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Algonquin mayor enjoys lifetime of public service

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OTTAWA - Of the three pins Larry McDermott wears on the lapel of his suit
jacket, it's the multi-colored medicine wheel that's the most noticeable.

These ornaments are placed in descending order of importance and the Makaw
eagle feather, surrounded by four colors, catches the eye immediately.
Below that circle, two other pins indicate a geographical loyalty to the
county and the township he serves.

The medicine wheel, McDermott explained, represents and unifies the four
cardinal races of people. That solidarity is a principle he holds
steadfastly when assisting the public.

"My Algonquin teachings and culture is what guides me in service, whether
it's local, national or international," said McDermott.

Now in his 27th year of service on his town's council, McDermott has been
the mayor of Lanark Highlands, a municipality of 5,000, since 1997. This
rural setting is cottage country for those living in Canada's capital of
Ottawa 50 miles to the east, while the local economy is based upon
agriculture, including a thriving maple syrup industry.

Amidst this natural splendor, there are some disadvantages to living in
eastern Ontario, including an isolated population. In 1998 two natural
disasters - a flood and an ice storm - caused significant financial losses
and hardship. Under McDermott's mayoral guidance, a strategic action plan
for the town was created from community forums, some held in people's
homes. These "kitchen meetings" have since evolved to include health,
economic and social priorities as determined by residents and are used to
discuss issues with local authorities.

"Where this comes from is my cultural teachings of inclusiveness and
involvement and the responsibility of each individual citizen to the
collective whole," McDermott noted.

The success of this program was highlighted at a 2002 Pan American Health
Organization conference in Chile, which McDermott attended as a
representative of North American mayors. The theme of the gathering was
"Mayors' Guide for Promoting Quality of Life." McDermott mentioned there
was a holistic approach toward combating environmental problems, including
waste management and land use.

These are not quick-fix solutions; and even after three years since the
South American meeting, McDermott said ideas are just starting to take form
in some areas where environmental issues are not a prime focus. Still, if
other cities wish to base their ideas on Lanark Highlands' accomplishments,
they're welcome to do so.

"The money for infrastructure has to have a 'green' focus and has to come
from long-term sustainable community planning," the mayor said. "Some of
this work is coming to fruition and the greatest form of flattery is when
they adopt this view as their own."

His longevity at the municipal level has given McDermott credibility among
his contemporaries throughout Canada. At a recent annual meeting of the
Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) held in Ottawa in December,
McDermott was one of 78 delegates representing more than 1,000 cities
across the country.

As an executive member, he's been the chair of the rural forum for the last
four years in voicing the concerns of towns under 10,000 in population.
Additionally, he's part of the National Revenue Sharing Task Force that
will oversee how taxes collected at the gasoline pump will be divided
equitably from Ottawa to the local level.

McDermott readily admits it's unusual to have Aboriginal representation on
the FCM, except for those towns in Canada's Far North where either First
Nations or Inuit almost exclusively make up the population. Between his
indigenous ethnicity and rural background, his perspective lends itself to
an agenda of environmental protectionism.

"My teachings are to honor all relations and all living things so
sustainability and environmental stewardship are an intractable part of my
world view," McDermott said.

Even before entering municipal politics McDermott desired to serve others,
especially other indigenous communities. As founder and executive director
of Plenty Canada, a charitable organization that has continued in Lanark
Highlands since 1976, this NGO has embarked on dozens of projects worldwide
with the goal of assisting local populations in sustaining themselves with
the basic necessities of life.

One of the more ambitious projects undertaken by Plenty Canada was the 1991
resettlement of 50,000 members of the Moskito tribe in Nicaragua in just a
matter of days. Years of civil war resulted in the devastation of the
lifestyle and economy of this indigenous people, as both the left-wing
Sandinistas and the right-wing Contras were guilty of numerous atrocities.

McDermott organized and witnessed first hand a massive movement of this
community that had not been on its traditional territory for a decade. A
predominantly agrarian society, the Moskitos endured having their orchards
ruined, farming lands scathed and the rebuilt infrastructure shattered.

Better than other NGOs, it was Plenty Canada that was at the forefront of
returning these refugees. McDermott is reluctant to take credit, instead
dispersing the accolades among the locals themselves.

"The tremendous strength of the Moskito people made it easy for us to
mobilize food, water, medical supplies and technical support," said
McDermott.

Locally, in McDermott's backyard with the Sharbot Lake Algonquin First
Nation, Plenty Canada has promoted a habitat regeneration project that
includes restocking wild rice beds and traditional medicinal plants.

"It addresses the issue of bioinventions and what's being threatened by
development or climate changes in order to develop strategies for
protection."

For all of the achievements McDermott has accomplished in the assistance of
others, he hasn't forgotten his own people.

Currently McDermott is involved in land claims for the Algonquin that
encompass 8.9 million acres in eastern Ontario, or about 14,000 square
miles, overlapping all of the nation's capital. While he said negotiations
would only involve Crown (public) lands and not private property, the
enormity of such a claim demonstrates how this area was never negotiated
originally.

"The development of something as powerful as the Parliament Buildings ...
underscores the fact it is Algonquin territory and there's a need to
resolve this on a nation-to-nation basis," McDermott said.

An avid hunter who can live off the land, McDermott often finds an inner
strength when he retreats to his heritage.

He admits he is more comfortable in clothes other than a shirt and tie, and
that's why he looks forward to deer season in late autumn. In an effort to
exercise his Native hunting rights, there have been times when he's taken
several days off from his mayoral duties just to get away from city life -
a concept he doesn't regret.

"For me it's important to put away my laptop and cell phone and to take the
time to pray to my Creator," he said. "To honor my traditions, spend time
in the sweat lodge and to feast and fast is my source of strength and if I
didn't do that, I'd be an empty shell pretending to know what I'm doing."