About eight years have passed since I wrote my first column in the Cape Breton Post about a charter for the Cape Breton Regional Municipality (CBRM). A friend of mine — the late Councillor Ray Paruch — had asked me to provide some background to a charter for council to consider. He and Steve Gillespie wanted to see some movement on this matter.
Suffice to say that the issue has gone nowhere fast since that time, perhaps because the initiative would have to be coordinated both by the province and our municipal government.
But in order for that to happen the council would have to know what it wants the charter to contain before being submitted to the provincial legislature for approval. Councillors need to consider what would empower local communities and how to word the charter to clarify its authority in matters of self-government. That would require formal consultation with the province and debate within the council itself.
For the consultations to have credibility, they would have to include local Mi'kmaq leadership, seniors and youth. We are not an uncomplicated municipality.
Unlike other municipalities, the CBRM is more regional than urban, requiring local government to be more representative of distinctive communities and populations. While Sydney residents might think of themselves as living in a "city", most CBRM residents live in towns and rural communities with different lifestyles and service expectations.
Under its current structure (in the absence of a charter), the CBRM faces insurmountable challenges regarding economic development, municipal funding and the range of authority needed to make effective relevant local decisions. A charter is a formal contract between the province and the municipality that ultimately addresses specific powers and duties for operating a municipal unit. It would clarify the decision-making capacity of the CBRM to achieve sustainability and self-direction. A charter will inevitably enable CBRM council to address the fairness of provincial funding entitlements.
The charter should have the widest possible range/perspective and avoid representing just one community (i.e., referring to itself as the "Sydney charter” as has been suggested) within the CBRM family. But the charter should be tailored to meet the unique character of the municipality itself, perhaps in regards to geography, location and population characteristics.
It is a legal platform from which we can project our identity within the galaxy of municipalities in Nova Scotia. So far Halifax is the only municipality in Nova Scotia to have a charter. It’s a complex document that designates Halifax as the provincial capital and confirms its jurisdiction to provide the services of a capital city. No one should doubt that advantages have flowed to the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM), the self-proclaimed “smart city."
Councillors need to consider what would empower local communities and how to word the charter to clarify its authority in matters of self-government.
Halifax gets the lion's share of development and investment monies in Nova Scotia. The provincial government considers Halifax first, especially in matters related to the role of government and major construction initiatives. It draws economic advantage from the rest of the province and at the expense of most other municipalities. Its population grows insidiously from the out-growth of other communities. Its universities feed the bulwark of expertise centred in the capital and available for use by proxy.
Over the years successive provincial governments have ignored calls to review funding formulae to municipalities in Nova Scotia. It’s not just one or two communities complaining about funding fairness. The Towns Taskforce, Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities and Regional Development Authorities have raised flags about funding fairness to serve businesses and residents. The CBRM is the only urban area in all of Canada losing its people and experiencing sustained economic decline with a 20 per cent unemployment rate.
Citizens in the CBRM experience the highest residential and commercial tax rates, chronic population decline and diminished service delivery. On top of this, the CBRM must confront the crushing costs of conforming with provincial and federal standards on infrastructure.
Of course, all of this will depend on a cooperative provincial government, willing to transfer authority to the second largest community in the province. The provincial government claims sovereignty over every public dollar. Most of the annual federal equalization transfer (estimated $1.9 billion) finds its way back into the HRM. Barely one per cent of that amount comes to the CBRM which should be used to provide reasonably comparable levels of public services at reasonable levels of taxation.
The CBRM is not reasonably comparable in taxes and services. Municipal services provided by the CBRM are measurably inferior and more costly to residents in the CBRM than in the HRM. Premier Stephen McNeil kept a tight lid on funding to municipalities. His looming departure as premier opens the possibility that a new Liberal leader would take a different approach to municipalities in the province.
The next leader might see the advantages of enabling rural municipalities to prosper and contribute more to the provincial economy. That would mean opening funding opportunities to grow smaller communities across the province and give Nova Scotia a more representative and inclusive character outside of Halifax.
It remains to be seen who eventually comes to lead the province. What is certain is that a charter will give the CBRM more direction and confidence to direct itself in a changing provincial environment.
Dr. Jim Guy is an author and professor emeritus of political science at Cape Breton University.