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Feature Article - September 1, 2005

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Feature Article

September 1, 2005

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NFCS 30th Anniversary

by Jeff Green

Northern Frontenac Community Services (NFCS) is celebrating the 30th Anniversary of its incorporation with a series of events on the weekend of September 23-24. As a contribution to these festivities, The Frontenac News will be running a series of articles on the history of NFCS and its relation to the history of the region it serves. As many readers are aware, The Frontenac News was published by NFCS until July 2000, so our interest in the history of Northern Frontenac Community Services is more than a passing one. In this first article do the series, we will look at the years prior to incorporation of NFCS in 1975, to when the North Frontenac News and North Frontenac Community Services had their co-genesis in the early 1970’s. But first, what exactly is NFCS?

NFCS today

Northern Frontenac Community Services (NFCS) is a multi-service agency that provides a range of services for adults and children out of two buildings in Sharbot Lake. Its service area includes Central and North Frontenac and the northern part of South Frontenac. NFCS’ direct services for adults include programs for the elderly and for families facing economic or other challenges.

Whose_christmas

NFCS plays another important role through its affiliates, larger agencies that have staff housed at the NFCS office in Sharbot Lake. NFCS provides them with administrative support, and more importantly, a connection to the community they are attempting to serve. These services include mental health services, Ontario Works, the Children’s Aid Society, and others.

Through the Child Centre, day care services are offered, as well as a nursery school and a toy lending library, and counselling for young families. Child Centre staff hold regular playgroups in communities throughout Frontenac County. The Child Centre also has strong affiliations with other agencies, providing administrative support and community connections to agencies that provide a range of services concerned with early childhood development, children’s mental health, and more. The Child Centre has recently taken on a regional role as the Early Years Centre for the riding of Hastings, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington.

NFCS is currently expanding its programming by increasing services for the elderly. The Child Centre is looking to expand its role in early childhood education through participation in a new province-wide initiative called the Best Start. Transportation has been identified as a major barrier separating people in need from services they require, and NFCS is in the midst of setting up a transportation project.

NFCS has been able to survive in spite of internal strife and funding difficulties because it has always been a collection of individuals, coming from what used to be called North Frontenac and from close by, who have a network of connections within the communities, and are able to connect people and families to services that might help them.

The agency that exists today has been a work in progress for almost 35 years.

It might be up to us?

Sometime in the very early 70’s, a group of people began meeting informally to talk about the future of North Frontenac, an unofficial geographic area encompassing eight townships in Frontenac County: Bedford, Hinchinbooke, Oso, Olden, Kennebec, Palmerston-Canonto, Clarendon and Miller, and Barrie.

These townships shared many difficulties. The enterprises that had led to their development - lumbering, the railroad and farming - were either gone or in serious decline. The region was large and the population sparse. Estimates ranged between 5,000 and 6,000 people. Unemployment was high, over 50% in the wintertime in some places; the population was aging as young people left to seek a future; and small villages were dying out.

Early on it was decided that the first problem to be tackled was that of communication. There was no such thing as local media in North Frontenac. A Communications Group was formed and with support from St. Lawrence College began putting together a monthly newsletter, which was mimeographed at the Anglican Church in Sharbot Lake. The newsletter became the North Frontenac News (now the Frontenac News). But this was only a start for the Communications Group. They were interested more in affecting change than in merely communicating the problems they were collectively facing.

Early in 1972, Wayne Robinson had just returned from an extended trip to Australia. He had been raised in a local farm family, was in his mid-twenties, had graduated from Queens a few years earlier, and was available. The Communications Group had found some funding, and Wayne Robinson was hired as a “Community Animator”. Office space was found at the old Anglican rectory, which had been renovated over a period of five years under the direction of Martin Walsh, the Anglican Minister in Sharbot Lake at the time.

“It was the Trudeau era,” Robinson recalls, “when all sorts of ideas were floating around about the possibilities for community development. I was given an opportunity to see what could be developed. I really had carte blanche to do what I thought could be done.”

Eventually Wayne Robinson became the first Executive Director of North Frontenac Community Services in 1975, and remained with the agency until 1978.

Since then Wayne Robinson has forged a successful career as a financial planner and investment advisor at the Simonett building, not far from his old basement office at the Adult Services building of NFCS.

He recalls going to meetings every day and most nights while he worked at NFCS, where he spent his time either convincing provincial officials to support one project or another, or meeting with groups of seniors to help them to set up local seniors groups.

As the North Frontenac Project, which it came to be known as, began to develop, it had two major thrusts. One was to bring provincially and federally funded services, which people in North Frontenac were paying for through taxes, to the North.

Marcel Giroux, who was a teacher and guidance Counsellor at Sharbot Lake High School and a member of the Communications Group and the early NFCS Board, recalls that in the early 70’s “a Children’s Aid or a Manpower worker from Kingston would report to their office in Kingston at 8:30 to pick up a car. By the time they drove to Arden or Plevna, it was coffee break time. They would have one meeting, then it was lunch time. By the time they met with a second person or family, it would be getting on to 2:00 and time to return to Kingston. This was a huge waste of money, and it meant people in the north did not receive the services they were paying for with their income taxes.”

This basic insight led to the practice of seconding workers to Sharbot Lake to work anywhere from one to five days a week.

“We developed a multi-service agency model and we were able to convince the provincial government to support us. It was a model that worked then and it’s a model that still works today,” said Wayne Robinson.

The other major thrust for “The North Frontenac Project” was something much harder to define: community development.

The ‘North Frontenac Project’ was unique among rural initiatives and it attracted a significant amount of academic interest from its very beginnings. A report from 1974 by a Carleton University researcher described the project in the following way:

“Although providing services are the most frequent tasks, community animation is the foundation and the central theme of the project. To identify and solve the community’s problems with the community’s citizens, whether it be to form a youth group or to develop a plan for economic development, to facilitate a community willing and able to cope with its own future is the goal.”

It is important to realise that there was a real sense of urgency in the North Frontenac region in those days. It was felt that something had to happen or else the region would eventually drop off the map entirely.

An article called “It could be up to Us” was published in one of the early editions of the North Frontenac News.

It set out how vast the problems in the region were, and how daunting the task of ‘community animation' was going to be.

“Many citizens are concerned about the lack of development in the Northern Townships of Frontenac County. What have the 70’s to offer North Frontenac residents? Is it only game preserves, pockets of government privilege, few services and spotty seasonal employment? Why is it that Lanark County can persuade government, business, and industry to stake resources in their northern areas? Do we have to wait, cap in hand, for regional governments to take over our townships, because the Councils have not acted in their own best interests?

Although the moniker of “community animation” seems hopelessly dated nowadays, the issues are as real today as they were over 30 years ago.

One of the first projects that this burgeoning entity took on was trying to build an arena in this newly defined region of North Frontenac. With the promise of up to $100,000 from the County of Frontenac, a piece of land on Highway 38 halfway between Tichborne and Sharbot Lake (at the historic community of Oconto) was found, but the financing and population were not sufficient to build an arena.

Eventually, the township of Portland was drafted into the plan and the North Frontenac Arena, located at what is now the border between South and Central Frontenac, opened its doors in 1976.

In the meantime, North Frontenac Community Services was being developed, and in 1974 NFCS received funding from the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services to become a multi-service agency. It was one of three such agencies created; the other two were in or around Toronto, and it is the only one of the three that has survived.

In order to continue receiving provincial and federal support, it became necessary for NFCS to establish a formal board of directors and become a not-for-profit corporation. This took place in 1975.

There was some trepidation over this among NFCS supporters. Many of the volunteers that had come to meetings and joined management committees saw themselves as activists working towards building a brighter future for their community. Would they go along and become volunteer directors of a not-for-profit corporation, becoming concerned with mundane matters such as financial audits and management-employee relations?

Would the North Frontenac Community Services Corporation be the force in developing North Frontenac that people who had been involved were hoping to see, or would it become a bureaucratic arm of government?

These questions have taken 30 years to answer.

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