The centre cannot hold
If you are an Ontario government bureaucrat who travels to work each day on the subway or GO train, it is inevitable, I suspect, to see those around you as widgets, object to be processed and organized into cohesive pathways. Further, I would suggest that if you are one of those folks rising and shuffling to the subway station each morning at 6:45 for the past 40 years to join the herd heading downtown, you too, may be conditioned, over time to believe that this is the best—perhaps only—way to organize the humans.
I went home just before the holidays. A funeral in Glengarry. Solemn, but wonderful. St. Finnan’s is a massive, glorious church—once serving as the diocesan headquarters. But the bishop moved years ago—to the lights and glamour of Cornwall. Even on the occasion to bid farewell to a community stalwart, however, the church was less than an eighth filled.
Alexandria is a sad place, a faint echo of the proud Scottish and French-Canadian community that formed here between the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers, before there was a Canada. A community so confident of its future and its faith it would construct two massive cathedrals in this rural backwater. Today, the tabagie that sold one of the first million dollar lottery tickets still sells hope and smokes. A few other businesses cling to life on Main Street. But there are more blanks and empty storefronts than not. Commerce is a bit more lively on the edge of town—with a Canadian Tire, Giant Tiger, Dairy Queen and a massive dollar store.
It was December, but there were few expressions of the season—on Main Street or elsewhere for that matter. Alexandria had some small industry once. A shoe-making plant. A trucking company. Some other light industrial. They are all gone now. Alexandria Moulding was the town’s success story—growing quickly by selling millions of boardfeet of baseboards, door and window trim around the world. But the company ran into trouble a few years ago. Governments rushed to the rescue to save jobs. Last year Alexandria Moulding was acquired by an American private equity firm.
The big news in Alexandria these days is that the local school board is set to close the town’s English high school. Fifteen kilometres south in Willamstown, another high school will close in September. Next fall, some kids are likely to spend as much as three three hours each day on a school bus.
These are desperate times in places like Alexandria. Every signal is screaming at young people to get away—and to never come back.
We are understandably gripped by the spectacle overtaking the United States this week. But there is seething discontent brewing in rural Ontario too. It has not yet bubbled to the surface. Prime Minister Trudeau got a glimpse last week in Peterborough, when Kathy Katula, a mom and grandmother, asked him how she is supposed to live on the $65 she has left each month after paying a $900 mortgage and a $1,200 electricity bill.
We believe we are different in this country— that our generous social system is serving everyone fairly and equally. It isn’t.
Government planners—particularly those at the provincial level—have been conditioned over the past two decades to see Ontario residents as so many meat widgets to be processed. Our hospitals receive funding based upon the number of meat widgets they push through the door each day. Our schools get funding for the number of junior meat widgets sitting in the classroom. Our long-term care facilities are funded by the number of senior meat widgets they can cram into their square footage.
Small, independent, focused hospitals, schools and retirement homes are the enemy of the meat widget economist. It is management theory as learned from animal husbandry.
The model doesn’t fit rural Ontario. I doubt it fits anywhere. Except the subway.
Rural communities built hospitals to fit our needs—doing the best with what we had. We are willing and able to do it again. We built our schools and adapted them to a changing context. We built retirement homes and nursing homes that felt like home. Familiar. They weren’t churned out of a machine like the courthouse in Belleville or the post office in Wellington.
But a meat widget economist needs volume—higher numbers, faster processing, better quality control. This ideology pulls each of us to the centre—to factory hospitals, super schools, gulag retirement blocks—ideally located on the edge of Toronto. Close to the subway.
To do this, however, means draining humans of their humanity—of their individuality. Of choice. Sadly, many of our subway brethren have already concluded this to be a reasonable tradeoff.
Even if this idea weren’t so abhorrent, the gutting of rural Ontario would be an unforgiveable cost.
But the theory has proved wrong. After two decades, this ideology has not produced the economies or savings that were promised. Healthcare and education costs continue to spiral upward.
The plan didn’t work. We need a new one.
Residents of rural Ontario are resilient and independent. We’ve always known how to go back and start again. It is witnessed in the energy and hard work of those who have fought tirelessly for our hospital in this community. It is in the joy and warmth of those who have dedicated their lives to caring for the elderly.
It is in the spirit of those who have worked for decades to make our schools the centre of the community. In Wellington, the County’s only track was built by the community. The playground. The basketball courts. Now a new initiative is opening the school on Saturdays so that these facilities may be made available for arts, sports and fun.
This spirit hasn’t been extinguished. Let us stop testing its vitality.