Researchers call for new vision on local governance
Kelly Vodden — Submitted photo
A new report on a six-year study led by researchers from Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN) waves a big, red flag over a collection of provincial and federal government budget cuts.
Among the targets are the consolidation of provincial school boards, changes to employment assistance services and cuts to the province’s regional economic development boards (REDBs).
The more than 200-page study — “Understanding regional governance in Newfoundland and Labrador” — is available online through the Leslie Harris Centre of Regional Policy and Development.
It summarizes six years of research meant, “to better understand the interdependencies between urban and rural communities and labour markets.”
The study details the recent history, reach and activities of government and non-government organizations active in the province. It looks at everything from the regional tourism organizations to chambers of commerce.
It concludes there is room for improvement in integrating the work of governments, not-for-profit organizations and individuals.
“(Current) lack of integration not only creates siloes but also contributes to the complex layering and maze of regions and organizational structures and processes across the province,” it states.
A co-author of the study and associate professor of geography at MUN, Kelly Vodden said the hope is the study will prompt discussion on rural development and the all-important difference between government and local governance.
“Governance is not just about local people helping to do their job, but also about having a say on what should be done and how it should be done,” she said.
The report with written with Heather Hall, tapping David Freshwater and the resources of the Canadian Rural Revitalization Foundation. The work was funded through the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Labour Market Development Agreement, with contributions through Service Canada and the provincial Department of Human Resources, Labour and Employment (now Advanced Education and Skills).
The provincial economic development boards were reviewed as part of the study, just as the boards were being hit hard with the announcement of federal and provincial funding cuts. In May, the federal government officially pulled 75 per cent of the boards' annual core funding. The province followed suit, cutting the other 25 per cent.
“This withdrawal of funding has led to the demise of nearly all the REDBs across Newfoundland and Labrador. It has also produced a large institutional void in regional economic governance across the province,” states the Harris Centre report.
Changes to employment assistance service offices within the province were also addressed.
The provincial Department of Advanced Education and Skills announced in March it would no longer tap “third-party service providers” to offer employment services in the province, instead using existing government offices.
According to Minister Joan Shea, the move would not negatively affect provision of employment services.
“Throughout this report, labour market challenges were constantly cited as a challenge across the province that requires more, rather than less, local capacity,” countered the report’s authors.
On the consolidation of provincial school boards: “... some of the challenges identified by school board representatives were the huge geography of some districts and the equitable distribution of resources. This board reduction will do little to solve these issues and will in fact serve to accentuate these concerns.”
Vodden said her thinking is the cuts over the last two years suggest a “retreat from rural,” contributing to a centralization of decision-making.
“It’s not just about the effectiveness of the decisions (being made) and the implementation of the decisions, but it’s also just about the opportunity and the right for people to have a say in the decisions that affect them — through more than simply their vote,” Vodden said.
Meanwhile, new forms of local government are already being conceived by Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador (MNL).
The organization contributed to the multi-year university-led study of governance, but also has staff developing suggestions for ways local government might be re-organized to better serve communities — particularly struggling rural communities.
Churence Rodgers, president of MNL said when his membership was polled, 74.3 per cent of respondents favoured considering some form of regional government. Among those in favour, the majority leaned toward a two-tier system, such as something akin to the county system in Nova Scotia.
“It’s something that the province has to consider because they’re the ones that have the power and control over this. If the province decides there’s no regional government, it’s not going to happen,” he said.