Good morning – I am pleased to be here with you again today for the 2022 State of the Region address.
While watching that video, I think about the importance of teamwork and the importance of respect. I think about how those two things help to define our region, and this term of council. I think about how those attributes are helping us to see successful results across Niagara.
I want to thank you for taking time out of your busy schedules to join us today. I also want to thank the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce, as well as the sponsors at Pen Financial Credit Union, for once again partnering to produce this event.
Of the countless speeches I deliver every year, the State of the Region is among the most important as it affords me the chance to communicate directly to chamber members from all across Niagara.
Our local businesses make up the economic engine of our community and it is crucially important for the public and private sector to work closely together. It is vital that we operate as partners and allies as we continue to rebuild our economy and forge a path forward together.
Before we focus our attention here at home, we should first reflect on the resolve of the Ukrainian people. We stand with Ukraine, as well as the proud Ukrainian community here in Niagara. While the unprovoked and brazen attack on Ukraine will have a lasting impact on the innocent people of the independent and democratic nation, it is inspiring to watch Ukraine’s defiance and courage through exceedingly challenging times. Our hearts go out to those most affected by this senseless act, and the Ukrainian people here in Niagara who continue to take steps to support their homeland.
Back in Niagara, few would disagree that the pandemic has dealt us an exceptionally challenging set of circumstances that are truly unprecedented. We mourn the lives we lost during the pandemic, and the longer-term impacts on relationships, mental health and the economy.
But while the last two years have been hard, it is important to remember that Niagara did not quit.
Instead, our businesses innovated and pivoted.
Your government listened and responded.
Individuals stepped up to take care of their neighbours and showed all of us what it means to be part of a strong and resilient community.
The pandemic has forced us into a once-in-a-generation challenge, filled will incalculable loss and pain, but it has also been a source of profound inspiration, opportunity and hope. The circumstances of the last two years have brought out the best in many of us and I am confident that we will be a stronger, more compassionate community as we move forward together.
In the past, I have avoided commenting on the legacy of turmoil we inherited from the previous term of council. I always wanted to focus on the positive, and focus on our future.
But I think it is worth remembering how far we have come, and the role that this Regional Council has played in getting us where we are today.
In late 2018, the Region was on the front page of the paper seemingly every day, and for all the wrong reasons.
We were patiently awaiting the results of a highly contentious report from the provincial Ombudsman on the hiring of the previous CAO.
The Niagara Region had recently been recognized as Canada’s most secretive municipality by the Canadian Association of Journalists.
Senior staff in departments across the region had departed, and morale was at an all-time low.
Many councilors, including myself, ran on a platform of transparency. We campaigned on a promise to restore the reputation of the Region and to reverse the mistakes of the past.
I am honored to work with a team of councillors who took immediate action to set a new tone and re-establish Niagara Region’s character and standing in the community.
Upon being sworn in, we took steps to create policies that will safeguard future hiring practices and help protect the region moving forward.
We restored our relationship with the media, even going as far as passing a motion that I championed to support our local newspapers and radio stations.
We hired key staff in a number of areas, including the Chief Administrative Officer, following a process that was beyond reproach.
But we did not stop there.
This council brought in Niagara’s first lobbyist registry, ensuring the public can have a better understanding of who is endeavouring to influence public policy, and how your dollars are spent.
We approved a whistle blower policy so our staff have an avenue available to them to report issues and concerns. Staff are now formally protected and encouraged to bring their concerns forward without fear of reprisal.
We held ourselves to a higher standard, ensuring council’s behaviour reflects the highest integrity and what you deserve from an elected official.
The outcomes of these efforts have been substantial and noticeable:
Regional council is not making front-page news across the country for mistakes and cover-ups;
Our reputation has improved in the eyes of other levels of government;
And more importantly, that same reputation seems to have improved with our constituents.
So how did we get here? It took all of council working together, as a team with a singular vision, to restore and rebuild the Region.
And when I think of the team at council, I would be remiss if I did not pause to recognize that a member of our team, the late Sandie Bellows, played an important role in helping us achieve many of these successes during her time on council.
I know I speak for my colleagues when I say that her presence is missed in Chambers, and the void left by her passing will be felt throughout Niagara for some time to come.
But Council’s accomplishments were not limited to governance and reputation.
Despite the impacts of COVID-19, Regional Council, as a team, continued to make significant strides.
We were never deterred nor distracted by the pandemic. We pivoted, we refocused, and we never stopped working for you.
We made direct investments into your health. As a council, we invested an unprecedented $55 million into the construction of two new hospitals, despite such investments being outside our core mandate.
Council continues to do its part to ensure that you have access to the health care you deserve.
We invested more than $175 million into the redevelopment of two of our long-term care homes. These homes will be world-class facilities, attracting private investments, creating a health care hub with affordable living options.
This term of council has also made history.
Just last December, we showed bold leadership by voting to create a singular provider for public transit in Niagara. The decision of this council will change the landscape of Niagara for decades, benefiting passengers, the environment and the economy.
The progress we made on transit will be part of council’s lasting legacies and I am proud that all of Niagara could come together to do what was right.
For two weeks this August, thousands of Canadians will come to Niagara to
celebrate sport, culture and all that we have to offer as part of the 28th Canada Summer Games.
We have made substantial investments as part of the Games to ensure they will have a lasting legacy. In addition to the Walker Sports and Abilities Centre located at Brock, or the Henley Rowing Centre, every community in Niagara is benefiting from game-related investments, totaling more than $119 million.
These facilities, and the economic boost we will experience from the games, will have a lasting impact on Niagara for generations and I encourage everyone to find a way to participate this August.
It is my hope that the Games will serve as part of Niagara’s reintroduction to rest of the country – a signal to Canada that we are open for business and we are ready and eager to play host to visitors from each province and territory.
And as a team, Regional Council put Niagara’s environment first.
We passed policies that drastically increased use of the green bin. This single decision resulted in a 24 per cent increase in organics collected. When tallied, 12,000 additional tonnes of garbage, or the weight of nearly 1,000 school buses, was diverted from our landfills in the first year alone.
We safeguarded our green space, ensuring that 70,000 hectares – or more than 170,000 football fields - of our natural heritage would be protected.
I championed a motion to hire the Region’s first manager solely dedicated to tackling the impacts of climate change in Niagara. And in partnership with all of our communities, we will be hosting Niagara’s first climate change summit in June to ensure we are all working together on this problem. It is my hope that we will use this summit to commit ourselves to emission targets, as well as developing a workable strategy to meet these objectives going forward.
As a council, we passed policies to make sure that as we develop more of our region, we are protecting the natural elements that make us unique. There must always be a balance between development and protecting the environment and we have found that balance during this term. As a team, we are ensuring that we are being responsible and building a sustainable Niagara.
But, unfortunately, like the rest of the country, we have not been immune to the challenges of housing affordability.
In response to this crisis, we have invested over $20 million over the last three years to bring more affordable housing into the market. When combined with funds from other levels of government, more than $43 million has been dedicated to tackling this problem.
But we also know that we will not fix this problem on our own. To help ensure that that we attract private sector investment, Council voted to fund new incentive programs targeted at affordable housing.
It is important to remember we did not get here overnight and that any long-term solution will require all levels of government working in partnership with the private sector.
Even though solutions we put in place today will take time, we will not give up. I look forward to the future and I can assure everyone that affordability will continue to be one of my top priorities.
We also confronted the problem of homelessness across all of Niagara. As a unified council, we recognized how serious the issue of homelessness is, and we have taken action to address this problem head on.
Studies show that we are the second most heavily invested Region in Ontario in regard to homelessness, illustrating our commitment to making sure everyone has a place to call home.
We have been innovative, taking advantage of pandemic funding to leverage millions from senior levels of government to build new shelters that offer best-practice service. These new facilities are staffed by professionals and they are getting results.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, our staff have ensured dozens of people who have been homeless for years now have a home. This shift in approach is making a measurable difference in the lives of some of our most vulnerable residents.
We also acknowledge the ongoing challenges presented by the opioid crisis.
Sadly, every month in Niagara 13 people die as a result of their opioid use, and this does not account for the hundreds of calls that our paramedics respond to and those who are treated in hospital. The Region, in partnership with the police and local municipalities continues to take every step available to combat this crisis and reduce the loss of life.
We know there is more to do in regard to homelessness and the opioid crisis and we will continue to make the decisions that are required to protect the community.
Over the last three years we have all taken a harder look at how we treat our neighbours, how we view our selves and how the systems we have built work for everyone.
In response to powerful movements like Black Lives Matter, we took steps to establish the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion advisory committee. We are committed to building policies that serve everyone and we want to make sure no one is left behind.
After the horrific discoveries of mass graves at the sites of former residential schools, we have put significant resources behind building better relationships with Niagara’s Indigenous communities. This was a stark wake-up call that we must do better and the time to start is now.
We acknowledge there is more left to do and we are just starting some of these conversations, but you have my solemn commitment that as long as I am Regional Chair, we will be striving to form productive relationships will all groups, built on trust, transparency and open communication.
On behalf of Regional Council, and the people of Niagara, I want to offer a sincere thank you to our talented and professional staff. Those who choose a career in public service do so understanding that their work will make a difference and they may sometimes be put in harm’s way for the benefit of the community. Whether it is the dedicated staff in our long-term care homes who continued to report to work every day throughout the pandemic, or those who worked around the clock to clear our streets of snow during the January blizzard, our staff prove on a daily basis that we owe them a debt of gratitude.
But the most defining challenge for this term of council, and perhaps for many of you, has been the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2021, it was our turn to actively fight back against the virus through mass vaccination. The Niagara Region, in partnership with Niagara Health, our pharmacies and family physicians, has put more than 1 million doses into residents’ arms.
Coordinating hundreds of clinics at dozens of locations was no small feat. Staff across the organization worked in lock step to smoothly deliver clinics at each location.
Since December 2020, 91% of residents who are 18 years and older have made the responsible decision to get vaccinated.
To each of you who made the choice to get their vaccine: thank you. I want to be absolutely clear: your choice to get the shot saved lives, kept thousands out of hospital and sped up our economic recovery.
Last year, we reflected on the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 had on women. I am encouraged to see the federal and provincial government reach a deal on more affordable daycare, and the Region is standing by to play their part in this transformation.
I do not have to remind chamber members of the significant economic impact that the pandemic has had in Niagara. While we have seen other dips in the past, we have not witnessed this level of disruption in several generations.
But I think it is important to closely review the actual indicators over the term to see how well we are doing.
At the height of the pandemic, Niagara’s GDP declined by more than $1 billion, representing a 7% dip. But true to the entrepreneurial grit of our business community, we have seen a rapid recovery, being just $400 million short of our pre-pandemic levels.
I am pleased to share that forecasts show that our GDP will grow by $1.5 billion by the end of this year, representing a 3% increase compared to where we were in March of 2020.
It is not just our GDP that has seen a rapid recovery. Retail sales reached $5.9 billion in 2021, just shy of the all-time high that we saw in 2019.
Niagara’s export trade also saw incredible growth during the pandemic, where we added $1.4 billion in business, or an astounding 31% increase.
Since taking office in 2018, non-residential investment in Niagara topped $489 million, representing an 8% growth over that period of time. I am pleased to see this level of commercial, industrial and institutional investment in our community and I am enthusiastic about what this means for the future.
Despite the pandemic, Niagara continued to see new business open and thrive. From 2018 to 2021, we saw more than 1,500 new businesses created.
These businesses are employing people and contributing to the overall economic health of our Region.
Finally, when we look to the job market, we have actually seen 4,900 new jobs added to the Region. And while the pandemic had a disproportionate impact on women, we have seen female employment grow by 5,100 jobs since 2018.
We know there is pent-up demand for hospitality and tourism and no one is a better host than we are in Niagara. I am confident that as we continue to return to a state of normal, we will see our tourism sector return in full force.
While we are not completely out of the woods, these figures illustrate that Niagara is well on its way to recovery, and I am hopeful for the days ahead.
Looking towards the future
Even though we had extraordinary successes this term, some of our plans have experienced delays. Looking forward, we will have many opportunities to capitalize on our progress, and continue to reinvent Niagara and build upon the momentum of the last four years.
I am focused on continuing to work with my colleagues on council, members of the public and our business community to build a vision for Niagara together. I believe there is strength in diversity, and that my role is not to dictate direction but to ensure everyone has a voice.
The pandemic illustrated the importance of health care and the importance of medicine.
In my view, the establishment of Niagara as a healthcare hub is viable considering the state-of-the-art hospital complex in St. Catharines; the redevelopment of the hospital in Grimsby; and the anticipated new health sciences centre in Niagara Falls.
Together, with Brock University, Niagara College and private bio-medical research firms in Niagara, the possibility exists for Niagara to become a centre of healthcare and medical excellence.
Becoming a world-class health care hub will play a significant role in our long-term goal to make us one of Canada’s 25 healthiest communities. As we continue to find our new normal, we will focus our attention on enhancing Niagara’s overall health for everyone.
I also believe that Niagara is uniquely positioned to capitalize on the new working paradigm that revealed itself during the pandemic. Our geographic location, and availability of GO trains, means we must focus on how we market Niagara to be a choice location for businesses who are embracing the world of remote work. The opportunities of this new working reality help to better position us to diversify our economy.
While Niagara’s tourism industry remains a dominant economic force and will continue to contribute to our success, the realities of COVID-19 have revealed how vulnerable our region can be.
So, just as we were compelled to seek out other economic opportunities when our auto industry faced challenges, we are again faced with the need to find more diversity in our economy.
This does not mean that tourism will shrink in importance. It means that while we maintain a solid tourism sector, we should seize the opportunity to add to this strength by encouraging investment in additional areas of economic activity.
It also bares mentioning that our quality of life, proximity to large urban centers and relatively competitive cost of living will help position us to take advantage of the new realities of work.
The pandemic, and recent transit announcement, illustrate how well the Region and local municipalities can work together.
We need to continue to find ways to eliminate redundancies, reduce red tape, and ensure that municipal administration is as lean and efficient as possible.
Looking to next term, I will establish a taskforce, in partnership with Niagara’s 12 communities, dedicated to bringing back recommendations by the end of the first quarter of 2023 for consideration by Council.
Finally, the issue of food security has never been more at the forefront of people’s minds. I believe that we have an important role to play in meeting the agricultural demand of our province, our country, and indeed the world.
We have an obligation to protect existing farmland and to support farmers in every way possible to make a viable living. That includes ensuring our farmers have access to the kind of irrigation opportunities that they require.
The economic benefits from agriculture in Niagara are immense and have the potential to grow in the years to come.
When we look back on this term, it is my hope that we will see it as one of respect.
Respect between my office and my colleagues on council. I believe we have a strong team and I want them to feel empowered to do what they feel is right. The individual success of a single councillor contributes to the overall strength of the region.
Respect between councillors, who are able to disagree with one another, but understand they are always on the same team, working towards what is best for Niagara.
Respect for the autonomy of local councils and their ability to make the decisions which are best for their community.
Respect, and acknowledgement, for the diverse views of each resident. I believe that more opinions around the table makes us better and stronger together.
Respect for our natural environment and all that makes Niagara unique in Ontario and indeed the world.
Respect for Niagara’s businesses and the important role they play as our economic engine and generator of future wealth and prosperity.
Respect for the future and the need to make investments in our public infrastructure. Yes, these investments cost money, and this council has shown the courage to do what is right, instead of what is easy.
Respect for the truth, for ethics, for transparency and for just doing the right thing even when no one is watching.
And finally, respect for Niagara’s residents which we demonstrate every single day by continuing to provide high quality programs and services.
I believe the future is bright in Niagara and I am enthusiastic about what lays ahead for all of us.
As a community, we have been knocked down before, but we always get back up. We have faced many economic recessions, the financial impacts of terrorism, and indeed other pandemics, but we always find a way to get back on our feet.
I have never been more confident that we will overcome our challenges together.
Serving as Regional Chair has been one of the great honours of my life, and it is a position I continue to take seriously.
Niagara is a community that has demonstrated, time and time again, that when we work together there is nothing we cannot accomplish.
I believe that we can rise to the occasion, match our problems and be equal to our opportunities.
I am confident that our best days are still ahead of us and you have my commitment that I will do everything in my power to ensure Niagara reaches its full potential, and we will do so in the spirit of collaboration and partnership.