by John Edwards
On March 31st, I sat in the full Almonte United Church, one of many present to celebrate the life and mark the passing of Margaret Duncan/Brunton in her 98th year. There was a wide cross-section of the community present which was a testament to her broad contribution to our communities of Ramsay and Almonte. Margaret was a remarkable local personality. Public service was her lifeblood. I can’t help but reflect upon the impact of this remarkable community builder.
I knew Margaret best on the political side of her life. Her retirement from Ramsay politics in 1994 coincided with my entry into Ramsay political life. She was a member of Ramsay Council from 1974. Her experience culminated in being Ramsay Reeve from 1990 until 1994 and Lanark County Warden in 1994. Much has been said about her being a female (and proud Liberal) trailblazer in the exclusive male and Conservative world of rural Lanark politics and I will not repeat those achievements. Instead, coupled with her inimitable sense of personal style, I observed other qualities which she brought to Ramsay political life: openness and flexibility.
Ramsay more than doubled in population from 1970 to 1994 from 2000 to 4200 residents. Growth was largely in the south near Carleton Place but was also generally spread throughout the rural area. The scattered farms and three hamlets were joined by eight subdivisions and hundreds of severances along the concessions roads. Much of the former Township was transformed as new residents moved out to the country from Carleton Place, Almonte and Ottawa. As the growth continued apace, concerns grew about the loss of the character of ‘Old Ramsay’. At the same time, the possibility of a Lanark County Waste site (garbage dump) in Ramsay raised concerns. When a new Ramsay Official Plan was proposed by consultants, the local population of old and new residents rose in protest. To Margaret’s credit, she opened the door to permit and even encourage a new approach to engage the community to take control of the development in what eventually became a new community-based Official Plan. This was unheard of in rural Ontario where most OPs were full of planning jargon and hatched in consultants’ offices far away from the community and with only minimal mandated public consultation.
Margaret practiced “good politics”. At a time when people denigrate politicians as manipulative and misleading, it’s important for us to realize that there is such a thing as “good politics” and this approach was ‘in her bones’. In other words, seeking agreements, being collaborative, consulting, listening, leading as another way to bridge opinions in order to build community. She didn’t practice ‘either/or’ politics, she practiced ‘both/and’ politics. She was confident that disagreements could be resolved through careful, honest and respectful conversations. Without Margaret’s critical leadership the door would not have been opened for the Province’s first rural community-based Official Plan.
Her second big achievement was fostering an abiding spirit of cooperation between all the local municipalities of Almonte, Ramsay, Carleton Place and Beckwith. She was at the Ramsay Council table to support municipal cooperation when it benefitted the residents. The Almonte/Ramsay FD, Almonte/Ramsay LACAC and Almonte/Ramsay Econonomic Development Committee were all supported by Margaret. The recreation & library agreements with Almonte and CP and Beckwith were all part of her creative clear-sighted solutions to build stronger and better-served communities while keeping costs in mind. In many ways, her respectful and collaborative style laid the critical groundwork for the Mississippi Mills Amalgamation.