Picture this. A social gathering, and what I think is a well-informed, thoughtful person remarks “it’s too bad that Dryden got delusions of grandeur and decided to become a city and annexed Barclay, and now the cost of being a city is bankrupting us”. I choked on the potato chip I had just bitten into, good thing, because it kept me from jumping in and arguing the point – nobody ever wins an argument.
If this opinion is widespread, we are indeed in trouble, as it is so wrong on so many counts. Perhaps the only way to counter it is to offer a detailed history of how we became a city. I attended nearly every Dryden Council meeting for the 22 years I served as a senior Dryden official, as well as most District Municipal meetings and so feel like an expert on this kind of local history, I was there, in the inner circle. This is the history as I remember it.
In the early 90’s, the federal government, in the face of a mounting debt crisis, moved to balance its budget. (Perhaps after a phone call from the international banking cartel instructing them to do so or else, as happened to New Zealand). They balanced their budget partly by cutting transfers to provinces and municipalities, putting all of them in financial distress. As a result several provinces including Ontario cut costs by moving to reduce the number of municipalities.
There were over 800 municipal governments in Ontario, and many were a city or town ringed by suburbs, a nest of rivals, a recipe for inefficiency. The province set in place a regime which demanded municipalities look at amalgamating with their neighbours into larger units, with cash bonuses (carrot) and penalties (stick) to make things happen. The result was many amalgamations, reducing the number of municipalities to something over 300. Kenora, Keewatin, and Jaffrey-Mellick joined together in the new city of Kenora; Red Lake, Balmertown and neighbouring communities amalgamated; Sioux Lookout, Hudson, Drayton, plus a big swath of territory was made into one very large town, and so on.
These places were able to put past history and animosities behind them, but we could not. The general opinion around Dryden City Hall ever since 1910 was that any boundary expansion would bring in more welfare and policing cost than tax revenue. It would needlessly dilute the big tax revenue from the mill. ‘Keep it small and rich’ was the credo. On the other side, long memories in Van Horne Township would say ‘they screwed us in 1910, and they screwed us in 1955, and they will screw us again’. This is all ancient history with little relevance now – the rural area is at least as prosperous with less welfare burden than the town, and has its own industrial assessment. Sixty years is a long time to carry a grudge. But ‘keep it small and rich’, and ‘rural distrust and suspicion’ are still very real. ‘Keep it small and rich’ was definitely a factor in Dryden’s approach to the amalgamation question and Dryden adopted a neutral policy, it was required to be in, but would not promote amalgamation.
Our study area included Ignace, Machin, Barclay, and a big swath of ‘Unorganized Territory’ which comprised about a third of the total population. This very large unorganized population made our area unusual if not unique, and after some fuss, the province decided that they would be represented by their eleven Local Roads Boards.
Ignace and Machin had no interest in joining, while Barclay had its own problems and was willing to join into a larger community. The eleven Roads Boards faced an uncomfortable political situation, and eventually held a referendum. With Dryden indifferent and nobody promoting amalgamation locally; with some very misleading (and probably illegal) campaigning against, and perhaps a lingering ‘they screwed us in 1955’ animosity, the referendum failed by a small margin. The result was only Dryden and Barclay joined, in my opinion too small and so to the detriment of our district. A larger amalgamation would have resulted in the outlying areas out-numbering the old town of Dryden and so a more balanced Council, along with some serious cost savings and a whole lot more clout with the province. In any event, the province was not impressed, and much of the promised ‘carrot’ did not materialize.
Incidentally, Barclay and Dryden tax rates were about the same, and the ‘huge increase in taxes in Barclay’ simply did not happen, in spite of what ‘everybody knows’. OK, explanation, your tax is your assessment (provincial) times your tax rate (municipal). If your taxes went up, it was because you were reassessed by the province. Reassessment is revenue neutral, so if your tax went up, another Barclay taxpayer’s bill went down.
There was some discussion as to what the new municipality would be called. The world identifies this district as Dryden and they wanted to keep this recognition, but there was also a desire to recognize that Barclay and Dryden together was something new and not just an expanded town of Dryden. Someone suggested perhaps we could be the City of Dryden, and upon investigation, it was determined that Dryden was already doing all the things a city has to do (mostly around zoning and planning) so there would be no cost to such a change, and that was the solution agreed upon. As to grandeur, the last time I checked, Dominion ‘City’ in Manitoba had 60 residents, while the ‘town’ of Vaughan, Ontario, has 600 000.
Summarizing, the whole thing was set in motion by the senior governments. There was no ‘delusions of grandeur’, Dryden was a reluctant partner. There was no direct cost nor is there any ongoing cost because of the change. However, Barclay’s financial problems were solved, and both Dryden and Barclay are better off for having joined. Also Kenora, Red Lake, Sioux Lookout and all of the other municipalities across Ontario which joined with their neighbours are better off.
Our present problems are much more recent than our becoming a city.