It’s been a trying few months for Niagara residents forced to watch the political danse macabre performed by Niagara politicians.
From the regional council chambers to meetings of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority, we’ve been witness elected representatives responsible for roads, sewers and public health behave of though they were in an epic political battle worthy of the schemes of Frank Underwood.
The cold war between some factions of regional politicians has turned hot, and the lack of self-reflection and sober thinking among their ranks is astonishing.
While this circus of the mundane and the mendacious continues, issues that should be front and centre of every council meeting, on every front page of every local newspaper, and leading every local radio news broadcast, get lost.
One of these underreported stories was recent Statistics Canada data on the state of Niagara’s economy.
In short, the news is bad.
Although Regional Chairman Alan Caslin was pleased to announce in March that Niagara’s unemployment rate was 6.4%, down from a rate over 8% three years ago at the end of the recession, he hasn’t made a similar announcement about recent Stats Can labour force data.
According to Statistics Canada’s seasonally adjusted employment figures, the unemployment rate for St. Catharines and Niagara, from March to April rose from 6.4% to 6.8%. In real numbers, it means that the number of Niagara residents who were unemployed rose in April to 14,300 from 13,500 people in March.
That means 800 more of our neighbours are without work in Niagara.
Remember these are seasonally adjusted numbers. For those unfamiliar with the jargon of economics, seasonally adjusted data takes into account known fluctuations in the labour market. For instance, both the tourism and agricultural sectors move through fairly regular intervals of peaks and valleys depending on the time of year. So seasonally adjusted employment data attempts to compensate for those fluctuations to present a more accurate labour force picture.
Think about those 800 people. They aren’t just a statistic to be brushed off. They are ordinary citizens trying to put food on the table for their families, trying to pay their bills and build a better tomorrow for themselves. Eight hundred people just like you and your family.
It is worth noting that these job losses are happening against the backdrop of a regional government struggling to keep pace with the demand for social assistance.
In 2016, Niagara’s Ontario Works budget was $1.3 million in red as a result of higher than expected demand for so-called “discretionary programs” – programs that help low-income residents pay for rent, medical bills and cope with Ontario’s crushing hydro rates. That demand was driven by the politically inconvenient truth that far too many people in Niagara are working jobs that pay far too little to make ends meet.
And yet, what do we hear from our regional council? Has the precarious nature of the economy consumed their deliberations?
Last week, Niagara was subjected to a four-hour council meeting about the integrity commissioner and a proposed code of conduct. Few councillors spoke about the need to restore the public trust in their government, or about how St. Catharines representative Andy Petrowski, the councillor who was the focus most of the commissioner’s findings, recently dragged the majority of councillors to court in a bizarre bid to prevent the release of commissioner’s reports.
Instead, councillors attacked the integrity commissioner and assaulted the very notion that, as elected public representatives, they should be held to a higher standard of conduct.
We’ve watched councillors with no legal background attempt to lecture the lawyer hired by council to act as an integrity commissioner about legal precedent. During that four-hour meeting, one councillor, Fort Erie representative Sandy Annunziata decided to sidestep the local issue entirely and attack a political opponent in Queen’s Park – Welland MPP Cindy Forster – by accusing her of supporting anti-Semitic boycotts of Isreal. (Some unavoidable facts here: Annunziata is the chair of the beleaguered NPCA, and Forster has been a leading voice calling for an audit of the NPCA’s operations.)
And it’s not over yet.
The integrity issue will return at the next meeting with Petrowski’s “official” response to the commissioner, which is as likely as not to send the session down another black hole.
There will also be a vote on a motion to suspend Petrowski from council committees until he takes sensitivity training. And at some point, there will be a vote on a version of the proposed code of conduct produced by the integrity commissioner that has been drastically edited by two councillors before the rest of council could consider the original report they paid for.
This swim through the muck won’t end until councillors, as an elected body, pledge themselves to a higher standard of behaviour instead of making excuses and trying to build escape hatches for themselves. And until it ends, the more pressing issues facing Niagara will continue to simmer on the back burners.
Where does all this navel gazing and pointless manoeuvring leave those 800 people now without jobs in Niagara? Or the 13,500 other people that were unemployed before them
By their actions, this council has said loud and clear that their need to avoid consequences no matter what they say or do trumps the plight of those struck by the pieces of a crumbling economy.
If Thursday’s meeting demonstrated anything, it is that the council needs a remedial class in ethics before it can adequately represent the people of this region.