I recently traveled to Ottawa to lecture at the 2017 RPIC Real Property National Workshop. My presentation was similar to one I will do for my own community in Victoria, BC this coming March. It was an incredible trip, one of sharing knowledge and certainly one of discovery. I had always wanted to see our countries capital city and it did not disappoint. Ottawa reminds me a great deal of Victoria with so much to offer and such diversity. On the day before I was to depart this wonderful place a resident attending the conference suggested that I might be interested in a local development that had become a very hot topic for the Historic Vanier Community just beyond the downtown core. The Salvation Army had proposed building a new shelter in their neighbourhood and residents were genuinely concerned about the impact it would have on their community. Immediately following our conversation I returned to my hotel to research the story and a few hours later cancelled my flight and rescheduled it for a few days later. I was truly intrigued and wanted to have first hand knowledge of how the City of Ottawa and the Salvation Army would deal with this very delicate matter.
The next morning I took a leisurely stroll over to Ottawa City Hall for the 3rd and final day of debates. It’s a day I won’t ever forget! I have attended many council meetings and debates over the years, it’s part of my work. I was impressed that throughout the day and for two days previous the residents of this community spilled into these beautiful chambers to share their concerns. In many cases it boiled down to their fear of crime and the social impact this project would have on Vanier, their homes and their neighbourhood. These issues are becoming common place in communities across our country and it’s important to know that in many cases they are not being dealt with in a manner that is in everyone’s best interest. In fact, in many cases it’s the communities themselves that are being placed in a precarious position where their trust in politicians, developers, planners and social service agencies are being questioned.
It’s very clear that these residents were compassionate and had clearly supported many other projects supporting some of our most vulnerable people and that they are truly caring individuals. It was important that I get a sense of this for myself so I jumped in a taxi the next morning and went to Vanier. I met with Drew Dobson, owner of a local pub and the driving force behind the SOS Vanier Campaign, a grassroots group of residents that are clearly opposed to this project. It was a great conversation and one that was heartfelt and authentic. Drew informed me that he had never been involved in local politics or community issues but that this one was different. I sensed his frustration and he was clearly a caring and compassionate individual wanting to represent his community to the best of his ability. I was convinced after speaking with him that if the Salvation Army would have engaged the community properly that the outcome would have likely been more favourable.
The best part of any story like this is when everyone involved begins taking responsibility and speaks their truth. The Salvation Army did take steps towards admitting their community consultation efforts were poor and that they would endeavour to work closely with Vanier as the project moves forward. Powerful comments came from City Councillor Mathieu Fleury, the Ward representative for Vanier Community. These are emotionally charged situations that are deeply felt by those with close attachments to the communities they serve. City Councillor Diane Deans, Chair of the Community and Protective Services Committee was clearly upset at the final decision by City Council to vote in favour of the project. I’m sure in many cases her closing remarks were echoed across our country when she said “as a community we could do a lot better and that there has been no compromise.” She went on to say that there had been “a complete failure of process, and there are no winners today.” It was clearly one of the most heartfelt and honest reactions that I have seen from a politician in years.
It’s so apparent that community issues similar to this are not about an opposition to shelters, housing or more supports for the most vulnerable people in our communities. It’s more about improving collaboration, process and seeking out the best possible outcomes for projects such as this. We can do better and we must strive to do so in every community. Our goal should be that everybody wins and when that happens our communities will ultimately be more united, safe and vibrant.