Betty Disero may carry an ostentatious title as the “Lord Mayor” of Niagara-On-The-Lake, a historic town at the mouth of the Niagara River, but the petite woman with darting eyes and not a slip of make-up, is anything but flashy. Six weeks into her new job as Lord Mayor of a town known for its soft fruit agriculture, fine wines, English heritage and a short war with the Americans in 1812, Mrs. Disero has a vision for the scenic town of 18,000 residents.
“I’m a practical person, I’m a pragmatist,” says Disero. “I think that’s why I stayed in municipal politics. I have been invited by both the Conservatives and the Liberals at one point in my life to join their parties both federally and provincially, but I like to make decisions that show results and affect people’s lives.
I like being close to the people I represent and work with; it’s just been my life,” says the Lord Mayor. If you were walking the pretty streets or taking a horse-drawn carriage ride in the town last fall, you may have seen Mrs. Disero, who knocked on more than 300 doors a day in the months preceding the municipal election last October. She has been called “a fixer” all her life. Disero was a city councillor in Toronto for 18 years where she represented 56,000 people in her ward. Shortly after moving to Niagara-On-The-Lake she ran and won as a city councillor in 2016. When asked about Niagara-On-The-Lake compared to Toronto, the Lord Mayor speaks with enthusiasm. “The diversity of issues is greater here. I’ve spent the last four years learning about that diversity. There’s a growing farming population, so the issues coming out of that, the irrigation system, the drainage systems, all of that was new to me. I spent the last four years learning and observing.” A passionate advocate for a ‘town with a plan’, Disero is focused on setting down on paper an official vision for the future of the increasingly popular town. “Through our official plan we determine where we want that growth to go, we determine services, we determine lifestyle, everything from healthcare to daycare. So the province and the region are working with numbers for 2041 and our official plan is out of date. It’s from 1994, a developer comes in and says ‘hey, I just found a nice big greenspace that I can put you know, 300 homes.’ It may not be where we want it.”
The town is flanked by wide green spaces planted with fruit trees, vineyards, as well as natural forests, and escarpments. Some of these spaces are protected and some are not. Where homes are built is a hot topic locally and is the heart of why Disero says she ran for mayor. “A developer went in and literally pulled the trees out by the roots. There was clear cutting going on, so I thought at that point, ‘no, no, I cannot get council to go ahead with this.’ Instead of just whining, the solution for me was, I’m going to run for mayor.” Mrs. Disero may be Niagara-On-The- Lake’s first female Lord Mayor but when asked about being a woman in politics she blinks twice and answers matter-of-factly. “I guess because of my background, and coming from such a diverse, cosmopolitan area to NOTL, I’ve worked with people like Hazel McCallion, like Barbara Hall, other female leaders, so for me it’s not about male, female, it’s more about getting the job done and who is qualified.” An estimated three million tourists visit Niagara-On-The-Lake each year for the town’s 39 wineries, The Niagara Icewine Festival, The Shaw Festival, Music Niagara, the Peach Festival or outdoor activities such as cycling or golfing North America’s oldest course. Visitors and locals would agree it’s a town that merits careful planning to preserve those elements which make Niagara-On- The-Lake special. Mrs. Disero has hardly left the town in the past five years. She claims she likes “short vacations” where she can “leave in the middle of the night, spend three days away, take a look and let’s come back,” It is obvious her heart has been captured by the place, possibly for the wide blue river and the ancient trees or is it the ghost stories, the local brew and the English-style pubs? Or possibly the town’s history? In its time, Niagara-onthe- Lake played a significant role in the establishment of many of the province’s most enduring institutions including: first capital of Ontario, first parliament, first anti-slavery legislation was passed, first library in Ontario, birthplace of the Law THE LORD MAYOR OF CANADA’S FRIENDLIEST TOWN: MEET BETTY DISERO By Victoria Gilbert Photo courtesy of Victoria Gilbert Society of Upper Canada, first newspaper in the province and first historical museum. “The very first time I went to Rome; they live, walk and breathe among history.
It’s older than ours, but in our own way, we did things here that created the history of our country,” Disero says with pride. “You walk through Rome, you get goosebumps. We should be doing that here because we are so historically significant to our country.” The Old Town of Niagara-On-The- Lake was first recognized in 1986 when it was designated as a provincial heritage conservation district and with many national historic sites including Fort George, Brock’s Monument (1856), Willowbank (1835), Fort Mississauga and Butler’s Barracks (post-1815), and Queenston Heights (War of 1812 battle site) as well as historic properties such as McFarland House (1800), Mackenzie Printery, of William Lyon Mackenzie, Queenston Chapel (1862), and the Laura Secord Homestead (1803-1835). Recently Niagara-On-The-Lake was voted as Canada’s Friendliest Town on expedia.ca’s annual survey. “It’s quaint, it’s friendly, and maybe it’s just because it’s so different from my own life,” says Disero. “We have a Christmas Parade and we have Christmas music on the street, the Wine Festival, everybody comes and volunteers and no one is pushed aside. Everybody pitches in. We are one community. That is what I love about Niagara-On-The- Lake and why I want to try to do whatever I can to keep it that way.