By Keith Roulston
I was struck by the calls, in two of the township Federation newsletters last month, for people to run for the board of directors in upcoming elections. I’ve been around long enough to remember when you didn’t need to beg people to be involved in community leadership.
I covered my first meeting of the Huron County Federation of Agriculture way back in 1970. I had just taken over as editor of the Clinton News-Record and the meeting was to be held at the Clinton Town Hall so I went. It was something of an unusual meeting because the man who had been elected President had suffered a heart attack and the vice-president, John Stafford, had to take over,
It was the beginning of a meaningful relationship. I began covering the monthly meetings of the HCFA directors, which in those days numbered 30 or 40 with directors from every township. Eventually the relationship that evolved into my company publishing the annual Federation Survey publication and The Rural Voice developed because in 1975 we offered to include the Federation’s newsletter (newly required by the Ontario Federation of Agriculture) in a new, monthly farm publication.
Later the Perth, Bruce and Grey Federations joined in. More recently the National Farmers Union – Ontario added its voice, and its membership to The Rural Voice circulation.
But back to the point of this column. All the farm meetings I attended, apart from that first one, had much larger participation than the meetings I attended toward the end of my long career. Farmers were much more involved in their communities and their farm organizations in those days.
While the majority of Huron Federation meetings were in Clinton, periodic meetings were held in communities around the county. Depending on the hot topics of the day (such as the expropriation of a right-of-way for the building of the first power corridor from Douglas Point in the mid-70s), there might be 200 or more people at a meeting held in a school auditorium or community hall.
It wasn’t just a Huron County situation. As I covered more county federations, I found large crowds at every annual meeting.
It wasn’t only farm politics that stirred interest. At one time, when we had neighbourhood one-room schools, nearly every (male) parent served on the school board at one time or another. Participation was weeded down by township schools and boards, then the province’s imposition of county and two-county boards.
When there was a council in each township, there seemed to be more involvement of the grassroots in local politics, but then we had amalgamation enforced by the provincial government and interest seemed to wane.
My parents’ generation, who lived through a Depression and World War II, saw what happened when democracy failed, as it did in Germany, or never existed, as Japan demonstrated. They felt a duty to be involved in decision-making.
My generation was raised by parents who had witnessed what can happen when democracy is absent, so they set a good example, yet we picked it up more sporadically. Our children take democracy even more for granted and participate less as a result.
My years of covering farm organizations range from the early years, when an annual meeting saw a vote for every position from president on down because there was competition, to acclamations when desire to participate weakened, to positions being left open in later years because nobody wanted to take on the responsibility.
Democracy only works when we care enough to participate.◊