The political role of Chairperson for the Region of Durham is a very demanding and challenging position. It is also one that has seen the likes of Roger Anderson and Gerri Lynn O’Connor, who handled the position with amazing professionalism and results. Just over a year ago, the position was once again up for election. After a grueling campaign the position was awarded to John Henry, at that time, the Mayor of Oshawa.
John was recently a guest on our television program, and I had the pleasure of speaking with him about his life, his career and his future. He was born and raised in Oshawa, and still lives there; a rarity for most anyone these days. After high school, John attended Durham College, as well as the Panasonic Corporate School, which led him into a career in office equipment.
Being the adventurous type, John was a recreational diver and worked for a dive store in Oshawa. He began to teach, and was offered instructional positions in Ann Arbor Michigan and Colorado, and received a rescue rating. While in Colorado, he met an instructor who taught at the firefighting school in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It was not long before John was offered a position at the school, and enjoyed living in the south, and, as he said, “How could you not, with great music, great food and great people.”
John continued his adventurous lifestyle by becoming an ice rescue specialist, a position. In Canada, this position is handled by firefighters and police. It requires specialized training to ensure you maximize safety standards, at the same time rescuing people who have had accidents as a result of snowmobile mishaps, ice fishing and the like.
“I was very fortunate to have a job in Oshawa, which allowed me the opportunity to travel and enhance my skills in many areas,” John explained. Eventually John opened his own office equipment company serving Oshawa and Durham. When John became Mayor he parked the company, and moved ownership to a father and son team, which still operate the business today.
Before John became Mayor of Oshawa, he served as Regional Councillor for Ward Five. I asked him why he would leave a successful business to go into politics. “The biggest project in Oshawa, at the time, was the construction of the cancer centre at Lakeridge Health,” he stated. “Politics had gotten in the way of building the facility, and over dinner one night, my wife suggested I run for office and do my best to solve the problem.” It made a lot of sense, as John’s entire career was made up of fixing other people’s problems. It was obviously a great idea, as we now have one of the most advanced cancer centres in the country.
I asked him about the transition from Mayor to Regional Chair. “I was very fortunate to have worked with both of them [Roger Anderson and Gerri Lynn O’Connor],” he replied. “The job is a little scary at first, because Durham Region is half the size of Prince Edward Island.”
As Chair, John Henry’s role is to oversee everything which occurs in the Region of Durham. Anything from transit to the Police Services Board.; from road projects, to representing the region at a provincial level. “I was very fortunate to have served as Mayor for eight years, as it truly prepared me for the challenges I am facing today.”
John explained how he and his team continue to lobby against the unfairness of the connector routes to highway 407, namely highways 412 and 418. What I did not know, was that Durham Region approached the provincial government about honouring their commitment to finish the ring road around Toronto by completing highway 407 to highway 115. John added, “The government said no, so we left the meeting, polled the residents of the region, and built it ourselves.”
“The residents paid through taxes, to have those highways [412 and 418] built, and now they are being charged to use them.” He went on to explain how much stress these roads would take off Lakeridge, Harmony, Taunton and others, if they were open to everyone at no cost.
I did get a good feeling that John, as Regional Chair understood the difference in problems between the north and the south. Issues such as water treatment stations in the south, and community wells in the north, as well as policing variances and transit challenges, to name but a few.
One of the recent improvements in transit, which affects northern Durham, is the new On Demand system, whereby an individual can make a call, and within a four hour window, will have access to the appropriate transportation to take them throughout the region.
One thing which impressed me, was that during the election, John covered his own expenses. The job of Regional Chair came with a car, which he immediately cancelled. He eliminated the use of a regional credit card and completes expense reports, just like everyone else. Once again, another positive result from bringing business philosophies to government.
John brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the job of running the region. The issues he faces are large and not without challenges, but if anyone is up to the task, John Henry certainly is that person.
To watch the entire episode of my interview with John Henry, tune to Rogers TV or visit ‘The Jonathan van Bilsen Show’ on YouTube.
Jonathan van Bilsen is a television host, award-winning photographer, published author, columnist and keynote speaker. His show, ‘The Jonathan van Bilsen Show,’ on RogersTV, the Standard Website or YouTube, features many of the people included in this column.