by Colleen Lynas
Following this paper’s request to MPP Steve Clark to clarify his recent comments to the Toronto Star about opposition to the proposed prison, it is interesting that he chose to have his Executive Assistant, Doug Brewer, submit a response in his place. Perhaps it was an attempt by MPP Clark to distance himself from the original comments. Speculation aside, the inaccuracies within the piece require addressing.
Mr. Brewer began by referencing “the people from outside North Grenville who made presentations at the various public meetings and consultations on a wide range of topics not specifically related to North Grenville”. He doubled down on MPP Clark’s reference to “special interest groups” and claimed these unidentified people presented “contradictory” information and “falsehoods.” Later he states, “Contrary to the Toronto Star story, there have been multiple public meetings and consultations.”
Let’s be clear – there has been one public meeting held by the Government of Ontario. Organized by the Ministry of the Solicitor General (Sol Gen) and led by senior staff members, it took place on November 26, 2020, approximately three months following the surprise announcement to build the “Greater Ottawa Correctional Complex” in Kemptville. There were “outside” people making presentations – Sol Gen staff – who also tightly choreographed the question-and-answer period that followed.
At the local level, proper public consultation would have required early and transparent communication and engagement with the residents of North Grenville regarding a potential plan to build a prison. That window closed the day Premier Ford and MPP Clark made the announcement.
With the exception of the March 23, 2021 Council meeting, which I will address later, there have been three “public meetings” where “people from outside North Grenville” have presented. All of them were organized by the local grassroots organization I am affiliated with, the Coalition Against the Proposed Prison (CAPP). The first, held only days after the Sol Gen event, had presentations from four local residents, two Ottawa area academics, and the Vice-Chair of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples. In the media release regarding the event, my colleague, Victor Lachance, stated, “The recent public engagement session hosted by Sol Gen provided one view of the issue. We think it is important for people to hear from other voices on this matter”. Our two later sessions included representatives from Ontario Farmland Trust, Just Food, and the Elizabeth Fry Society of Ottawa, and current and retired academics from such diverse disciplines as agriculture, economics, and sociology. We remain proud of the calibre of speakers we were able to engage and pleased with the positive feedback we received by those in attendance. Are these speakers among the “special interest groups” Mr. Brewer is seeking to disparage?
At the municipal level, to the best of my knowledge there have been two Council meetings where the matter of the prison has been on the public agenda. In both cases, the meetings followed requests from CAPP and Jail Opposition Group representatives to make delegations. Of those, only the March 23, 2021, Council meeting included presentations from individuals from “outside North Grenville”. At the invitation of the Municipality, people registered to present, and ten local residents opted to do so; Drs. Aaron Doyle and Justin Piché, from Carleton University and the University of Ottawa respectively, also spoke. Surely Mr. Brewer isn’t criticizing Council for providing this open forum or its decision to let the professors speak? “Knowledge is Power” was the motto of my high school in Ottawa; perhaps Mr. Brewer knows this to be true.
How then to decipher his comments attributing statements to unidentified people, representing unidentified special interest groups? It is difficult to interpret them as anything but an attempt to discredit and silence opposition, local or otherwise. And MPP Clark wears it. Mr. Brewer is his representative and I cannot imagine a scenario where his Executive Assistant would have submitted a response without his blessing. They were MPP Clark’s original comments after all.
Grassroots organizations routinely seek out subject matter experts to bolster their case when challenging government policies and decisions. Separate from the local issues surrounding the prison, provincial matters pertaining to public spending, the environment, and our public institutions – including our courts and correctional facilities – are all fair game for public discourse and debate, and Ontario residents and taxpayers, academics, and subject matter experts have a right to weigh in. The alternative is rather chilling to consider.