Angst in Ottawa's rural communities has been simmering since amalgamation five years ago. Last year it reached a rolling boil, with widespread calls by disillusioned residents for de-amalgamation or other decisive political steps that would rescue rural communities from Ottawa's unsympathetic and uncomprehending bureaucracy.
Last November, the City held a two-day Rural Summit to listen to and address rural concerns. Many saw the summit as the beginning of a new relationship between the City and its rural residents. Others opted for a wait-and-see' attitude, giving City politicians and senior staff a fair chance to make good on their commitment to improved rural relations. In either case, the expectations and stakes remained high, and the City needed to make sure that momentum from the summit was maintained.
When the job posting for a City of Ottawa Rural Affairs Officer went out about six weeks ago, Derrick Moodie sent in his application. In mid-July, City Manager Kent Kirkpatrick announced that Moodie, a 30-year-old local farmer and former economic development kingpin for Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry in Cornwall, would step in to the new, high profile position starting July 24.
Mayor Bob Chiarelli says he looks to Moodie "to champion rural issues at City Hall and with the federal and provincial governments." The AgriNews caught up with Moodie one week after his appointment. In a wide-ranging interview, he talked about his past, his new boss, his hopes for the job and some of the hurdles he sees ahead.
AgriNews: As the grandson of D. Aubrey Moodie, a major farm figure and considered by many as the "Father of Nepean"-one of the municipalities amalgamated by the new City-you have some very close links with the Ottawa and Eastern Ontario agricultural community.
DM: Yes, I grew up just outside of Richmond on the family farm and went away to school at the University of Guelph. After coming back, I milked cows for a couple of years and then started pursuing another career avenue and ended up working in Cornwall for a couple of years in the economic development field with the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Community Futures Development Corporation (SD&G CFDC)
AgriNews: How did your experience with the CFDC prepare you to come back to Ottawa as Rural Affairs Officer?
DM: It certainly gave me a broad base of experience. The office in Cornwall performed a variety of functions, so there was a fair bit of cross-contamination' of issues working in a political environment, but at the same time working with rural constituents who are on the ground with everyday issues and common problems, and helping people solve the problems.
AgriNews: What are your thoughts about your accomplishments and successes in Cornwall, and what do you see as the highlights?
DM: As I look back, there are lots of things I can be proud of. I really enjoyed working with manufacturers and helping them access program funding, and working with our employers to make sure their issues were solved. A lot of the stuff we dealt with-it's probably best that I don't get into particulars. Implementing the Eastern Ontario Development Fund was something that kept me fairly busy. I had a great team to work with, and it was an interesting challenge.
AgriNews: As amalgamation was taking place in Ottawa during 2000 and 2001, what kind of problems did you as a farmer and rural resident see emerging?
DM: I think I saw the same issues that everybody saw. Loss of community identity was a concern. There were new processes and new people for everybody to deal with (at the City) for approvals and things like that. There was mass concern in the community that we were now dealing with a city that didn't understand our problems.
AgriNews: What is foremost in your mind as you take up your duties as Ottawa's Rural Affairs Officer?
DM: Delivering on the priorities that were set out by the community through the Rural Summit and the Rural Task Force. The volunteers and leaders of the community have stepped forward and said "These are the big issues we need to fix." There's a pretty long list of those. Many of them are well under way, and some of them are being completed. As I'm going through that process, I'm going to be very active out in the community, so I'll be able to gauge the issues that are coming forward, and identify them (for action). But starting today, one week into the job, my priority is delivering on those priorities that were (already) set.
AgriNews: Have you been given a staff to help you carry out your duties and address these priorities?
DM: Yes, there is going to be a staff complement. My office is expected to be staffed up by September or early fall with three staff members once the usual hiring process is completed.
AgriNews: You answer directly to the City Manager, Kent Kirkpatrick, who seems sincere in wanting this rural affairs office to work. Can you comment on your working relationship with him?
DM: I think that's an accurate statement. It's maybe a little early to say, but I think Kent and I are going to have a very good relationship. He's made it very clear that it's a priority with him, and he's been very accessible and open. I'm glad to work for him.
AgriNews: One of the realities of the new Ottawa is the emergence of groups like the Carleton Landowners Association who hold strong views on the solutions to rural problems. How are you going to address well-organized groups like that, which are quite strident in what they're saying?
DM: I guess I'm in the fortunate position of knowing a lot of the active people in the Carleton Landowners Association. We've grown up in the same agricultural community, and I think there's potentially a level of mutual respect between us. A lot of the issues the Carleton Landowners have are valid issues, though I think I disagree with them on a valid solution. I hope we'll be able to work together to meet some common goals even though our ways of getting there may be different.
AgriNews: Ottawa is the city with the largest agricultural sector in Canada. Do you have a strategy in mind to sensitize Ottawa's urban and suburban population to this little-understood aspect of our city?
DM: There are people in the City of Ottawa who need to understand the significance of the agricultural sector, and there are already things happening that I'm not responsible for.
AgriNews: Is that the "Farmers Feed Cities" movement?
DM: Well there's that and the new Ottawa Farmers' Market (at Lansdowne Park) that's building those relationships with farmers. They're helping people understand that "my food comes from a farmer, not from a grocery store." If the City can help make that connection with city dwellers, those are the types of things that are good wins. To educate people outside the city about the significance of agriculture, that's one of the roles I can fulfill-to be an advocate for rural Ottawa and Ottawa's agricultural community with the provincial and federal governments.
AgriNews: Are there any existing organizations (such as OFAC or the OFA) or mechanisms that you view as key for building strategic alliances that will help you fulfil your role as Rural Affairs Officer?
DM: I'm sure I'll be working closely with the Ottawa OFA, l'Union des cultivateurs franco-ontariens, the Christian Farmers Federation and the other big farm organizations. But there's also a host of community organizations-such as village associations and community groups-in the rural area.
AgriNews: What role do you see for yourself in rural issues that are not necessarily agriculture-based, such as rural tourism and rural recreation initiatives like Ottawa's Rural Pathways Project?
DM: I'll be working with those groups. The City's been active in their support of Ottawa's Countryside (a rural tourism organization) for a number of years to help them overcome their issues. It's going to come to rolling up the sleeves for any of these issues and getting down to the dirty work of getting things through. If it's something that needs City approval, that's part of what this office is here to do-to help some of these community-led initiatives succeed.
AgriNews: Is your role that of an advocate or ombudsman, or an office of last resort for people who have longstanding frustrations about lack of progress on rural problems or issues?
DM: I certainly prefer the term advocate' to ombudsman,' and I see the rural affairs office having a role in situations like that.
AgriNews: Are there any issues affecting the agricultural prospects of Eastern Ontario overall that you think are particularly important?
DM: To say there's one thing in particular that needs to be focussed on is too specific. There is a huge variety of issues that are facing our agricultural sector today, whether it's commodity prices, farm succession issues, generational gap. Cattle prices still aren't where they need to be, for example, and there's difficulty getting dairy heifers across the border. It's not one issue that's facing agriculture, that's the unfortunate problem.
AgriNews: Do you think there is any way to reconcile conflicting views about land usage within the agricultural community, where some farmers believe farmland needs to be preserved and kept intact, while others feel that selling some or all of their land for subdivision is their retirement reward for a life of hard work?
DM: Wow, that's a kettle of fish. Is there a way to get everyone on the same page? No, probably not. One of the greatest things about agriculture and farming is that it breeds independence and people with their own ideas and initiatives. As a person I can certainly respect that. At Kemptville College, one of my genetics teachers used to say "there's more diversity within any breed than there is between breeds." I think that's the case when we look at rural Ottawa, which is also what makes this such a fun challenge.