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Just another year in lockdown (and other stories)

This year-end edition of Market Squared is brought to you by the year 2021, where everything ended how it began.

When the year began, we were under a new set of COVID-19 restrictions as governments tried to stop the latest wave of rapidly increasing cases while simultaneously struggling to get people vaccine doses with limited supplies and resources.

What a difference 12 months makes, huh?

Looking back at 2021, it’s hard not to feel like we’ve come back around to the beginning. The circle is now complete, and while it felt like the pandemic was over for a minute there, it was never really over. It was, ironically, catching its breath.

I was asked to come up with a kind of recap to the year in Guelph politics, and it’s hard to separate anything that happened in 2021 from the slings and arrows of the COVID-19 pandemic. All future actions had to be viewed through the lens of whether COVID was still going to be a thing, and best laid plans were ruined by new variants that go from zero to wave in less than a month.

But if COVID can move quickly, then so can we. By the first week of September, 85 per cent of Guelphites age 12 and over had been fully vaccinated; 79 per cent once you included Wellington and Dufferin in the numbers. If there’s a number one news story of the year, it’s Guelph’s love of the jab.

If there’s a number two story this year, it’s probably the progress in developing housing options, especially supportive housing. Three projects were approved by council, but only one of them has ended up at the Ontario Land Tribunal. All projects were greeted with some doubt and division in the beginning, but it was interesting, and heartening, to see much of that criticism recede over time.

I feel compelled to add a disclaimer though because three projects do not come close to solving our housing issues. Worse still, the deeper we dig on housing problems, the more we see that there’s an elaborate web of issues to untangle if we’re going to start really addressing housing equity. Is it the amount of stock? Is it speculators? Is it NIMBYism? Of course it’s all that and a bunch of other stuff too.

But perhaps there’s room for hope. A local developer just bought the Guelph Innovation District lands, and the Province approved a deal to begin the process of closing the Dolime Quarry and turning it into a new residential area in Guelph. Great plans for the old IMICo lands went bust, but Guelph is finally closing the book on two out of three of these long simmering real estate issues, and that ain’t bad!

On the other hand, if we’re having trouble building enough new homes for people, 2021 was not a great year for old homes either. Farmhousegate tested council’s stomach for demolition by neglect, not to mention some loosey-goosey minute-keeping at council meetings. For a week this past fall, watching a council meeting was like being in a Felini film, you were there for two-and-a-half hours, and you had no idea why.

While some struggled with the need to protect the past, it was heartening this summer to see so many people come out in the name of a better, more equitable future.

When I think about 2021, I will think about a flood of orange shirts moving down Macdonell Street from the Basilica of Our Lady demanding justice and recognition for our Indigenous community, or the thousands of people who helped Guelph’s Muslims say in one loud voice that they shouldn’t have to be afraid of taking a family walk on a warm summer evening.

Equity was top of mind on a lot of issues, and some were unexpected, like the wellspring of support and advocacy to make the 2022 election accessible to everyone. These struggles were not always successful, but they did shake up well worn assumptions that Guelph is a near-perfect community where everyone has a place. It seemed we finally had the courage to ask, “Do they?”

Indeed, 2021 was an almost constant challenge to a prevailing image that Guelph has of itself. From the young people who told council this week about the dark visions of their own future, to the delegates at a November council meeting who spoke to their deep cynicism about council’s commitment to transit. Are we really as green as we think we are? Many people told the powers that be that we’re not.

In midst of this demand for change though, the most direct political action of the year – the sudden/not-sudden 2021 Federal Election – actually resulted in voters choosing the status quo. Lloyd Longfield was overwhelmingly returned to Ottawa (via Zoom), and so were the Liberals. “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” I suppose.

If we’re digging into quotes though, I think the events of the year 2021 might best be summed up by former U.S. Vice-President Dan Quayle, "The future will be a better tomorrow." Here’s hoping.