Editor’s Note: Former Sydney Mayor Earle Tubrett submitted this article to the Cape Breton Post shortly before his death this summer at the age of 75. With permission from his family, we are happy to share it with our readers now. It has been edited for length.
Throughout Cape Breton one can detect a malaise – one generated by frustration, anger and resentment.
Serious medical issues around a doctor shortage and ER closures, a major new library project being stonewalled in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality (CBRM), environmental groups being ignored in their efforts to protect local interests, Nova Scotians for Equalization Fairness being dismissed and local councillors experiencing difficulties having their opinions heard all have combined to create a toxic environment against advancing the interests of Cape Bretoners.
This toxicity permeates the whole of Cape Breton - from New Waterford to Port Hawkesbury. For many residents a feeling is emerging that there must be a better way of doing things. For others, the wishful thought is that perhaps the Island could once again become an independent province.
The demise of Cape Breton as an independent colony in 1820 was affected by the actions of a small cadre of people referred to by historians as the “family compact.” A scan of the political landscape in Nova Scotia over the past few years makes one wonder whether we are witnessing the rise of a new family compact in the 21st Century, one where self-interest is once again overriding the common good.
Today the ties that bind this privileged group are people with political experience (i.e. ex-MPs, former senior civil servants, lobbyists and individuals with very deep pockets), a sense of noblesse oblige, and the ear of a sympathetic majority government. This clique crosses all party lines and uses its wealth and influence to govern and promote projects based on self-interest. When that self-interest affects others in a harmful way, it needs to be evaluated.
Presently the provincial cabinet has 17 members, 11 of whom are from Metro Halifax. Aligned with this executive council is an ex-premier, an ex-minister, some retiring MPs, a former deputy Minister of Tourism, a few lobbyists and some wealthy people. All together they constitute a very powerful decision-making group who believe that their way is not only best for them but also for the general population. Their attitudes about the proposed Inverness airport project and other issues of concern in the rest of Cape Breton, such as medical staffing and the new CBRM library, suggest that an evolution has taken place that may be more detrimental than beneficial.
A start date for this development might be the forced amalgamation of the Cape Breton region in 1995. It was a unilateral decision imposed by the Municipal Affairs Department without any meaningful consultation and now without the projected benefit of fiscal savings.
To this day the CBRM council is still working diligently to try to control its debt load and cope with its economic burdens. This was the government’s first blatant use of the tyranny of its majority.
The process continued with the abolition of local hospital boards in favor of the mega Nova Scotia Health Authority (NSHA). Consultation was not part of that process either. Projected savings and efficiencies have also not materialized. The most recent published reports show deficits of $35-40 million, while a trickle-down bureaucracy continues to try to impose its will on medical staffs. Frontline doctors want more doctors to be hired immediately while the Heath Authority continues to close medical facilities in New Waterford and North Sydney so residents of those communities must travel to the Regional Hospital in Sydney and elsewhere. For the NSHA, dissent is inconvenient. It expects that when they speak, you listen.
"When debating what was best for the people, party lines were crossed." — Earle Tubrett
Forced amalgamation in CBRM and the loss of local hospital boards was followed by the abolition of elected school boards, perhaps the most egregious example of a government using its tyranny of the majority after the fact. While seeking re-election, the current government failed to make clear its intent to remove elected people from the education team. They campaigned on the basis that there was a problem in education but didn’t state what that was, then proceeded after the election to use their majority – without notice – to abolish elected school boards. Their actions were those of an entitled group who, having secured power and position, believed themselves immune to counter positions.
And way in the background of all this is the automatic review of municipal boundaries by the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board to determine electoral representation. If there is a dip in the population of a rural area, its citizens will be forced by existing legislation to concede their right to local representation to a non-elected, government-appointed board. Should the new government-compact continue to promote economic policies favouring one area only, the certain result will be the loss of rural life in this province.
While Halifax is and should remain the engine that drives the Nova Scotia economy, it is imperative that other areas outside metro receive economic encouragement so local communities survive. Poor investment decisions and the failure to achieve province-wide balance will result in a decline in rural populations. That decline may well result in citizens losing ownership of their own communities.
So what’s to be done? When Senator Dan Christmas spoke recently about an independent province of Cape Breton, that sentiment went viral. But he is not the first to consider this an option.
In the 1970s, the Cape Breton County Joint Expenditure Board existed to fund those projects being shifted from the province to local municipalities. Jointex was the precursor to CBRM and was made up of elected officials from the County of Cape Breton, New Waterford, Glace Bay, Louisbourg, Dominion, North Sydney, Sydney Mines and the City of Sydney. When the executive committee of Jointex became frustrated with the delayed funding procedures and paperwork being imposed by the regime in Halifax, their frustration led them to question whether Cape Breton would be better served once again as a separate province. This was before the advent of social media, but the story went national, being covered on radio, television and in newspapers. The spokesperson for that event was Glace Bay’s very competent and articulate mayor, Dan Munroe.
It was the consensus after that turmoil died down that the attitude in Halifax had shifted dramatically in Jointex’s favour as a result of discussions concerning independence. When the issue is one of fairness and equality, make no mistake: while the members of Jointex supported various political parties and argued often and strenuously amongst themselves about the rates to be paid by the taxpayers in the various municipalities, all lines were subjected to the greater good. When debating what was best for the people, party lines were crossed. Partisans know where they are philosophically, but sometimes they find that their conscience dictates otherwise.
Elected officials hold office for one of two reasons: to work toward improving the lives of their constituents or to maintain the office they hold. These objectives are not mutually exclusive, but it is obvious when one dominates the other. Becoming a separate province is not really an option for Cape Breton but taking a lesson from Quebec politicians may very well be. Partisan politics in Quebec is as vicious as anywhere but when the issue concerns the greater good of Quebec, the province always puts people before party. They vote together as a bloc.
Should the MLAs from the six eastern counties of Nova Scotia decide that they will respond as a group, there might be some hope that the current malaise will be put aside, the government-compact will be stopped, and a meaningful dialogue can replace the current majority’s tyranny. Their bloc position may not change anything, but their constant and reasonable opposition will demonstrate that all is not right.
If those who are working to counter the government-compact do not give up trying, and if our elected officials – local, provincial, and federal – all get on the same page, then Cape Breton will prosper. But for now, we can only wait and hope.
Earle Tubrett served as mayor of Sydney from 1972 to 1978. He died in August at the age 75.