There was something about Mayor Leslie O’Shaughnessy’s recent interview with Todd Lalonde on Cogeco’s The Source which was incredibly alien to someone who has covered municipal, including city politics, for so long. It wasn’t anything particularly revolutionary or groundshaking, no over-the-top grandiose promises. Nothing of that sort. It was the stark realism he showed while speaking about issues faced in Cornwall.
In short, some of the things raised by the Cornwall mayor during the interview — like broader social issues including poverty and domestic violence — would have considered sacrilege to discuss during the former council. This was a council which was all about messaging, and any information fed to the masses indicating anything other than the utopic message that all is well in Cornwall would have been considered heresy and most likely political suicide.
I do not know if O’Shaughnessy even realizes just how unprecedented it is for a sitting mayor to candidly admit that there are serious problems which must be addressed in Cornwall, problems of inequality and social justice which should be tackled for the greater benefit of the city. Such realism is generally discouraged in the political world. It is akin to trying to sell car while at the same time telling the prospective buyer about the defects. The difference though is Cornwall is not a car and it is not for sale. There is no option to trade what we have for a newer, better model. So we need to do our best to maintain the model that we have. And that means acknowledging and addressing critical issues instead of sweeping under the carpet.
It is not like there is a lack of knowledge-based evidence about Cornwall’s shortcomings, especially when it comes to social issues. As the mayor correctly pointed out in this interview, studies have been done, the problems have been identified, the only thing missing is the most important part of the puzzle — identifiable action to address these problems.
Not everyone will agree with O’Shaughnessy’s candidness. There will be the familiar cry from the upper crust that his honesty will only further damage Cornwall’s reputation, thus making it a less desirable potential home for new residents, business and industry. There are some whose lives are so insulated by social class from the most vulnerable in Cornwall’s society who might not even know that such things as poverty and domestic violence exist within a large segment of this city’s population.
But there is good information out there. In fact there was (and maybe still is) a great report on the Eastern Ontario Health Unit’s website that describes a number of negative trends that have a higher prevalence in Cornwall than the rest of Ontario. I am talking about a laundry list of social ills including lower incomes, lower education levels, cancer, heart disease, suicide and domestic abuse. These are all real problems affecting real people, lives devoid of much-deserved enrichment, mothers, fathers and children alike taken from us well before their time.
The good news is that we have a mayor — and hopefully a council — that is finally willing to pull back the curtain and acknowledge that there is trouble in our little paradise we like to call the friendly city. That by no means diminishes the good work done by business leaders, social workers, volunteers and everyone else working to make Cornwall a better city. It is simply noticing that the “check engine” light is on and deciding to look under the hood instead of blithely driving on in hope the problem will resolve itself.
It is time that Cornwall residents have a good conversation about their city — their hopes, their dreams, their aspirations. And that conversation should include ideas to raise up the entire population of this city, not just an entitled few. Our mayor has started the conversation. Now it is up to the rest of us to do our part.
Greg Kielec is an award-winning reporter and newspaper editor with more than 25 years experience covering municipal politics in Cornwall in the surrounding area. He most recently worked for The/Le Journal, where he covered Cornwall City Hall extensively. Prior to that he spent more than 10 years at the Standard-Freeholder in Cornwall as reporter, wire editor and assistant city editor.