GEORGETOWN, PEI – It wasn’t, perhaps, surprising that amalgamation emerged as a key focus of discussion at the Georgetown 2.0 conference.
The gathering, held at the PEI community of the same name, aims to be a platform for community engagement and a tool to aid leaders in growing rural communities, came just days after a divisive and much-observed amalgamation plebiscite held in Pictou County.
The plebiscite ultimately failed, but in its aftermath, many are discussing the merits – or failings – of amalgamation.
Some eight people tackled the matter at a breakout session that featured a resident of southern PEI – an area also pondering amalgamation – as well as a resident of a rural community west of Fredericton.
Pictou County resident Susan MacConnell supported amalgamation in her community and felt the move would have benefitted business and people alike.
However, she explained that many felt the process would benefit some, to the loss of others: an inherent belief that if one group gained from amalgamation, another had to lose. In essence, she said, there was an unspoken belief that win-win, benefit-all paths do not exist.
“I don’t know if there’s any logical reason for that,” she said.
She, like others at the conference, expressed frustration with an underlying lack of co-operation between residents of unincorporated areas, and those who live in towns or villages – as well as a lack of co-operation between municipalities.
Amalgamation, she said, would surely help that.
Geoff Alvers, from Kelly Creek, N.B., west of Fredericton, is fully aware of a push to amalgamate – one growing less subtle over time – coming from the province.
That province’s now-aging Finn Report, delivered in 2008, recommended elimination of a vast number of the New Brunswick towns and villages.
Since then, there has been a lingering concern about amalgamation.
Alvers said that as a result of conversations he’s had with other civic leaders at the conference, he now believes amalgamation isn’t wise.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he said.
He described how some of the local service districts – unincorporated rural areas – west of Fredericton are coming together to prepare for possible change depending on what N.B. Power does with the Mactaquac dam, which is a key issue for that part of the province.
Rural residents in his region of New Brunswick are engaged in decision making “up and down the (Saint John) river … they are working on it, all together.”
And that, he said, is more important than the existence of a formal structure.
Then again, said Alvers, there may be benefit in amalgamation – or, more accurately, for unincorporated areas to form a municipal government structure.
“Unless we are a rural, incorporated area, we will not have a voice,” he said.
Paul Bennett, of Halifax, has another perspective: residents of rural Maritime communities shouldn’t talk amalgamation until municipal government structures change.
“I try to separate the amalgamation of services to support better lives for people from local democratic voices,” he said.
“Can we do both by re-organizing our structures to provide more effective social services without depriving people of their democratic voice?”
The current municipal systems, he said, aren’t effective and efficient.
“We haven’t got it right,” he said, noting amalgamation has “always been posed as two things in opposition, instead of ‘we need to improve government services, and, at the same time, provide local democratic voice’.”
He said a key concern raised in amalgamation discussions is that it will put further distance between people and their municipal representatives.
“It’s about time we started hearing proposals which package integrated services while allowing local democracy to flourish.”
He also questioned why people had little opposition to health and school boards, but expressed fervent resistance to changing municipal government.
MacConnell said Pictou County needs time “to heal,” because to some, a process aimed at bringing the community together has, in fact, done the opposite.
Yet, she said, there’s an interesting irony: when those in the region are in need, people from across Pictou County invariably come together, without heeding the borders that define communities.
“They would step up and help a neighbour, no matter what, and it wouldn’t matter where anybody lived,” she said.
It’s that attitude, she said, that will serve as the foundation for better inter-regional co-operation in the future.