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Chair’s 2021 Caucus Address

Jul 22, 2021Housing, Mental Health and Addictions

Members of OBCM –

After more than a year, we are in the last days of an extraordinary time.  Every resident in each one of our cities has been affected by a global pandemic which has changed our social, economic, and personal well-being.

We’ve learned a lot of lessons.  I think the most powerful is the risk of de-linking policy decisions and scientific evidence, a choice which on occasion has led to the need for more damaging or difficult corrective actions throughout the pandemic.  Going forward, the need for evidence-driven policy instead of populism could not be stronger.

We’ve also learned that new ways of doing things can be implemented incredibly quickly when need be.  From homelessness to enforcement to public spaces, the reimagining of our services to meet an existential threat demonstrates we can be more agile and innovative than perhaps we even thought possible.

What this points to is the opportunity for substantive change to be delivered faster.  I know – I absolutely believe – that you share my frustration at being forced to spend an exhausting and overwhelming amount of your time solving problems, reacting to petty politics, keeping the lights on, dealing with the issues of the day.  And I absolutely believe when you get a chance to take a breath for a minute or two, you wish you had more time and more opportunities to address the big issues you know are facing us all.

In Barrie, I pulled together my hospital, police force, social service provider, and public health unit in an agreement we call the Barrie Health Accord, to shift our focus from solely emergency response, to the root causes of social issues.  We’re in the early days, but I’m convinced that collective action across sectors and institutions is the only way to make permanent change – to shift from reactive, to proactive.   As Mayors we’re in a unique position to pull together our communities toward this goal.

I’m a relentless optimist, and I see these learnings from COVID as fundamentally, lessons in optimism – they point to the opportunity to reimagine the work we do.  I do feel that today we have both a landscape and a constituency ready for significant change.  The public have seen our ability to deliver it, and they’ve actively participated themselves in the change.

With elections for all three levels of government in Ontario likely over the next 18 months, now is the time to take these lessons and put forward bold policy proposals to tackle the most pressing issues in our cities.  COVID has left us with intersecting crises in housing, mental health, and addictions.  We face the existential threat of climate change.  We are responsible for two-thirds of the infrastructure in the country, much of which needs modernizing.  And we are hampered in responding by a federalism built for 19th century, agrarian Canada.

A modern federation, new surges in affordable housing investment, approaching addictions as a public health emergency, building neighbourhoods and transportation that address climate change – and in all of this, being guided by evidence – these are the kinds of fundamental policy shifts we can champion as Ontario’s big city mayors.

Mayor Jeff Lehman

Chair OBCM

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