OrilliaMatters is profiling all the candidates seeking election in Orillia in the Oct. 24 municipal election.
Local social worker Elizabeth Van Houtte is running for a Ward 3 council position in the upcoming municipal election.
Van Houtte, 58, has practised social work across Canada and the United States over the past 38 years. She settled in Orillia in 2010, where she currently works in a private practice.
The PhD-educated Norfolk County native ran for council in 2014, and has also run as the Simcoe North candidate for the provincial NDP in 2015, 2018 and 2022.
Van Houtte hopes to bring progressive change and growth to the city, working with upper levels of government to address housing, mental health, and addictions issues.
“When I was on the campaign trail (earlier this year), people were saying, ‘I’ve got three jobs and I can’t put my kid in summer camp. My rent is so high, and we’re paying $2,800 in rent,’” Van Houtte told OrilliaMatters. “I believe we can strategize, come up with ideas and set goals with the county.”
In her career as a social worker, Van Houtte looks back fondly on the times she was able to work in vocational rehabilitation programs.
She recalled a time when provincial funding allowed her and her colleagues to open a deli-style shop and café in the late 1980s, where clients were able to work for competitive wages with support from mental health professionals.
“The people that worked there really liked the support of having somebody there every day,” Van Houtte said. “As you know, with mental illness, some days are good, some days aren’t good. But what we did find is that people were hospitalized less, were less symptomatic when they were working, and some people moved out on their own that were living in group homes.
“It was boots on the ground — you’re right there. You’re with people. I'd like to see … something like those opportunities happen here.”
Van Houtte views politics as an important part of addressing mental health and addictions issues.
“It’s a natural connection: Many social workers are pretty aware of policy and how they have to work around policy to help people, and the lack of policy (that) restricts people’s ability to make decisions or to live a good life,” she said.
The issue she views as most important is managing Orillia’s growth in a responsible way.
“We have to have infrastructure. We have to have good roads. We have to have good sidewalks. That’s what can keep the community alive and running, but there’s much more to it than that,” she said.
“I’m calling it ‘smart growth,’ (where) we preserve as much farmland as we can and work with what we’ve got. There’s a lot of empty buildings … there’s a lot of land available. If we need to build, that’s where we need to build.”
Van Houtte highlighted the importance of the incoming council’s actions, in light of the provincial government’s decision to mandate growth in Orillia over the next 30 years.
“The decisions that will be made in the next four years will clearly have impacts on how this unfolds, which is my future, my kids’ future, grandchildren’s future,” she said.
Part of that growth is managing the city’s resources and encouraging a healthy business environment, she said, for both the downtown and Orillia’s other neighbourhoods.
“We have great resources in this community, and let’s support them; let’s build on them,” she said. “We’re growing. There are little communities outside of the downtown area, (like) West Ridge (and) all of the small businesses that have went up there.
“How do we continue to help people who want to come here and become entrepreneurs, or contribute to the community, and support them? I’m not talking just financial; I’m talking mentorship.”
Van Houtte recognizes the current council worked through extraordinary circumstances this term, but hopes the incoming term of council will bring “more transparency,” and she criticized decisions such as the Hyrdo One deal.
“Orillia Power was the oldest, or pretty close, natural power company in the province. We owned it. You sold it. Now it’s gone,” she said.
Despite running with the NDP only a few months ago, Van Houtte says the determining factor in her run for council this fall was the lack of women in the race.
“After the (provincial) election, my supporters came to me and said, ‘Why don’t you run?’” she said. “I just started paying attention to who was putting their name forward, and what made my final decision? Lack of women.
“And then the fire starts up. I think political inspiration is always on simmer in my body.”
Mason Ainsworth and Jay Fallis are the current Ward 3 councillors. Ainsworth has announced he will be running for mayor, leaving Van Houtte, Fallis, Zak Gariba, Devahl Brambhatt, Nick Wray and Jeff Czetwezruk as the candidates in Ward 3.