People & Places

Q&A: Mayor Jim Watson on the first 60 days of COVID-19

Emergency, he’s used to: Jim Watson was mayor just a month days when the ice storm of 1998 hit Ottawa. He’s coordinated sandbagging efforts during spring floods on the Ottawa River, and felt the daily onslaught of public disappointment surrounding the embattled Confederation Line of the LRT in the days before COVID-19 shut half the city down. Now, he’s doing most of the job from the comfort of his Carlingwood home. 

For a mayor who embraces public events, festivals, and committee meetings, Watson has spent the last 50 days getting used to a radically different lifestyle.

We talked with Mayor Jim Watson about how COVID-19 compares with his past challenges, how residents have shown ingenuity and compassion amid the crisis, and got an update on the issues that have fallen off the radar, such as LRT and homelessness.

If it’s all getting to him, it doesn’t come across in conversation. Watson strikes a familiar, optimistic tone, noting the ingenuity of local distillers, and the 3D printing companies producing face masks. “I’m really appreciative of the compassion and dedication of all of our public servants, from personal support workers to the cashiers at the grocery stores to the people who pick up the garbage, they’re putting themselves at risk.”

You’re so well known for being at public events. Have you found a way to replace that experience in a safe way, given social distancing requirements?
I have to say it’s been a real challenge for me. Personally, I love being out in the community and engaging with people on issues, and it’s really limited my ability to have that kind of contact with the public. I have great relations with conference calls but it’s not the same. 

What’s the highlight of your life these days?
My weekly trip to my grocery store at Carlingwood. It’s a big deal for me to get out of the house. I usually spend a couple hours down at city hall a couple days a week, and the rest of the time is spent at home.

And I look forward to my morning call with Dr. Etches and her team. Often it’s quite a sad call, though, so it’s a sobering call. 

Has the experience of responding to the pandemic changed your thinking about the next election?
No, not really. I usually make my mind up a year and a bit before. You make your mind up too soon and it doesn’t serve anyone.

How do you relieve stress and protect your own mental health?
I’m probably not a role model for that — I’ve been watching bad movies on Netflix, not particularly good for your health! But I try to take a walk around the block and clear my head every day; I find that therapeutic.

I keep mentally sharp just because I’m spending so much time making decisions throughout the day. I just spent the morning touring a centre at the Jim Durrell Arena for homeless men to self-isolate. But I’ve never cooked as much! At one point last year I hadn’t had a meal in my own house in 60 days.

Councillor Jenna Sudds, Mayor Jim Watson, and Councillor Jean Cloutier tour the temporary shelter for men at the Jim Durrell Arena

The revenue losses for the city are huge. How will the city recoup that money?
We have started discussions with the province and the fed government — they have much greater ability to raise funds than we do. Our primary source of funds is property taxes, and that’s not the most progressive way to fund the myriad of programs and services that the city provides. We collect about eight percent of taxes; 92 percent is from the provincial and federal government. Yet, you look at the range of services we have to provide during a crisis, and it’s not a model that’s sustainable. We will have to rely on the federal and provincial governments for assistance. We had to lay off a few part time employees.

We’re in relatively good shape compared to a lot of other cities because our biggest industry, the government, has not really laid off any people. From an economic recovery point of view, those people still have buying power to go into stores and support businesses. We have regular updates with our treasurer about cost-cutting measures, and we feel confident that we have financial capacity with our reserve funds to see the year through. But if it goes longer than that, it will be a bigger challenge.

The pandemic has required a lot of coordination between the city and the province. How do you as a mayor manage the messages coming from the two levels of government?
Generally I’ve been very impressed with how we’ve lined up and coordinated our approaches.  It’s actually been a good case study of how, when all three levels of government work well together, that things can happen. The Jim Durrell centre for example — ordering 140 beds, getting staff in place — a lot of these things that would normally take months can be done in days. So I’ve been really impressed with the agility of staff at all three levels.

Has this experience changed your relationship with Ontario Premier Doug Ford?
You know, it’s interesting. I actually get along quite with him quite well; we text each other once in a while and have conversations. Ideologically, obviously, we’re not on the same wavelength but I’ve really enjoyed our working relationship. Together we’ll have a laugh about a few things we’re dealing with.

How does this compare with challenges you’ve faced in the past? You were mayor during the ice storm of 1997, and more recently, the flooding.
I was only in office for a month and I had to declare a state of emergency! And then we had the flooding last year. It’s been a real test of the community’s resolve; I look back on things like the ice storm and how the community rallied together on that very challenging weather situation. The flooding last year in West Carleton and Britannia and Cumberland. We had 15, 000 people out filling sandbags and providing hot meals to the volunteers.

Each of these crises has been a challenge — this one more so because it affects every single person  in the city, and in the world. Flooding was isolated; the ice storm was a little different because there was a beginning and an end. And with this one you just don’t know because you don’t know when the end is. No one knows for sure.

We’ve had six weeks with limited ridership on the LRT. Has this given Rideau Transit Group and the city time to get ahead of the problems experienced this past winter? 
It has. We just announced a shutdown so that they could get more work done. I told RTG and our staff to use this opportunity wisely to get a lot of the bigger problems resolved when we have low ridership, and they’ve been working on that. They, like every other organization, have had their own challenges, such as supply chain issues; some international experts left before the borders were closed, but they are operating remotely now. I can’t promise it will be flawless, but we are doing whatever we can, and we’re using the downtime wisely.

Are crews able to work on those issues on the corrective action plan safely?
Yes, they are all able to practice social distancing at the yard on Belfast.

In January the city became the first in Canada to declare a housing and homelessness emergency. Did anything tangible come from that?
It was trying to give a greater profile to the issue. You know, I’m proud of what we’ve been able to do every year on the issue since I became mayor: we’ve added more money, and more housing. But that is really a drop in the bucket in terms of what we need. We need hundreds of millions of dollars, because housing is not cheap. 

The pandemic has really put a spotlight on the fragility of so many people in our community living paycheque to paycheque, and spending well above more than 30 per cent on rent, which is not sustainable.

Is the city considering the suggestion to buy hotels?
We’re looking at that. It sounds like an easy answer, but hotels are not meant for people to live in on a permanent basis. Hotels have no kitchen facilities, for instance. But we haven’t ruled it out.