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The women who put Port Robinson on the map

For the past eight years, 'Port Robinson Proud' has given a voice to the small community on the banks of the Welland Canal; 'I think we’ve been a very loud political voice but we’ve been positive'

Port Robinson is often referred to as Thorold’s best kept secret. The small community, situated on both sides of the Welland Canal, is isolated from the rest of Thorold and has often had little-to-no voice in municipal politics.

In 2013, a few local residents started a group called ‘Port Robinson Proud,' in an effort to fight for their own community. The group kicked off a quiet revolution that eight years later has effectively put Port Robinson on the map.

“We never started out being political, that wasn’t our goal,” says founding member Nancy Waters, in an interview with ThoroldToday. “I think we’ve been a very loud political voice but we’ve been positive.”

The idea for Port Robinson Proud first germinated in the fall of 2013, in response to the possibility of the City of Thorold closing the Port Robinson Community Centre.

“We got to a point where we had some repairs that needed to be done,” remembers founding member Debbie Barnes. “We needed about $80 from City Hall to keep the squirrels out and they said they didn’t have it. That’s when we got mad.”

After talking the idea over for a little bit, Barnes and Waters split off from the Community Centre board and banded together with a third founding member, Judy Sauriol, to create Port Robinson Proud in the winter of 2014.

“It was an election year and we realized that this community has zero voice in the city,” says Waters. “The city doesn’t pay a whole lot of attention to anything out here. Not that we wanted them to, but it would have been nice if politicians at least campaigned.”

One of the group’s first major battles took place in 2015 when the city closed the community’s fire station without any notice.

Because of their geographic location, the lack of a fire hall Port Robinson essentially defenceless against big fires.

“We went a little cuckoo,” says Waters. “We just started calling councillors, we called the mayor, we call the CAO, and we said: ‘What are you doing? You can’t just take our fire hall away.’ We managed to rally the community and it was a huge cry to bring those trucks back. That was us, that was our voice here.”

After getting the firetrucks back, the group’s next big success came in 2016 when they stopped an incinerator from being built in Port Robinson.

At first, the group canvassed their own neighbourhood, but soon enough they realized they needed to take their fight to the next level.

“We went to the Tender Fruit Association and we brought wind studies,” says Waters. “The wind from that incinerator is going to blow across the tender fruit areas and I’m sure the tender fruit growers are not going to be happy.”

Meanwhile, Port Robinson Proud kept rallying local residents to apply pressure through grassroots efforts.

“We showed up at every single council meeting, everybody wearing a red shirt and we sat there in complete silence,” Waters remembers. “We didn’t say a word. We just filled the gallery with red shirts. It was the most boring three hours every two weeks but it got bigger and bigger until they had to have a meeting and rescind this decision.”

The group points to the connections they’ve built inside and outside of Port Robinson, that help them apply political pressure when necessary.

“A lot of politicians out there don’t care about Port Robinson,” says Barnes. “It’s frustrating sometimes. Thank goodness that our group is there because they can be activated in a hurry when something goes wrong.“

Throughout the years, the group has attracted more volunteers who all want to help foster the sense of community Port Robinson prides itself on.

The group acknowledges that politics can be toxic at times, but it’s always been Port Robinson Proud’s intention to keep things positive.

“We try to make sure people are proud of being a resident,” says Waters. “It’s been a huge learning curve and it changes all the time. We work on Port Robinson Proud every day. There’s always something going on.”

The group’s Facebook page averages around 30,000 pageviews per week and is used to share events, local issues, and history about Port Robinson. It's a place where the community can come together.

Barnes points to a heavy snowstorm a few years back that knocked out the community’s power. Everyone who was still able to go online flocked to the Port Robinson Proud page and started offering help to those who needed it.

“It was fantastic, but you can’t make that out of nothing if you don’t have that established already,” says Barnes. “That’s when it works really well. It’s great to have that voice that can be utilized when we need to amongst the community.”

Most recently, to keep up with demand, Port Robinson Proud has set up a second page where locals can get in touch with each other to sell or buy items, ask questions, and foster a sense of community.

Outside of their political lobby work, the group also organizes yearly community events such as a Ladies’ Tea and a holiday lights contest.

With an upcoming municipal election, the group is ready to fight for Port Robinson’s interests once again, although it’s already difficult enough to even get a polling station in the community.

Eight years in and the group hopes that upcoming political candidates have realized the importance of Port Robinson.

“When those guys run this time around, we’ll put their feet to the fire a little bit,” says Barnes. “We expect them to come out here and show their face, let them know who they represent.”