Earlier this summer our community hosted a group of mayors and officials from Ukraine. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities, which chose Chatham-Kent as a learning destination for the visiting mayors, organized the visit. Travel costs for the mayors were covered by the federal government, with the goal of promoting democracy in Ukraine.
We were told in advance that the mayors wished to see and learn about our municipal infrastructure, promotion of tourism and economic development, as well as our experience with municipal amalgamation.
After the whirlwind visit in Chatham-Kent was over, I received a debriefing from federal and provincial organizers. They shared insights that I believe are enlightening about who we are in Chatham-Kent as a people, a community, and a municipality.
First, the mayors were amazed by our community volunteers. The mayors were captivated, for example, with the Mary Webb Centre and learning that the entire operation, including its founding, ongoing operation, and recent renovation, is all volunteer-driven. There were many other examples of volunteerism we showed the Ukraine delegation. The lesson here is that we need to be thankful for our volunteers and continue to encourage and grow this incredible resource by empowering volunteers. Is it true that sometimes our municipal government, of which I am a part, hinders volunteerism by telling those that wish to help that “you can’t do it that way” or “that it can’t be done”? We need to be committed to saying “yes” to volunteers whenever possible. Sometimes we just need to get out of the way. Volunteers can sometimes get things done faster, better and cheaper than government.
Second, the mayors were impressed with our diverse economy. Ukraine is traditionally agricultural in its economy and the mayors were impressed with all we had to show on that front, including our world-class farm businesses, farm support businesses, and agricultural college in Ridgetown. They were surprised by diversification in our economy, such as our high quality manufacturing (Wallaceburg factories were on display, for example).
Third, the mayors were impressed with our mayor, council members and senior staff. The mayor himself, in their words, went “above and beyond” to spend quality time with the visiting mayors. Friendships were forged during several late evenings when the mayor made himself available to socialize with the visiting mayors. Several councillors gave of their time to visit with the mayors and host them. Hospitality was shown to all the guests. It was clear that the mayors, when speaking of their own communities, recognized competence and experience in our municipal leadership and municipal government.
Fourth, the mayors told us that they were delighted that everyone in Chatham-Kent seems committed to working for the good of the community. The mayors noted that we have government “from the bottom up”. We have transparent public council meetings and citizens have the right to speak at council meetings. Local government receives ideas and input from people in the community. We consult before decisions are implemented. It is a messy way of doing things and perhaps a little less efficient than a “top down approach”. However, government exists to serve the people and not the other way around.
Many of the visiting mayors from Ukraine are experienced politicians. They have to find a way to lead their communities and manage many of the same issues we deal with in Chatham-Kent such as promoting economic development, managing limited resources, and maintaining aging infrastructure. The mayors of Ukraine have to do all this while their country wages an internal struggle for democracy.
Parts of Ukraine remain in conflict and occupation by Russia. The annexation of Crimea and conflict in east Ukraine has been Vladimir Putin’s strongest message yet that he wants former Soviet satellites under Russia’s sphere of influence. Imagine if a portion of Canada were invaded and annexed by the United States. It is devastating to the nation, economy, democracy, and tears apart thousands of people’s lives. The people of Ukraine have pushed back and turned westward looking for support from Europe, the United States, Canada and other mature democracies. Regardless of Canadian internal politics, I support the efforts of Canada’s government to stand with Ukraine. We must keep the fire of freedom, democracy and capitalism burning bright. Perhaps through this visit by Ukraine mayors to Chatham-Kent we have contributed in some small measure to the people of Ukraine.
With a smile on their faces, the mayors returned home to Ukraine. They arrived as strangers but departed as friends.
General Manager and Chief Legal Officer
Community Development Department
Municipality of Chatham-Kent
Mayor Canniff passes the microphone to Ukraine officials at the grand opening of SOAR Innovation