Before we literally and figuratively blow up 2020 (as depicted above), let us take a minute to remember some of the major news stories in Guelph over the last 12 months. Leaving behind the pandemic and the renewed call for social equality (both of which will be covered separately in their own pieces), let us consider the news that made this year one for the eternal annals of the City of Guelph.
Well before the start of the year, it looked like 2021 was going to rough one for area schools, and the reason had nothing to do with COVID. A tense stalemate had developed between the Ontario government and the province’s four teachers’ unions. Walkouts and strikes were a weekly occurrence as each union took turns with job action, while Minister of Education Stephen Lecce seemed content fighting the PR war instead of negotiating directly with teachers. Eventually, the stalemate broke when Lecce took back the most contentious demands about class sizes and e-learning at a snap press conference on March 3, but two weeks later all schools were closed due to COVID and there were bigger fish to fry. All unions had secured a new deal within a month after the pandemic broke.
Room at the ‘View
So it turns out that the short-term solutions we’ve used to fight poverty for decades are not exactly COVID-safe. Packing people into shelters was not going to help slow the spread of the virus, so Wellington County social services acted by getting people into hotel rooms, another short-term measure, but one that ultimately might lead to something more permanent. The Drop In Centre is working on one project for Parkview Motel, Kindle Communities and their partners are also working on a project in the west end, and it seems like support is there from both Guelph city council and Wellington County council, but the ancient enemy to action on homelessness has also awakened. Pandemic issues be damned, NIMBY is back and meaner than ever, but how big a factor will it be in 2021?
In the weeks before COVID-19 started breakout across Canada, Guelph was concerned about an entirely different outbreak. A nail salon on Stone Road called Victoria’s Nails was found to have an “infection control lapse,” which is to say that people were going into the salon and then perhaps leaving with more than a nice manicure. About 1,000 people who might have been customers of the salon since April 2018 were tested for hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV, and while 13 required further investigation, no definitive connection could be made between the cases and the salon. The reaction from Public Health was impressive, especially considering the overlap with COVID-19, but it did leave a lot of questions about who’s watching out for the next salon doubling as a petri dish.
Man Bites Dog Park
Without so mush as a hint that pulling the plug on all dog parks was an available option, council pulled the plug on all dog parks at February’s Committee of the Whole meeting. The main complaint was that the park at Peter Misersky was being overrun with obnoxious dog owners (and their pets), and that future dog parks in residential areas would face the same fate. Committee asked to rewind the process all the way back to the drawing board despite the time and expense already committed, which prompted a fevered lobbying campaign by Guelph pet owners to save the one amenity the city had. In the end, Mayor Cam Guthrie ruled the successful motion from the committee meeting out of order at the regular council meeting.
Before last Christmas, it was already the beginning of the end for legendary University of Guelph track coach Dave Scott-Thomas who was fired last December for “past unprofessional conduct,” but 2020 revealed the full extent of that conduct. In January, the U of G revealed that the allegations were 13 years old, but new details received in Fall 2019 forced a closer look. It turned out though that that it may not have been the U of G’s own due diligence that forced the issue, but rather a Globe & Mail investigation that came out in February. A few months later, another report in a national paper revealed that Kitchener-South Hespeler MP Marwan Tabbara had spent the night in a jail here over the Easter weekend, and Guelph Police didn’t tell anyone. The charges? Assault, break and enter and criminal harassment.
Build Back Better?
Despite the pandemic, the City of Guelph and Guelph City Council laid a big bet on the post-COVID future of the Royal City. In the spring, council approved a plan for a 10-hectare community park in the Clair-Maltby site, overriding the staff recommendation and voting to utilize Halls Pond as an asset in the completed outdoor plan. In the fall, it was a two-fer, and while the South End Community Centre seemed ready to sail through without much doubt or debate, local library lovers started sweating about the fate of their new main branch. In September, the City started looking at changes to the plan by separating the new library to its own standalone building, but in the end, despite some of the usual arguments against funding the library, council approved the new plan 8-5.
How Greene Was My Rally?
The City of Guelph’s been pushing for two-way, all-day GO Trains for the last decade, but it seemed like 2020 was the year that Metrolinx pushed back with a taste of what it will take to get there. In February, the City had to shut down the Dublin Street rail crossing at Kent Street due to changes in regulations, but the big one happened in August when a virtual town hall about the electrification of the rail lines showed a traction power station being placed along the trail behind Margaret Greene Park. The outrage of area residents prompted a town hall at the park with 100 community members, maxing out COVID guidelines for outdoor gatherings, but as the year closes, the fate of the TPS and Margaret Greene Park still remains uncertain as many Guelphites feel the cat’s already in the bag.
Off the Pipe
A little over a year after the University of Guelph Board of Governors voted against a measure to divest the school’s endowment from fossil fuels, they reversed course. In a weird confluence of events, a student march on campus in February became a sit-on on the administration floor in the University Centre to demand divestment. After an hour Vice-President of Finance Don O’Leary announced that a new divestment vote would be tabled at the April Board meeting, which was a surprise to many students who had advocated so long for the issue. Perhaps the timing was just right, because all but three members of the Board voted in favour of divestment. One of the no votes though was Chancellor Martha Billes, majority shareholder of Canadian Tire, who resigned her position as a result.
A Violent Year
Although the crime severity statistics in Guelph were back on a downward trend in 2020, it probably didn’t feel that way anecdotally with two people being killed downtown in the space of about two month earlier this year. In January, a 21-year-old was charged with second degree murder in an attack on Mario Ruffolo, a 63-year-old security guard who was killed while on patrol at Guelph Central Station. Then, on February 29, two brothers were charged with first degree murder in the stabbing death of 27-year-old Nick Tanti outside Tony’s Billiards shortly after 2 am. Things were relatively quiet after the pandemic struck, but there was another stabbing in the area of Wyndham and Carden in the we small hours of one November morning, forcing people to wonder again if its safe in the core?
Even without the renewed pressure to act on systemic racism, the Guelph Police Service had a lot to answer for this year. The aforementioned arrest of Marwan Tabbara was the first of numerous instances where Freedom of Information (FOI) requests were required to peer inside police issues including the Service’s use of facial recognition, the use of an iPhone cracking device, and their unusually frequent access to the COVID-19 database. But that wasn’t the only drama inside Police headquarters, which was, itself, the subject of drama. Across the tracks at City Hall, staff were confronted with another construction crisis as the general contractor on the police building renovation were fired after completion of the project was delayed for a year. Look’s like there’s room for improvement there in 2021.
Photo Credit: HBO/Warner Media