As elected officials, we can create a better place to work and live

Alan Shefman

Councilor, City of Vaughan
Ontario, Canada

Mr. Shefman, tell us a bit about yourself and the city you come from.

I have been a city councilor since 2004. Prior to that, I was elected as a school board trustee for a four-year period. In fact, I was elected twice to that position. My professional work has been in consulting and human rights both at the provincial level and as an independent contractor, with a very broad and wide clientele, investigations, training, a variety of issues related to human rights.

The city I represent is the city of Vaughan. Vaughan is located on the northern border of the city of Toronto. Our city has a population of 320, 000 people, and it is rapidly growing. In fact, over the last 25 years Vaughan has been one of the fastest-growing cities in Canada. It is a city that has very significant economic resources. We have the largest railway yard in Canada. And, I think it is the second, or third, largest in North America. We have the largest container yard in our city. We do a lot of manufacturing. The biggest industry in the city is automobile parts manufacturing. It should be noted that Vaughan has been identified as one of the best cities in Canada to live in and be in business in. As many as 99 different languages are spoken in the city. The largest group in the city is of Italian background, which makes up about 30 percent of the population. The second largest group in the city is people of Jewish background – about 12 percent. Vaughan is an interesting dynamic place with a lot of things happening. The major issue before our city these days is the intensification: high-rise apartment buildings are being built. We have just announced construction of two 50-storey apartment building condos for a new downtown area.

Is it your first visit to Ukraine? How well are you familiar with Ukrainian history, culture, and the current economic and political situation?

I am quite familiar. Obviously, I am reading a lot about what is going on here in Ukraine, about Russian invasion and its actions in Crimea. I know a lot about Ukrainian history. This is an area where much of my family and my wife’s family come from – Ukraine, Poland, Belarus, where the Jewish community was very significant and all but destroyed by the Holocaust and WWII. Tomorrow morning I am going to the town where my father was born – the city of Uman in Cherkasy region.

You have been involved with community service for many years. Why did you choose community service as a career path, and what do you like most about it?

Helping people. It is all about helping people. I love helping people. I love solving problems. I love the ability that when someone phones me and says ‘I have a problem”, or “I have a complain”, I say “Not a problem. We can get it fixed immediately”. We can do it efficiently. We can create. We can create a better place to work and live.

What is your definition of “democratic governance”? What does it include?

It includes, at the very base of it, ethical and principal conduct. It includes working within a civil environment where people discuss and debate issues and solve issues through respectful discussion. It involves democratic elections. It involves pluralism where people with different points of view, with different backgrounds can work together to address issues. It also involves a partnership between those people who are elected, those people who are managers and administrations, the professional people, and the community, whether it is a residential community or the business community.

What steps are being taken to accelerate local economic development and ensure long-term favourable conditions for SME growth in Vaughan? What is the role of elected officials in it?

Elected officials have many different roles: they are proponents, cheerleaders and spokespeople. For example, we have done a number of international trade missions over the last years. Our job is to connect with officials and other countries to talk to business and promote our city as a good place to establish a business. We do it internally as well, of course. We are, in some ways, competitive with other municipalities to try to attract businesses to our city from other places where they might have resided. We help companies looking for new locations. We will meet with them, partner with our officials, because they have the expertise and we have the ability to “sell” the city. What steps are we taking? We do a broad range. We are a business development resources center which provides every type of information for businesses and our city. We provide training for entrepreneurs. We have programs. One that we are doing for the second time is where we will provide up to $ 300 000 grants to 30 young people between the ages of 18 and 28 to establish their own businesses. We have incubations centers established a couple years ago for people with ideas around technology or business. And we provided them with administrative, financial, and management support. All the sorts of things that a person with a good idea hasn’t got a lot of time to do. And we do that allowing them to focus on their idea. That program is funded totally from the private sector – major companies like IBM. So it doesn’t come from taxation to support that; it is coming from the private sector.

You have participated in a meeting of the Association of Ukrainian Cities Committee on Equal Rights and Opportunities for Women and Men, as well as in the Poltava Intergovernmental Forum. What is your most important takeaway from both events? What advice could you give to your Ukrainian counterparts in light of information/experiences shared by participants?

The important thing about gender equality committee is that there is the core of dynamic, forceful women advocates who are working in a variety of different ways to promote gender equality. Their issues are quite diverse. And their activities are very important. Also, they need to address cultural resistance to developing gender equality within the municipal sector. And, I would suggest that, perhaps, the most important approach that should be taken is to provide information and resources to encourage more women to run for office, as well as using the women who have been already elected as role models. They need to be promoted and to be more visible as successful women who run for office. They can help show younger women that though there are barriers, they still can be overcome.

As regards the Poltava forum, there is a broad range of different initiatives that are taking place in Poltava oblast. There need to be more forums like this where the projects that are underway can be shared. It is important to learn from your colleagues and share with your colleagues what is going on. Without a doubt, as we found in Canada, the important issue around economic development is fact-based planning. You have to gather data, you need to know who you are working with, you have to know your workforce, you have to know the types of business that have opportunities to expand and grow. There is no use in business that is becoming obsolete. It is important that you have working partnerships with the private sector where people would feel they are working with honest people with ethical behaviour.