INNISFAIL – On the morning of Oct. 19 Dale Dunham was out and about town getting ready for another business day, and he quickly felt an exhilarating sense of change.
“There seemed to be a collective sigh of relief and it was almost audible to be honest. People have been in better moods today than they have been in a long time,” said Dunham. “The thing I hear most from all of their lips is, ‘now it’s time to move forward. Let’s get going.’ I said, ‘we are. We’re hitting the ground running.'”
Dunham was one of seven Innisfailians elected to a new town council on Oct. 18 in the 2021 general municipal election. Jean Barclay is the new mayor, and only the second woman ever elected to the local mayor's chair, after Patricia Newman who was first elected as mayor in 1988. Joining Barclay and Dunham are Cindy Messaros, Don Harrison, Janice Wing, Gavin Bates and Jason Heistad.
“I think we have such a fantastic balance. We have three ladies and four guys. We’ve got young and old. It’s got that diversity,” said Harrison, who was re-elected after winning a byelection last year.
The new council members all had their first official orientation meeting as council-elects at town hall on Oct. 20. They were sworn in on Oct. 25.
Their victories ended nearly 10 months of one of the most challenging times in Innisfail’s history, due largely to the COVID pandemic that cut a deep divide in the community over how it should be handled and who had the best plan going forward.
Barclay won her mayoral race in a landslide, and the six chosen councillors, which included four new ones, are all considered progressives.
“I think yesterday (Oct. 18) was a huge turning of the page for our community, and many communities across the province,” said Heistad, a past three-term council who is returning to council after an eight-year hiatus. “As for the last 19 months, a very divisive time. I’ve never seen divisiveness this way, and I think the unfortunate part is that we had politics in the south that gave people the right to be mean to each other. We’ve got to push that aside and start listening and being emphatic to our neighbours and the people who live around us.”
Barclay said the overwhelming vote for change was a clear message from a local electorate weary of the deep division and wanting to move decisively forward with a positive vision for the community. She added the community can now begin its healing process but it will take everyone to be a part of it.
“We can have different opinions but let’s face it a lot of the division is mostly around COVID and that is not disappearing any time soon,” said Barclay. “We have to find a way to work together and hopefully people will want to be part of the solution.”
Bates said he believed the local electorate picked candidates they felt would best represent them. He added they ran on the basis they would do the job that was needed for the town as opposed to “politicalizing a public health issue," which he added, caused the community’s deep wounds.
The retired corporate executive, who is entering his third term on council, said healing will come as the new council focuses on priorities, and that begins immediately with the 2022 municipal budget.
“And doing it in the head wind of some significant inflation and significant increases to service for policing and other things we are already aware of,” said Bates.
Wing said the new council is well-armed with the right expertise needed to face the immediate challenges. She believes there is a healthy balance of personalities and skills, with an appropriate mix of ideas and experience that come from a “different lens from each other.
“I think this council will have a solid set of skills when it comes to debate, reaching consensus and moving forward as a group,” said Wing, adding she believes the town’s much needed healing will happen quickly and efficiently.
“I think elections give people, who may not feel comfortable expressing their voice at a time of confrontation, the opportunity to express their opinion, and they did that solidly,” said Wing. “It was overwhelming. They voted in support of progressive, of community, of people working in collaboration, people working together. This community completely said ‘no’ to the other agenda.”
With the moment finally coming to town that offers a real chance of cooling down the community’s prolonged overheated discourse, Messaros said weary Innisfailians can once again seize and celebrate new community initiatives once considered unimaginable, such as last year’s successful anti-racism rally, as well as this year’s Pride Day and Lantern Festival.
“I do feel Innisfail is evolving. It’s not just a feeling. You can see in the way the initiatives people are taking on,” said Messaros. “I think there are a lot of initiatives that are happening to show that we are tired of this, and we are better and we want better and we are doing better.”