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Up North, decent, hard-working politicians are an endangered species

Mayor Al McDonald should know better.

He has been reading the "comments" that follow a North Bay Nugget story on a local resin plant closing down and putting 39 of his citizens out of work. The reasons are market conditions and energy costs, but blame is not always related to reason.

Mr. McDonald – a businessman who served as the Progressive Conservative member for Nipissing in the provincial legislature prior to becoming mayor in 2010 – is denounced as one of several "blind mice" by one anonymous commentator. "Incompetent politicians," says another, "have their heads in the sand." There's "no leadership" says a third. The piling-on spins through some 160 entries. One calls for angry, fed-up citizens to "take to the streets."

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Another thoughtfully adds: "Last one to leave the city please turn off the lights."

Mr. McDonald sighs deeply. These days, the negatives appear to be winning everywhere.

And, admittedly, there are negatives throughout the north of the province. The Northlander rail service – a key area employer – was shut down by decision-makers who live far to the south. "We took the closure as if we were second-class citizens," says Mr. McDonald. Other businesses have left over high energy costs and gone to U.S. jurisdictions that offer seductive subsidies and tax breaks that a place such as North Bay would be forbidden by law to offer.

But what of the positives? Where are the "comments" praising the five major centres of Northern Ontario coming together to support each other and gain a louder "voice at the provincial table?" Where are the recent initiatives with First Nations? What of the new tourism initiatives that appear, at least for the moment, to be attracting targeted clients into the area?

Mr. McDonald, whom most would describe as having an upbeat personality, shakes his head. Even with rose-coloured glasses, the view from any political seat these days has darkened. And social media has become, in his opinion, a major player.

"The way politicians are viewed right now, they're viewed with no respect," he says. "The polling numbers show that politicians are at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to honourable professions. People don't trust them; they think they lie, they cheat.

"The blogs and comments tear individuals apart, their integrity, their honour, their motive. They always used to say you needed a thick skin to be a politician. Nowadays it's not just the politician who needs thick skin – he needs elephant skin – and so do his families, because the families are paying the price more than the individual who is running."

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How the times have changed. On June 9, three days before the Ontario provincial election, it will be 30 years since the passing of Merle Dickerson, multiple times mayor of this lovely little city of 54,000 on the eastern shores of Lake Nipissing.

If they had said of Merle Dickerson, "his likes will not be seen again," it would stand, today, as one of the great understatements of Canadian politics.

"Vote early – and vote often," the colourful mayor loved to tell his supporters.

Mr. Dickerson's grand plans for North Bay included bringing in Fidel Castro to judge a beard-growing contest and have Ottawa build a canal that would link the Ottawa River to the Great Lakes through Lake Nipissing.

While running for office, he was once found illegally tapping into power lines to feed rental housing he owned – even as he served as chair of the local hydro commission.

They kept electing him even as he was slammed for asking the city manager to "fix" parking tickets and was found guilty of bribing voters – some of whom didn't even live in the city. Even so, he died in office.

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Mayor Al McDonald, recounting some of the more familiar Dickerson tales, laughs in amazement.

"You won't get anything more controversial out of me than the occasional 'frig,'" he says.

Social media would have crucified Merle Dickerson, arguably with justification. But Al McDonald still feels that the penchant for negativity, for getting personal, is making decent, hard-working politicians an endangered species.

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About the Author

Roy MacGregor was born in the small village of Whitney, Ont., in 1948. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2002, he worked for the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, Maclean's magazine (three separate times), the Toronto Star and The Canadian Magazine. More

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