Action Sandy Hill’s virtual assembly – not quite thrust and parry

John Cockburn

On May 25, Action Sandy Hill hosted its first virtual public assembly. Local elected representatives – the Honorable Mona Fortier from the federal Liberal government; Lucille Collard, Liberal member of the Provincial Parliament; and Mathieu Fleury, Rideau-Vanier’s municipal councillor – responded to questions provided by ASH and by the approximately 25 participants who logged in. The assembly was chaired by ASH President Susan Young. Lines of inquiry included: COVID-19; concerns about the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre; social and affordable housing for vulnerable populations; student housing pressures on Sandy Hill; and how longer-term issues including environment, economy and equity can be incorporated in a post-COVID-19 public policy agenda.

The Assembly kicked off with the politicians and Young touching on some high points in their current mandates with respect to COVID-19. Fortier cited the multitude of federal fiscal efforts. Collard stressed her party’s successful efforts to move the provincial government on reduced power rates and enabling alcohol delivery by restauranteurs. Fleury expressed the City’s willingness to do whatever it could to help citizens through the COVID-19 crisis, while Young noted the Sandy Hill Community Response Team COVID-19 efforts to assist those shut in by the pandemic.

High-profile issues of the day were raised and the first of these was the situation around COVID-19 and Long-Term Care facilities. Collard mentioned her party’s support for a Commission of Inquiry. Fortier noted that it was a provincial responsibility, but it could not be ignored, and that the deployment of Canadian Forces in two provinces was evidence of federal concern. Fleury observed that two of the four City-operated LTC facilities were in his ward, and that the City was doing what it could to keep them safe. He also noted that in the recent past the provincial government did not assign a high priority to the issue. Post meeting reports of the state of LTC facilities have heightened these concerns. On another front the particular needs of the disabled were raised, and Fortier indicated that some specific federal support may be in the offing.

Addiction and mental health issues were raised with respect to stress on nearby residents from some users of the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre. Fleury noted physical changes around the Centre and additional security, as helping to address the problem. He also stated there was an increased focus on dealers rather than users. Fortier added that she and Fleury were discussing what additional efforts the federal government can make to ensure safe supply.

University student housing remains an issue for the community. Fleury thought that the University of Ottawa could do more. Although it receives no government funding for student residences, as a large landowner it still should be able to develop residences on campus at low cost. The effect of the pandemic on student housing in Sandy Hill is yet to be seen. Given the potential growth of online course delivery, lower demand for student housing may have an impact on the community and developers.

In response to a question on affordable housing Fleury remarked that there are 12,000 people on the waiting list for Ottawa Community Housing. Two thousand were residents of City-supported shelters or hotels. He held out hope, with plans for 10,000 units to be constructed in the next few years. Fortier noted that affordable housing is high on her list of priorities, as federal Minister for Middle Class Prosperity.

The final issue was the National Transportation Strategy for the Capital area. Fortier noted that a refresh of the 2013 study would be released soon, and that a longer-term strategy is being embarked on as outlined in the 2019 budget. Participants noted that, sadly, terms of reference for this study were not released for public comment. This does not augur well for a consultative process. Indeed, Fortier noted that the federal government would likely not even consider a tunnel to route truck traffic between highway 417 and the Macdonald-Cartier Bridge, the only approach that seemed to have some traction with the City. Some wondered if there was any point to a public consultation if one option was precluded. So, more studies: the trucks keep rolling on King Edward, Rideau, Waller and Nicholas. Perhaps the thousands of new voters slated to live on Rideau Street in the next few years will have something to say about the matter.

The meeting concluded on time and seemed to be a useful public forum that could be regularly repeated. For this writer, there is a concern about the immediacy of the conversation and the inevitability of a managed dialogue. There was a lot of information out, but not so much of the back-and-forth that we all know and love. That may be inescapable with a video- conferencing format, which unfortunately is all we have at present.