Working and waiting

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Hard to believe anything could take the headlines away from Covid-19, but the proposed Greater Ottawa Correctional Facility has done it. The announcement on August 27 caused an immediate reaction from residents of North Grenville for a number of reasons. The name was extremely annoying and rather insulting. The lack of notice or consultation was a major source of anger, and the lack of detail led to some fascinating and imaginative speculation, even in some media.

Very slowly, more information is forthcoming from the province, though only after prodding by the public and the municipality. In this issue, we have the report of an interview with Deputy Mayor Jim McManaman, in which he confirms that the council were not aware of what was about to be announced until just a few days before the big reveal in Brockville.

He also clarifies the situation regarding the laying of pipe along County Road 44, explaining that it was to sort out a mess at the Campus and was carried out and paid for by the provincial body, ARIO. Now there will continue to be some who see everything in a very cynical light, and will dismiss Jim McManaman’s statement outright. There’s not much anyone can do about that. But we need some more open dialogue if we’re to get a clear idea of what’s going on.

Also in this issue, we report the apprehension being expressed by the two school boards currently operating schools in the Campus. Naturally, they find the idea of a prison across the road from their charges a little worrying, to say the least. So far, the Kemptville BIA have been silent on the matter, waiting, quite properly, for some more information to be made available before deciding on their attitude to a prison opening just up the road.

It seems that the business community are more open to the idea, and it is claimed that there is a roughly 50-50 split, for and against, in the correspondence being received from residents. Some complain about the name; others about how the announcement was made. I have believed we needed to wait for more information before we started making declarations of intent. The problem has been that neither Steve Clark, MPP, nor the Solicitor General’s office have been very helpful in that regard. Our questions, submitted to Steve Clark’s office, resulted in a set of answers that generally avoided actually answering. I seriously wonder if the MPP is happy with the whole project. It will cost him votes, according to people I’ve heard from, and he must know what the reaction of many people here would be.

So, what do we know and where are we at? We know that the prison will not be a high security one: strict security is the term Steve Clark has used. Jim McManaman gives assurances that council is determined that the province pay for any new infrastructure that might be required, and that there will be no cost whatever to the taxpayer. From all we’ve heard, this is a done deal, unless there is a concerted and overwhelming show of public opposition between now and whenever the “consultations” begin. That is assuming that the majority do not want the prison here. Will any opposition make a difference? No idea. The province has already scheduled a Request for Proposals for 2022, and there is a tentative budget of between $200 million and $500 million for the project.

It has been a public relations disaster for the government, and specifically for Steve Clark. The handling of the announcement and follow-up communications has been a complete disaster, leaving too much room for rumour, anger, and largely uninformed speculation to gather steam. What can be done to change that is hard to see. An apology would be a good start, and a clear and open statement of intent to have a genuine consultative process, not the usual “we’re listening and will then go ahead anyway” approach.

If people don’t want this prison in the community, it will require working while we wait for a chance to express our opinions directly to Steve Clark and other officials. If there are those who want to see it built here, they, too, need to work, gathering good information, relevant data and expressions of public opinion. Both need to be ready to argue their case, when the time comes. It is somewhat reassuring to know that council is not “rolling over”, as many thought, but is already pushing back on the province’s actions and aims.

The unfortunate and depressing thought, however, is that, regardless of what we want, or how much work we do, it may make no difference whatsoever. The province doesn’t need permission, zoning applications, planning permission, site plan agreements, nothing that council can use to delay, much less stop this project going ahead. We have to both work and wait.

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