Resistance To Change

Sometimes patients don’t like the taste of the right medicine.

In 1995, Premier John Savage dictated that Sydney and six adjacent towns—together with the Municipality of the County of Cape Breton—should be merged into one unit, the Cape Breton Regional Municipality (CBRM).

It was not a good time for Cape Breton. CBRM had already lost 15% of its population peak in 1961, and there was no sign of the trend improving. The coal mines were winding down and Sydney Steel would do likewise in 2001. Some of the towns were in fiscal distress.

Over the long history of the region, strong rivalries had developed between Glace Bay, New Waterford, Dominion, Sydney Mines, and the others. The notion that the citizens would voluntarily vote for amalgamation was laughable. Asking the many mayors and councillors to lead the charge would have been like asking turkeys to vote for Thanksgiving.

The existing municipal units were not sustainable as population was shrinking-it is now less than 100,000. In the absence of action by the provincial government, it would have been a very long process before they yielded to the inevitable. The Savage government made the right choice, but did not earn any political points by forcing the issue.

The next year Savage imposed the same choice on the city of Halifax, Dartmouth, Bedford, and the County of Halifax. They were not in the same financial difficulty as the towns in Cape Breton, but there was lots of unproductive competition for economic activity, and jealousy when one unit received something from the province while the others did not.

Each had its own ideas about zoning, construction, and economic development. Bus services were separate and poorly coordinated. It is unlikely that voters, if asked, would have voted in favour of amalgamation.

Many of the opportunities for cost savings were lost in the transition, and it is arguable that the very rural areas on the Eastern Shore could have been left out. Nevertheless, the amalgamated city of Halifax is much better off today as a result of that change.

Even with it, Halifax is only the 14th largest city in Canada—barely qualifying to attend meetings of big city mayors. Globally, there are more than 300 cities whose populations exceed Nova Scotia’s.

For these efforts—and some of his anti-patronage policies—Dr. Savage became widely disliked within his own party, and fared poorly in the polls. Having been elected Premier in 1993, he resigned in 1997. History has been more kind, recognizing the wisdom of some of his tough choices.

Nova Scotia still has far too many municipalities, some with populations of fewer than 1,000. One of the most important recommendations of the Ivany Commission concerns reforming municipal government structures. There has been considerable effort by citizen groups, but little progress.

Kings County and its towns and villages have more than 60 elected representatives for a population of about 60,000 people. For three years, a citizens’ coalition has been promoting the notion of a study to determine the benefits of a change in governance. Various councils have been willing to look supportive until it looked like it might actually happen, in which case they discovered reservations.

The town of Windsor wants to amalgamate with the Municipality of West Hants, but the latter is reluctant to enter into discussions, arguing that it is still struggling with the year old process of absorbing the Town of Hantsport (population 1,100).

Most discouraging is Pictou County, where the Municipality of the County of Pictou and the Towns of Stellarton, New Glasgow, and Pictou held a referendum on May 28th about amalgamation with most of the elected representatives being supportive. But, in the plebiscite, the voters who were in favour were outnumbered two to one by those opposed.

The provincial government has been a supportive partner (the opposition parties did not take a position) and promised $15 million of taxpayer money as an incentive.

But the government did not risk any political capital—such as insisting that municipalities cooperate more or requiring those in deteriorating circumstances to act.

The towns of Hantsport, Springhill, Bridgetown, and Canso deteriorated to the point that they just gave up and were absorbed into their county`s governance structure.

Will we have to wait for others to finally yield to the problems of failing infrastructure and dwindling tax base before change can happen? Or can they follow the example of Liverpool and Queens County, which came together without incident and with no loss of Liverpool`s sense of identity?

For Nova Scotia to be more than a hollow shell surrounding Halifax, we need East Hants, Kings County, Pictou County, and others to be strong, visible, and attractive opportunities for businesses. It does no good for their residents or the province as a whole for their many representatives to be a quarrelling band of minor chieftains.

The government was involved but not committed. It may feel that it is escaping a political minefield. It is also failing to take the steps identified by Ivany as necessary for a prosperous future in the counties of Nova Scotia.


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