Posted on Wednesday, March 21, 2018 at 11:30 a.m.
Anniversary of a fragile amalgamation plan
Twenty years ago, four small villages were pushed together to become one single large township, even though it wasn’t their wish at the start but a cost-cutting measure of the Harris Progressive Conservative provincial government.
Today Champlain Township council represents the four villages of Vankleek Hill, L’Orignal, Longueuil, and West Hawkesbury. The current council members continue to deal with the same problems and needs now as their counterparts 20 years ago faced in the four villages, before the provincial government’s amalgamation plan.
“The general feeling among everybody was we didn’t want this,” said Champlain Township’s first mayor, John Wilson, during a phone interview from his home in Renfrew, as he recalled the events that led up to the amalgamation of the four communities. In 1998, when the Progressive Conservative government of Premier Mike Harris pushed through its amalgamation plan for many municipalities in Ontario, Wilson was the mayor for West Hawkesbury Township.
The mayors and councillors for the four villages ended up as reluctant supporters for amalgamation. They saw that the Harris government intended to go ahead with the plan as part of its “Common Sense Revolution” for reducing provincial costs, by reducing the number of municipalities in Ontario from 840 to 350. That represented a potential of millions of dollars in savings to the provincial government through reduction of municipal support payments.
Wilson noted that before the official amalgamation process was in place in 1998, there was some rumour about West Hawkesbury Township getting split up between the Town of Hawkesbury and the Village of Vankleek Hill. “That was the story going around,” he recalled, so, rather than seeing his township pulled apart like a turkey wishbone, Wilson was in touch with the mayors of the other three municipalities and together they pushed for amalgamation on their own terms, or at least as close to their desires as they could hope.
Wilson recalled that the early years after amalgamation proved not as bad as feared. The new municipality still faced the same challenges as had bedevilled the four villages, but overall, things seemed to be working out fine. “That’s how it was during the years while I was mayor,” Wilson related, adding that he can’t speak for the township’s situation now.
The current mayor for Champlain Township, Gary Barton, recalled that when he sat on Vankleek Hill council 20 years ago, he wasn’t sure at the time whether amalgamation would be a blessing or a disaster. “I was kind of ambivalent,” Barton said during a recent interview. “I certainly wasn’t a big proponent, but there was this strong indication from the province that we were going to amalgamate.”
Barton’s own recollection of popular feeling then, about amalgamation, mirrors his own thoughts at the time. “No one was really for or against,” he remembers.
During the past years of what will be his last term as mayor for the township, Barton and his councillors are having to deal with a continual reduction in the annual municipal grant from the province, while the costs for maintaining existing infrastructure continues to grow and the township tries to find ways to finance new infrastructure needs.
“The province was seeing it (amalgamation) as a cost-cutting measure,” said Barton. “Did it work? I think not.”