail by Dunsford along the old railway bed, which was not kept up after the municipality was amalgamated but Pat is hoping it will be part of the Active Transportation Plan that has been approved by council. They also introduced recycling, and Arnie Coumbs made the effort to help distribute all those recycling bins and composters, while helping Pat with Earth Day events in the 90’s. This care of the environment led to Pat chairing the CKL Waste Committee that setup a recycling plan. “Back then, you could recycle all the plastics, 1 to 7. That was pretty much all the plastics.”
“One of the reasons that I ran for council was that I wanted to introduce recycling, and reduce the garbage going into the landfill.” One of Pat’s regrets, is how far recycling has regressed in the time she has been involved in public life. “Far from recycling more, hardly any plastics are recyclable now. You can’t even recycle Ziploc bags, or any of those crunchy plastics that fruit and vegetables come in. I don’t understand why the industry has gone so far backwards.”
The late 1990s were a difficult time for small municipalities in Ontario. Pat was elected to Verulam Township Council just as Mike Harris’ Common Sense Revolution was sweeping the province. While the government was highlighting fiscal restraint as a means of getting the budget in order, in actuality, many cost-savings came from downloading services onto the municipalities. When she started on council services like policing were covered by the province, but as ever more services were delegated to the municipalities, the Common Sense Revolution swept away the possibility of Verulam Township concerning itself primarily with roads and local farm families’ needs. “It all happened because the province was trying to save some money.” The Who Does What Commission caused a lot of issues such as downloading water and sewer services to municipalities, and it was not long before the Walkerton crisis ensued. At amalgamation, the City of Kawartha Lakes inherited 22 water plants and 6 waste water plants and today there are more. Having to manage that number of facilities has been a challenge to say the least.
“Amalgamation became an issue because we could see everything being downloaded. If we had to start paying for policing, which was a fair chunk back then, how would we manage going forward? They made municipalities responsible for many roads like the 649 and 121. The province forced smaller municipalities to restructure, and we thought we would try to stop a big amalgamation by doing a community amalgamation with Bobcaygeon. We already shared the cost of a lot of services, like the community centre, fire services and landfill, and Verulam Township surrounded Bobcaygeon. So it made sense to come together and restructure.”
Verulam Township and Bobcaygeon applied to the province to amalgamate, which was granted. “It was different for sure. There was more development, and it was a different experience operating a small urban municipality, in contrast with the surrounding rural municipality.” But on the same day that the amalgamation of Bobcaygeon and Verulam went through, Victoria County Council asked the province to come in and restructure the higher tier. Emily Township and Lindsay had asked for a commissioner at County Council, and it passed. “We were pretty upset.” The township and village had invested a lot in the amalgamation, and “it was working. I think it definitely would have been viable.”
At the time the process of amalgamation began, locals had different ideas about how the county could be restructured. At the time of amalgamation there were 16 municipalities because Bobcaygeon and Verulam had already merged. The Reeve of Omemee, Ken Logan proposed merging into 4 municipalities, each containing four former municipalities, but “it was always said that Fenelon Falls and Fenelon Township would not work together.” Then Harry Kitchen was appointed to write a report on amalgamation, and “it was a fait accompli,” because the Province wanted to reduce the number of municipalities in half. It seemed that although Harry Kitchen would complete the public consultations, he already knew how he wanted to restructure the municipality, and the province was on board with creating a single-tier municipality.
There were public meetings, and “people were pretty upset, they didn’t want to be restructured…. It was forced on us.” But when Pat went to the meetings of the Rural Ontario Municipal Association, it was clear that small municipalities could not survive in the face of everything that the Province was downloading on them. “But Bobcaygeon and Verulam would have been viable because there was a good tax base, and we had already shared fire, waste management and the community centre.”
When the end came for Bobcaygeon-Verulam, “it was bittersweet. We took a lot of pictures, and pictures together with staff. We went out for lunch together. Because I was elected to serve on the first City of Kawartha Lakes council, everyone wrote a card and wished me well.”
Since amalgamation in 2001, there are a lot of people who have wanted to go back, and resent the imposition of “the City of Mistakes.” Peterborough County was not happy about the new name, because they wanted to be the Kawarthas for marketing reasons. Locally the anger did not die down. Heated meetings took place at the Bobcaygeon legion. Before long, the Voices of Central Ontario (VOCO) formed, with John Panter as a key figure.
VOCO was really effective at bringing the issue to the forefront of local political affairs, and MPP Chris Hodgson (also Municipal Affairs Minster) asked to put a non-binding minister’s question on the ballot—it did not have the full weight of a plebiscite. “I remember thinking it is going to really divide people.” Pat wonders if personal relationships around the Conservative Cabinet table may have had some bearing on the decision to ask this question?
The issue of amalgamation loomed large in the 2003 municipal election campaign. Barbara Kelly, who ran on de-amalgamation was elected Mayor and a majority expressed their preference to have the new municipality dismantled. By then, Dalton McGuinty was the newly elected premier and John Gerretsen had replaced Chris Hodgson as Minister of Municipal Affairs. While Mayor Kelly and her Yes supporters claimed that Dalton McGuinty had written to them promising a binding referendum on de-amalgamation, Gerretsen stressed that the vote was not binding and he would listen to the mayor’s concerns, rather than de-amalgamating as they wanted.
Two decades later, “some people are still really upset about it, but back in 2003 I thought It would be very difficult to put the toothpaste back in the tube. Everything was already reallocated and three years had passed. … What people don’t understand, is that a municipality exists at the pleasure of the province… and there was no way that the province was going to allow us to go backwards.”
“Everyone was scared that they would lose their community identity. I really didn’t like the ‘City’ name. … John Panter used to say there were more cows than people. The name ‘City’ didn’t fit with the tourism, agriculture and retirement living that were so important to the area, it was not an economically smart thing to do. Now it seems the word ‘City’ is in the background, and it is often not featured as prominently officially. A lot of people are here because they don’t want to be in the city.” Because of the way that amalgamation was done, it is an issue that will linger. “It will be generational, because it was forced. Some will never get over it.”
As much as things have changed, roads remain a big issue for the new municipality. “The City of Kawartha Lakes is about half the size of Prince Edward Island and the second largest municipality in Ontario, with a lot of roads and not very many tax payers. One of the challenges of amalgamation is how can the municipality pay for all of those roads without grants from the upper levels of government… There is just not enough money to look after the roads well, … The idea was that by creating a bigger municipality, there would be a bigger tax base to facilitate all the services. But we have too many roads to look after.”
As the single-tier municipality has replaced the 17 municipalities that comprised Victoria County, the culture of government has really changed. “The nice thing about a small township council was that you could come, pull up a chair, sit around the table and easily talk about your issue. It was more relaxed, because it was smaller, and everyone knew each other.” Making a deputation to County Council was much more formal, as is now the case in the City of Kawartha Lakes, but having the township councils gave anyone the chance to voice their ideas. Verulam Council did not receive many deputations, and most of them were easily resolved. The difficult ones were when neighbours disagreed over property issues like road allowances, docks or parking, “then it could get really personal. But Neil was good at dealing with those situations, he had the patience and empathy to de-escalate the problem.” However, the City of Kawartha Lakes has tried to allow for citizen engagement and has formed many committees such as Agricultural Board and the Environmental Advisory Committee so people can come to a smaller forum to voice their concerns.
As amalgamation brought a real change in the culture of local government, Pat has witnessed significant changes at City Council. “In the first years on City Council there was a lot of debate. Because there were 16 councillors, there was a lot of discussion, trying to sway councillors to support a proposition. I enjoyed that debating. It was more time consuming but there was fulsome debate. With the smaller, leaner council, people don’t debate as much. And that’s wrong because if you don’t debate, you are losing democracy at all levels. Maybe that is why people are becoming so polarized. Looking back, I wouldn’t have gone to a smaller council.”
“I really hoped that the easy feeling of the township council would have been taken up in the bigger municipality. There are some positive changes though, like the Environmental Advisory Committee “you don’t need to go through all the layers to create change. Initiatives such as the Lake Management Plans came through the EAC. But being able to look after the roads is an ongoing issue.” The faithful and devoted lifelong employees like Arnie Coumbs are becoming rarer in the bigger municipality. “It seems today, people come here, cut their teeth, then go somewhere else “
Much has changed since the days when Bobcaygeon and Verulam’s devoted volunteers came together to found Kawartha Settlers Village which has thrived, like many other community organizations across the City of Kawartha Lakes. “We were all scared that we would lose our community spirit but I don’t think that hasn’t happened.” The worst thing about the amalgamation is the lack of funding from the province to adequately take care of our roads and infrastructure. Having had a front-row seat for all the changes that have come since the days of Verulam Township, Pat sees the pros and cons of the transformation, “some things are better and some things are not.”