Key battles of the ‘Henderson Era’
This is the end of the Henderson Era.
When one phrases it that way, it seems needlessly grandiose. Measuring a community’s history by the tenures of its rulers is an artificial metric: It was valid when monarchs actually ruled, but matters a lot less when a city’s mayor is one of 10 votes, or nine.
Still, the mayor, even in a so-called “weak mayor” system, does have some power of moral suasion, and can set the tone at city hall – especially when, in Henderson’s case, he is now the city’s longest-serving mayor.
So how will local history remember the dozen years during which Henderson, who last week announced he is not seeking re-election, presided over council?
Oddly enough, he might just be remembered for two epic battles, both of which – arguably – he lost, and both of which gave Brockville a chance to define itself as a community.
The first of these happened near the end of Henderson’s first term, in 2010, when the Aquatarium was still known by three controversial initials, MDC (Maritime Discovery Centre).
In the years before the Tall Ships Landing tower changed the waterfront landscape, Henderson was squarely in the skeptics’ corner about the MDC, and that skepticism would carry forward into the fall 2010 election.
I have vivid memories of the acrimony that pervaded the 2010 campaign, in which former mayor Ben Te Kamp sought his old job back, flanked by council candidates David Beatty and Mary Jean McFall in a triumvirate run in defence of the MDC.
Bad blood between Henderson and Tall Ships/MDC developer Simon Fuller added drama to that election, but Henderson was outgunned. The 2010 election returned him to power, but also saw the pro-MDC Beatty rocket to the top of the list of nine councillors elected and brought McFall to council.
Shortly after the election, Henderson reached an uneasy peace, of sorts, with Fuller and the MDC project ticked along, very slowly, until its eventual opening in 2016 as the Aquatarium.
Henderson’s role in that 2010 MDC debate focused an important lens on the transformation that was already happening here, as global economic pressures transformed Brockville from a “Fortune 500” industrial town to a more complicated economy, one where tourism plays a much greater role.
That debate has been settled, out of economic necessity, in favour of tourism, with Henderson now arguing we have to make the Aquatarium work for us despite its ongoing financial challenges.
The second battle saw Brockville rally around its identity as a distinct community in an era of increasing consolidation and rationalization.
It would be technically wrong to place Henderson on the losing side of the debate over the Ontario Provincial Police costing; from the moment he first asked for it in October of 2012 to that drama’s end in early 2017, the mayor insisted he was only looking for a cost-comparison, not favouring the OPP.
Supporters of the municipal police force nonetheless considered the mayor a proponent of its disbandment, in favour of an OPP service contract.
The costing process ended when it became clear, once the numbers came out, that an OPP service contract would be more expensive than the current municipal force.
While the numbers ended up driving that decision, the protracted debate was about more than those numbers.
While Tall Ships Landing and the Aquatarium changed Brockville in subtle ways, the movement to protect the municipal police force was about the city’s identity.
Underneath the visible campaign was a desire to defend an institution, now 186 years old, bound up in the city’ s own history. It was a steadfast refusal to take something unique to B rockville and replace it with something standardized across the province.
In a strange way, the anti-OPP campaign resembled the anti-M DC campaign in their expression of a simple message: What others call“progress” comes at too high a price.
In the case of the Aquatarium, a majority was willing to pay that price.
But with city policing, were the literal price not too high, the figurative price might still have sunk an OPP contract.
Much more will be said about the “Henderson Era,” but in these two episodes our city came to a clearer understanding of what it is.
Brockville Mayor David Henderson sits in his office at city hall, after announcing his intention not to seek re-election, on Friday, July 6.