They are jewels of Old Ontario, the towns of Prince Edward County — among them, Bloomfield, Wellington, Carrying Place, Ameliasburg, and Picton itself, especially Picton, the county seat.
To the east and north a meandering finger of Lake Ontario stretches up Adolphus Reach, past the Glenora Ferry, through Hayward Reach and the Telegraph Narrows to rest, finally, in the Bay of Quinte. To the south and west lies the vastness of the lake and Point Petre and Sandbanks Provincial Park.
This is Loyalist country, its memories anchored in its buildings, many of which date back 160 years or more. But it is facing troubled times.
The last of the canning factories left four years ago. There had been more than thirty in their heyday, following the Second World War. The army too is gone, but it left its buildings, a tidy little subdivision of about a hundred small, box-like houses uniformly clad in aluminium siding, arrayed on streets named after battles of the two great wars.
The community is called Prince Edward Heights and it sits atop a hill on the outskirts of Picton, overlooking Picton Bay. It is home to about 420 people with, as the county warden says, « relatively severe mental disabilities.’’ Now it too is going to be shut down.
Last July the Conservatives at Queen’s Park announced a staged closure that will throw out of work the 400 people who are employed there. The announcement said that it was provincial policy to move challenged individuals out of « institutions’’ and into communities. The residents at Prince Edward Heights would go into group homes, it said.
A chill hit the county. Economically it is barely scraping by and the worst is yet to come as federal and provincial governments keep downloading costs and services. To suddenly be told that four hundred people would lose their jobs — almost $11-million a year taken out of the economy — was devastating.
As this was happening, a quite remarkable development was unfolding in Toronto. The Premier’s Council and the Ontario Round Table on Environment and Economy had refused to die after the Harris Government scrapped them immediately after taking office in September 1995.
The Premier’s Council was created by Bill Davis when he was premier to provide advice on big questions, such as how to develop strategies for coping with technological change. David Peterson and Bob Rae continued the council when they were premiers.
The Ontario Round Table was created by the Peterson Government in the late eighties after the United Nations Commission on Environment and Development issued its report (the Brundtland Report). It too was continued by the Rae Government.
Last September, a year after the Harris Government issued its double death notice, staff and members from the council and the round table formed the Ontario Council for Social, Economic and Environmental Innovation.
The focus of the new council, they decided, would be threefold: assisting communities to become sustainable, developing indicators of social well-being, and trying to figure out what a knowledge-based society will look like so that preparatory strategies can be put in place.
One of the first things the new council did was win a contract with the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) to develop indicators of what constitutes a sustainable community.
First on the council’s agenda was to find a rural and an urban community to study . . . and guess what? It chose Prince Edward County as the rural community.
Last weekend a group of council members met with county representatives in Wellington. As County Warden Jim Dunlop said at the meeting, in a dour understatement, « interest is high’’ in working with the council.
And why not? There are 187 of the best minds in Ontario on the council. University professors, senior executives of major corporations, top environmentalists, scientists, marketing specialists, visionaries, people with decades of public service — almost every kind of expertise that the county could ever hope to hire to help plot a path into the future, and they are prepared to offer their help free of charge to the county.
It was engrossing to be there. This is the kind of collaboration that holds hope for all of us.