CODE COVID: What the pandemic has taught us about long-term care
SaltWire Selects: Stories you don't want to miss
What you need to know about COVID-19 today
Continuing coverage: Mass shooting in Nova Scotia
Business Tool Kit 2021
Have you heard about the SaltWire News app?
Daily forecasts and weather facts from Cindy Day
The Heroes of 2020
It’s time for a Cape Breton Island Assembly.
Why a Cape Breton Island Assembly?
First purpose: Provide a focused voice. The assembly chair would formally (and sometimes forcefully) represent Cape Breton on matters where Cape Breton’s municipal and Mi’kmaw governments determine that they are in agreement and have a common interest.
Second purpose: broker common development and infrastructure projects.
Third purpose: start to gradually reduce our sense of dependency and powerlessness in the face of remote-control, arbitrary and often detached decisions taken in Halifax and Ottawa.
I am not talking about separation. I am not talking about a whole new tier of government. But I am talking about a step to some self-determination.
The structure would be simple; it wouldn’t even need provincial legislation. Each municipality on the island would simply agree to send two members, for a total of 10. Each Mi’kmaw community in Unama’ki (Cape Breton) would hopefully agree to send two members, for a total of 10.
That gives us 20. In addition, Cape Breton University (CBU) would send two members. Thus, the island assembly would have 22 members, plus a chair. More on the chair in a moment.
The assembly would not just be a conference or event. It would be an actual body.
The selection or recruitment process for a council’s two representatives would be up to each council.
Why would CBU be part of it? It’s one of the few remaining regional self-governing entities, now that school boards, health authorities, child welfare authorities and most economic development functions have been centralized in Halifax.
The Cape Breton Island Assembly could be launched as a CBU applied research (pilot) project. If such an experiment goes ahead, I would like to see us secure some research funds to provide the island assembly with a small secretariat and a dedicated research team. Faculty members could assist pro bono with start-up and facilitation. Student placements could be tied into assisting the assembly.
The Cape Breton Island Assembly would need no other administration, at least not for the first while. Residents would not be charged a tax or levy for their community to be part of the assembly.
The Island Assembly’s advocacy positions would be taken by consensus. Decisions on shared projects would also be made by general agreement. There would be no risk of the assembly overriding local communities. It would focus on shared concerns or on brokering projects where the communities might wish to work together. On subjects where communities disagree with each other, the assembly would not waste time.
The assembly would pick its own chair, a very crucial selection. It could be any Cape Bretoner with exceptional qualifications. The chair would have to be an extremely smart negotiator, eloquent communicator and trusted, non-partisan facilitator.
The assembly chair would be much more than the head of a business group or another advocacy coalition. The chair of the Cape Breton Island Assembly would be seen as an official political leader, an acknowledged voice for Cape Breton.
It could be possible in the future (not immediately) for communities to agree to voluntarily upload some functions or services to the assembly. Something similar happened over time with a rather flexible body covering the area around Vancouver.
OUT OF TOUCH
And it would be possible, over time, for the provincial or federal governments to delegate functions (and funding) to the assembly, rather than trying to control Cape Breton from afar. I could imagine the assembly eventually overseeing a health authority for Cape Breton and an education authority for Cape Breton.
Recent media interviews by the candidates for the Nova Scotia Liberal leadership reveal to me, yet again, how distant and remote Cape Breton is for the people who make significant decisions for us. After years in government, they’ve barely focused their thoughts on Cape Breton’s challenges and its distinctive sense of place and identity.
A Cape Breton Island Assembly would be an incremental, achievable step. To repeat, it’s not separation. But it’s consistent with Moses Coady’s vision from almost a century ago: “Masters of our own destiny.”
The municipalities, First Nation communities and CBU could agree among themselves to set it up, without waiting for the province. It could be done this year.
Dr. Tom Urbaniak is a professor of political science and director of the Tompkins Institute at Cape Breton University. His books include Dignity, Democracy, Development: A Citizen’s Reader.