On October 5th, 2018, the four candidates for Mayor of St. Thomas gathered in the Knights of Columbus hall for the Downtown Development Board Mayor’s Debate. The candidates – Incumbent Heather Jackson, Councillor Steve Wookey, Former MP Joe Preston, and political newcomer Malichi Male – faced a near-capacity room, answering questions for two hours.

As is tradition, Rogers TV, the local cable provider, filmed the event for broadcast.

Similar scenes are being played out across Ontario in big cities and small villages as the municipal elections approach. There is a combination of comfort and tension at such events. The participants and audience are warmed by the knowledge that they are doing their civic duty; at the same time they are chilled by the task ahead: making the City a better place.

a panel of st. thomas mayoral candidates answer questions to audience

I was able to observe this evening as moderator. I was the one asking the questions, but the answers were for the City. The questions ranged from how to fix the ailing transit system (the consensus is to blow up the present system and start again) to how to handle the coming legalisation of cannabis. The debate will be broadcast in the near future – please check local TV listings.

How I came to be sitting in the moderator’s chair is a lesson in civics. A fairly simple lesson: get involved – democracy needs you.

In September 2014 I thought it was time to do my civic duty and become educated on the candidates and issues in the coming municipal elections. It wasn’t as easy as I’d hoped. Scattered newspaper articles announcing candidates’ nominations, a couple of Twitter feeds and Facebook pages were all I found. Most of those were not helpful in informing me on election issues. I quickly decided to set up a website to collect this information for the upcoming election. stthomaselgin.com was born.

The 2014 edition of the website attempted to list the candidates, and if possible, provide a picture. Despite the minimal information provided, traffic continued to grow. It appeared people found the service useful.

four mayoral candidates answering audience questions

Four years later I felt the service was even more needed, and that the voting public was ready to learn about the election in new ways. With the Ontario Provincial Election this spring I was given the impetus to begin stthomaselgin.com early, covering the provincial vote before the main event of the municipal elections. Besides the addition of provincial politics, I made the decision to include video as the main content of the site. I began with the ambitious goal of interviewing every candidate in Elgin County. I have managed to cover a good many of them – the majority – but I knew the goal was unlikely to be met. It has not. But I’m not disappointed by the results.

Elgin County is a wide county. Driving from Bayham to west Elgin, you pass through several different subcultures. The local issues are common and unique. The rural communities of Elgin have been hard hit by school closures. Places like New Sarum wonder what their future holds, but just down the road in either direction the situation is completely different. Belmont and Port Stanley face explosive growth. The residents there also wonder about the future. In Bayham, they are dealing with the aftermath of bringing a Cold War submarine to Port Burwell; in West Elgin, people are eager to see the end of dial up internet. Hearing the issues from the candidates, and then hearing how those views have changed over the campaign, has been an education.

a panel of st. thomas mayoral candidates answer questions to audience

Covering local municipal elections has been relegated to minor league status. Those involved in municipal politics are seen as less “real” politicians than the party politicians at the provincial or federal levels. The word ‘politics’ derives from the ancient Greek word poli: their word for ‘city.’ It’s at the municipal level we see the real politics. No level of government is more able to raise or lower your quality of life. Some people doubt the ability of government to affect our quality of life. I have been in several large urban centres in the midst of a garbage strike. At those times, no one doubts the impact a municipal government has on your quality of life. Garbage collection, sewers, roads, and hundreds of other services and amenities you take for granted are provided and administered at the municipal level.

It’s at the municipal level we see the real politics. No level of government is more able to raise or lower your quality of life.

Take your municipal vote seriously. It has taken humans centuries of struggle to get where we are today. Your ability to have a say in how you are governed makes you the envy of all history. Please don’t waste that effort. Get out and vote. Take someone along who wasn’t planning to vote. Tell them it’s important. Because it is. This election is the first in Ontario with online voting. For complete voting information, please visit here.

Placing an ominous cloud over our upcoming vote are the difficulties emerging from the voters list. Reports of serious errors in the list are becoming more common. This issue needs to be investigated and all efforts made to correct any errors, especially if we wish to continue the online voting experiment.

Not informed on the issues? No idea who is running? Visit www.stthomaselgin.com.

I would not have made it this far without my film crews: Tala Howald, Dawn Tisdale, Dave Delgado, and Ryan Belanger. The cooperation of the St. Thomas Elgin Public Arts Centre is also appreciated.