When voters in Port Colborne head to the polls next month, they’ll have two choices for mayor: Bill Steele, the incumbent — or Charles Steele, who says he hasn’t spoken to his kid brother in about three decades.
“I’m running because I believe in democracy,” the elder Steele, 67, said. “I’m against silver spoon rich people getting into power … I’m out for the little guy.”
If I didn’t run, Charles said, then Bill would have been acclaimed, which means he would automatically remain mayor. It’s not a rare occurrence. In 2018, 477 candidates for municipal office in Ontario were elected by acclamation because no one ran against them.
For Bill, the Oct. 24 election in this town of 18,000 on Lake Erie is like any other. “We’re just going to run a campaign like we always have,” he said, later adding, “I don’t talk about competition, so I won’t. Let’s talk about getting Bill Steele re-elected.”
Charles, who usually goes by his middle name, David, is a retired mailman. When asked about the lengthy lapse in communication with his sibling, Charles likened he and his brother to oil and water: “They just don’t mix.”
Bill, 60, avoided talking about his older brother, but he does take issue with his decision to run using his first name, one Charles shares with their late father.
“Everybody keeps calling him Charles,” Bill said. “He’s known as David. He grew up as David. Why he’s using Charles, I don’t know.”
People in Port Colborne seem to be confused, as well. “I don’t remember there being a Charles. Did Dave change his name?” reads a comment in one of the town’s local Facebook groups. (The race has become frequent fodder in the group.)
“Bill comes from a big family, and all families are complicated. I suppose the Steele family is no different,” said Port Colborne resident Todd Shoalts, who’s long known the family. He appreciates the recent attention on his hometown, including from the New York Post, but he wishes it was focused on the issues “rather than just the last names of the candidates.”
The Steele family has deep roots in Port Colborne. According to family lore, their Irish ancestors — in fact, it was two brothers — settled there as United Empire Loyalists during the American Revolution. The town has a street named after the Steeles (and a pub, as well). In 1898, the brothers’ great-great uncle established an insurance company, which Bill now helms.
When Charles turned 18, he headed to Toronto. He gave the insurance industry a shot, but it wasn’t for him. He soon joined Canada Post and ended up working in Vancouver for a stretch. Charles says he didn’t move back to Port Colborne until he was about 50.
Bill, meanwhile, followed in their father’s footsteps. He joined the family business when he was 20. Now he’s the sole owner.
During his four years as mayor, he’s strived to upgrade Port Colborne’s electric grid and water system, and make the town a popular destination for cruise ships with plans to develop a recreational and cultural centre on the waterfront. He described himself as a moderate who doesn’t believe government has all the answers.
Charles, on the other hand, doesn’t support the plan to develop the waterfront, arguing that the project will inevitably balloon in cost. He believes the city should instead focus on improving access to mental health resources, health care and affordable housing.
He accused his younger brother of being too cosy with real estate developers and not doing enough to support low-income residents struggling to find housing. Port Colborne doesn’t have its own homeless shelter, he noted.
That’s because there isn’t enough demand for one, according to Bill, who was elected mayor in 2018. He previously served as a city councillor from 1996 to 2014.
However, housing affordability is a priority, Bill said, noting the recent spike in rental costs across Southern Ontario. The city is currently working with Niagara Regional Housing and local developers to create more affordable homes, he added.
On Oct. 12, the two brothers will participate in the election’s only mayoral debate. It will be the first time they speak to each other in decades.
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