The Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities' annual conference is officially underway in North Bay.
Following a Monday morning tour of Ontario Northland, delegates met at the Best Western on Lakeshore Drive for the opening of the trade show and lunch, followed by the keynote address by Doug Griffiths.
The FONOM Northeastern Municipal Conference runs until Wednesday and features a session on cultural mindfulness with George Couchie plus a reception at the Cascades Casino, Monday; an update from the Northern Ontario School of Medicine and the Northern Leaders Debate, Tuesday; and, FONOM's annual general meeting and a discussion on homelessness, mental health, and addictions as the conference wraps up, Wednesday.
Featured speaker Griffiths is a rancher, educator, and a was a four-term Alberta MLA. Griffiths left politics behind in 2015 to "actively pursue his passion of helping communities, organizations and businesses grow stronger," by way of his best-selling book 13 Ways to Kill Your Community.
FONOM President Danny Whalen and North Bay Mayor Al Mc Donald spoke before Griffiths took the microphone. Throughout the presentation based on his book and delivered to the FONOM delegates and municipal officials, Griffiths energetically pointed out the common issues many communities face and offers lessons gleaned from the research for his book in hundreds of municipalities, organizations, and businesses.
He also says it's important for communities to truly figure out what makes them unique and market that. Griffiths' talents include "seeing through the lies we tell ourselves, overcoming bad attitudes, targeted and focused tactical planning, communicating with those who are afraid to change, and building enduring prosperity for communities."
The message to the delegates was clear: each person in that room is responsible to help build strong communities. Griffiths makes the case that "within strong communities leadership can succeed, businesses can prosper, and families can find a great quality of life."
Griffiths paced the front of the room like a stand-up comedian for over an hour and his sense of humour was on full display. In an interview following his presentation, the jokes took a back seat as he addressed the serious issues — and opportunities — facing communities like North Bay.
He spent more time speaking about the "boomerang effect" than almost any other of the13 points traits or habits a community should avoid to grow. The boomerang effect gives young people the freedom to leave and explore the world while presenting a reason for them to eventually come home, including employment, housing, and recreation, for example.
"They come back with new ideas and new concepts and it's important to them the power to implement those ideas and change the dynamic of your community," says Griffiths.
Seniors are an asset to a community and can help it grow, contrary to popular thinking. "There are countless examples across Canada and the United States where communities have grown by attracting seniors. They are an economic driver. They are the last generation of authentic community builders. They spent the last 60 years building communities without government grants. They still want to be involved in their communities and they have a lot to teach younger generations and they still have a lot of time and energy to invest in their communities. Think of them as a valuable asset."
Like young people and seniors, outsiders — which also includes immigrants — also play an important role in growing a community, according to Griffiths.
"Those outsiders that are moving to our community, whether before, during or after the pandemic will bring new perspectives, new ideas, new opportunities, new entrepreneurship values and integrating those into the community will help us find success. Finding diversity in businesses, in people, in ideas, is so imperative in finding a pathway to success."
Griffiths says he has seen the peril for communities in turning away new groups of people. "People will say about newcomers, 'I don't like the way they're changing things.' Except, those communities, if the outsiders weren't there, would continue to slowly die because nothing has changed. If that's what they're hoping for — a slow painful death — leave the outsiders outside."
As far as issues surrounding homelessness, mental health, and addictions Griffiths is a believer in upstream solutions.
"We spend way too much time trying to treat the symptoms and not enough time trying to treat the problem," he says. "This is why I said, as much as we look to the provincial and federal governments to fix our challenges if we go back to building communities and knit them back together, person by person, we'll help address and overcome a lot of those challenges. A great community — if it's designed properly — prevents people from falling through the cracks."
Whalen admitted it was a little overwhelming to be in a room with so many people after a couple of years. Although the conference was held virtually last year, FONOM's president noted the value of face-to-face conversations and talks off to the side cannot be captured online.
Whalen was impressed by the keynote address.
"He brought what is killing municipalities to the forefront. I'm not too proud to admit I saw myself in a couple of those 13 points. That's what we have to do, celebrate our differences but reach out to our neighbours because that's the only way northern Ontario is going to survive."