County Council, staff, visitors and members of the media - it has been 359 days since my inauguration. I thank you for this opportunity to reflect a little. Having reviewed the closing speeches of a number of past Wardens, I thought I might take a slightly different approach. While I will take some time to reflect on our accomplishments over the last year, it will not be the central theme of my speech today.
I want to share some things about myself that you may not know. I never had the opportunity to meet my father. He was a white man with blond hair and blue eyes. He was also a soldier with the British army where he served as a chef from his teens till the day he died. My mother was a poor black woman from Guyana, S.A. who struggled to raise six children by herself. My mother – an incredible matriarch – with the strength and resilience of a palm tree in a tropical storm - wanted a better life for herself and for her children. To use the words of Don Cherry, she wanted the “milk and honey” of Canada. Leaving all of us kids behind in Guyana with friends and family, she came to Canada alone and worked as a domestic. She lived a simple life, saved her money and brought her kids to Canada, one, or a few at a time, as her limited funds would allow. We lived in government housing at Jane & Driftwood - one of the toughest communities in Toronto. I grew up in poverty and have lived experience with being hungry. To put things in perspective, in high school I weighed a whopping 67 pounds. Think about what you may have weighed in high school or what the average student weighs in high school. Then imagine a 67 pounder in the mix. Yes, I was, and still am, a short person but I was also suffering from malnourishment. As if that wasn’t enough, I had one extra challenge. I had, and still have, a profound disability. It is not one that you will notice very easily because it is a learning disability. In short, I have difficulty with processing speed and memory. My disability went undiagnosed until I was an adult.
Now, why am I telling you all this? I tell you this because as I reflect over the last year I am truly humbled to think about just how far I have come. What happened to me is not what you would have expected. Who would have predicted that a scrawny, nappy-headed black kid from Jane/Finch with no money and a learning disability would go on to earn a law degree and an MBA? He would then get elected and rise through the ranks to become the first visible minority person to serve as Warden of this great County?
My example serves as proof that Canada is a place where everyone can dream their dream and reach their full potential. You will pardon me if I appear to be off course, but, in this moment of reflection I am feeling a deep sense of gratitude. How lucky and privileged am I to be a Canadian. How lucky are all of us to live in this great country and call ourselves Canadian.
While I’m off course, I might as well go completely off course. Yes, I’m going to “go there” and talk about God. The first line in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms reads: “WHEREAS Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law.” I would not describe myself as extremely religious but I do have faith. I was raised Catholic and a good number of my mentors were priests, nuns & brothers. Like many Catholics, I struggle with my faith. However, I do believe in a higher power that I choose to call God. I believe that my higher power has a plan for me and that plan is not limited by my external circumstances. In my early years, I was very fortunate to have numerous mentors in my life. One of my mentors told me that great things happen to those people who learn to dream with their eyes wide open. So thank you for putting up with my digression. But, I felt it important to illuminate, at least a little, my experiential and philosophical underpinnings and why serving as Warden over the last year has been so meaningful to me.
Exactly one year ago, we were a freshly-elected council dominated by newbies. Think about it, just prior to the election, there were five former Wardens seated around this horseshoe. All of them now gone. So the last year for this Council has been about orientation, renewal and determining our path moving forward. The learning curve can be described as extremely steep. That being the case, I thought it prudent to get out and visit operations in all corners of the County. I want to thank the Senior Management team for embracing my request and taking time out of their busy schedules to show me around. I remember going with Kevin (our paramedic director) in a supervisor’s pick-up truck to the Town of the Blue Mountains to meet the staff. While there, it was such a busy day at the Blue Mountain Resorts that the supervisor’s truck was put in service and off I went to three different actual emergency calls. I got to see our skilled professionals in action providing medical response to citizens in distress. Then, there was the day I was visiting one of our repair shops with Pat – our transportation director. The guys were so happy to have a Warden visiting their shop. You should know that they refer to this building as the White House. Anyways, they were so excited to show me their work and it was evident that they found their work to be challenging and meaningful. One of our staff was so excited to show me a piece of machinery (a massive ditch digger) that, on a blistering cold winter day, he went to the outdoor storage area, fired-up the machine and brought it into the shop so that I could get a good look. Then there was the visit to the Ayton Yard, again on a very stormy winter day where I met the staff and had the opportunity to ride along, between Ayton and Durham with one of our plough operators, Mark. Now, this guy, outside of his truck, barely said a word. Once in the truck though, he became talkative. The very sophisticated cockpit of that truck – with all of its levers, switches and joysticks – was this guy’s domain and where he felt comfortable and happy. What a privilege it was to meet him and spend an hour in his world. Then, there was the day I visited the store-front Social Services office in Hanover with Barb – our director of Social Services. While there, I observed our caring staff who knew everyone who walked into that door by name. I could go on with stories about my visits to our Long Term Care facilities, our Social Housing projects etc. but we would be here all day.
In addition to my visit to County operations, as you all know, I toured each of the municipalities in Grey County with each Mayor and CAO. That was a real education. I was afforded the opportunity to learn, from those who know best, what the unique challenges are in each municipality as well as those challenges that are common throughout the County. The tours were in every instance very well organized and I want to thank all of you and your CAO’s for taking the time to organize my visits.
Just a few of our accomplishments over the last year include the following. We completed Recolour Grey, a two-year project to create a new Grey County Official Plan. Our Official Plan was formally approved by the Province this year. The Official Plan will direct our growth and policy development over the next twenty years. We will also soon be implementing our Recreational Trails Master Plan. Feedback from citizens will help us to determine how we want to enjoy our 8,400 plus acres of forests. In transportation services, we completed projects on Grey Roads 4, 9, 13 & 40. We also completed two bridges – one in Holstein and the other in Hanover between Grey and Bruce counties. We also installed new smart signals (the first of its kind in Grey) at the intersection of Grey Road 4 & 18th Avenue in Hanover. In Housing, we set a bold target to reduce chronic homelessness by 50%. In response to a plea by farmers, we reduced the farm tax rate by 1% down to 24% of the residential rate. Lastly, to address transportation challenges, we hired someone whose sole and dedicated function will be to help us develop a plan of action.
While we have accomplished much in the last year and have much to be proud of, I am well aware that we are not in a state of Hakuna Matata (no worries) in Grey County. In my view, our biggest challenge over the next year will be doing more with less. There are high expectations around issues like: affordable housing, public transportation, workforce attraction and addressing social challenges such as mental health and addictions. At the same time, our allotment from the Province is shrinking and the expectation is that it will continue on that trajectory.
So to close, here we are, one year in – the honeymoon period is over and it’s time to throw things into second gear. I have every confidence that working together we are going to meet the challenges and do great things for the citizens of Grey County. The second-last word goes to our staff. We have an amazing group of people working for us in Grey County. Led by our CAO Kim and a talented Senior Management team, the quality of work produced is second to none. On behalf of the people of Grey County, thank you for your work. The last word goes out to you – the members of County Council. Thank you for giving me this great opportunity to serve as your Warden for 2019. I truly hope that my performance has met or exceeded your expectations. Thank you.