The Region of Waterloo: Retirement of Long-time Regional Chair Brings Changes to Urban and Rural Relationships

Written by: Kate Daley 

For those of us who are keen observers of politics in Waterloo Region, the main and defining story of this year’s elections in Waterloo Region is at the upper-tier level.

Regional Chair Ken Seiling is retiring. He has held the post since the year I was born, when he became the Region’s third chair upon his appointment by regional council in 1985. Since 1997, when the chair position became elected, Seiling has been the only person who has ever won a region-wide office in our municipal elections.

A conscientious and experienced politician, Seiling has rarely had significant competition, which suits his approach to elections. Anecdotally, I have heard people say that they would have to convince Seiling to put up a lawn sign on their lawn. In the 2014 election, he fought off a more determined challenge from a heavily self-funded opponent running against the light rail transit project Seiling has long championed. With a somewhat more active campaign, Seiling secured the support of nearly two-thirds of voters, despite continued controversy over his signature accomplishment.

But with Seiling’s retirement finally upon us, we have to confront the reality of a 21st century Region without Ken Seiling. And the most overlooked aspect of this shift is the change it will mean for the politics of urban and rural relationships in Waterloo Region.

Before his appointment as chair so many decades ago, Seiling was mayor of Woolwich, the region’s most populous rural township.

Waterloo Region’s next chair will not have Seiling’s rural grounding. Karen Redman currently serves as a regional councillor representing Kitchener, after past service representing the area as a federal Liberal MP and party whip under Paul Martin. Jan D’Ailly is a former City of Waterloo councillor and mayoral candidate who lives in Waterloo. Jay Aissa owns a Waterloo-based fencing business, his only political experience running against Seiling in 2014. All three have their perspectives rooted in one of the existing urban municipalities.

Only Rob Deutschmann, recent one-term mayor of the Township of North Dumfries, has significant political or personal roots in any of Waterloo Region’s rural municipalities. But after growing up in the city of Waterloo and running a law firm in Downtown Kitchener for many years, even Deutchmann has much more urban positioning than Seiling.

Any of Seiling’s possible successors will bring a more urban view of Waterloo Region than Seiling did. This is significant for two main reasons.

First, Seiling’s particular brand of urban/rural perspective has significantly informed his most impressive policy accomplishment: the Region’s urban growth policies. Seiling spearheaded the creation of cutting-edge urban growth policies, upon which the provincial Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe and Greenbelt were significantly modeled.

The Region has committed to building up rather than out, with intensification focused along the Central Transit Corridor served by the Region’s new Light Rail Transit system. This investment, one third of which is being funded through local sources, was championed largely to focus growth in central areas. This is a key step in preserving a permanent Protected Countryside that protects vibrant farmland and the area’s crucial groundwater resources, and a Countryside Line that provides a medium-term growth boundary between urban development and the rural landscape.

While support for the Countryside Line is high among the Region’s current councillors and many candidates (as shown by responses to a recent candidate questionnaire), Seiling has been the approach’s most determined advocate.

Second, Seiling’s positioning outside of the three cities of Cambridge, Kitchener, and Waterloo has put him in an ideal position to negotiate tensions between different members of “the regional family,” as some regional councillors have called it. There are longstanding tensions going back at least to regional amalgamation in 1973. Forces in Kitchener have long advocated for annexing other parts of the region or amalgamating the surrounding county into one government headquartered in Kitchener. Forces in Waterloo and elsewhere have at times resented Kitchener’s “manifest destiny” (as one 1960s observer scornfully described it). In perhaps the most clear example of this dynamic, in a 2010 plebiscite, Kitchener voters supported amalgamation talks with two-thirds support, while Waterloo voters opposed even talking about amalgamation by the same margin.

Forces in Cambridge, for their part, have often felt left out of a regional system many see as driven by “Kitchener-Waterloo,” as so many observers unhelpfully describe the area. Over the years, leaders in Cambridge have called for the elimination of the Region or succession from the upper-tier system. Along with complaints over the two-tier system, wounds from the forced amalgamation of three municipalities into the City of Cambridge in 1973 are still raw, with community members routinely identifying themselves as from Preston, Hespeler, or Galt.

While Seiling has certainly taken sides and stood for central government against secessionists and service board advocates in Cambridge, he has been able to maintain a certain distance from the sibling rivalries between the cities from his location in Woolwich Township

Significant struggles over regional reform, with possibilities ranging from a mega-city amalgamation to abolishing the Region, have arisen periodically and consistently, most recently in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Always painfully divisive, debates over the right arrangement of government, over who should govern whom and how, and over how the relationship between urban and rural should work have been a persistent and cyclical feature of politics in Waterloo Region, despite the relative success of its regional framework.

Lest one think that these urban rivalries are old news, the amalgamation debates have resurfaced yet again in recent weeks. With Premier Doug Ford’s proclamation this summer that he will “review” the regional governments after reducing the size of Toronto Council, long-time amalgamation advocates are once again using the threat of provincial interference to pursue their long-term goals. The future of Waterloo Region’s two-tier model is once again in question.

Regardless of who wins the chair’s race, the Region of Waterloo will not be the same. Seiling’s most persistent accomplishment has been the role he has played as a uniting voice, representing the upper-tier region with limited urban baggage. He has also been a strong advocate for Waterloo Region as a whole with the provincial government, in particular. With the uncertainty of what a Doug Ford government might do to Waterloo Region under the dubious guise of making it more “efficient,” and without a particular commitment from the premier to local consultation and appropriateness, the Region will be without its strongest voice during this new and frightening era in Ontario municipal politics.

Even without this dramatic change at the province, Ken Seiling’s retirement would be a considerable loss for this area. The Region of Waterloo as we know it in my lifetime is Ken Seiling’s Region of Waterloo. He is leaving a strong legacy, but the future of the Region is uncertain.

Kate Daley is an environmental professional and a graduate of York University’s PhD program in political science, where she studied transit, urban growth management, and regional government in the Waterloo area. She has managed two successful municipal campaigns, and participated in the organization of this year’s Women’s Municipal Campaign School in Waterloo Region. She is currently on parental leave with her family’s new baby. Disclosure: The author’s spouse is a councillor representing the City of Waterloo’s Ward 6, and is currently running for re-election.

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