How We Got Amalgamated
20 years. Are we better off now than we were before? Who knows. The decision has never been reviewed, seriously studied, or accounted for. 20 years in and not one single analysis, investigation or question to assess if we're better off or not.
Those who even pose the question from time to time are shouted down by those people and interests in power most threatened by any rocking of our titanic boat of a city.
How did we get the city we got? How did we get a $300k p.a. civil servant and a traffic czar? A weak mayor system of government and strong sense that things are just not right?
I wasn’t paying attention to city government on April Fool’s Day in 1996. I had a new baby, a new house, a new big band, a new business and a brand new plan.
Halifax did too – Amalgamation.
We are citizens in an historically epic amalgamated city state. Over 5,500 square kilometres. It’s a 200km, three hour drive from Hubbards in the west to Ecum Secum in the East. Halifax is almost four times the size of New York City with its 8 million plus residents. In fact, if they were willing to camp out, the entire population of earth, 7 billion people, could easily tent in HRM.
I feel that in order to be a good citizen I have to go back and really understand how we got the amalgamated city we got. The revised edition of Raddall’s Warden of the North gives a thumbnail summary of clues.
I went on to read the Graham Royal Commission from 1974. That commission identified a clear problem:
“The municipalities are charged with paying for and helping to administer programmes that ought to be the responsibility of the province and over which they have very little control, either with respect to programmes or with respect to their financial contribution.”
Local government was not fiscally or administratively empowered to do the work it was being asked to do.
The report went on to cite the example of transportation and how the unclear division of power between the provincial and local governments was the source of bad policy and performance. Our Traffic Authority: the winter parking ban, the sign forests that litter our provincial roads and the silly talk this winter about why the Magazine Hill is not cleared properly during snow storms is ultimately a child of this.
A Royal Commission sounds awesome but it was shelved and that was that.
In 1992 the whole thing was reviewed and reinterpreted by a Taskforce on Local Government. It consisted of six provincial public servants,three senior staff members from three different municipalities, the executive director of the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities, and an accountant with a major accounting firm. There was no public consultation, no call for public input and no review process. It was the kind of committee that presupposed what it was intended to prove.
In late-1992 PC Premier Donald Cameron puppeted arbitrarily that amalgamations would go ahead in Halifax and Cape Breton. In 1993, he was replaced by Liberal Premier Dr. John Savage, who said on the campaign trail that amalgamation was “a crazy idea”. (As quoted in Kevin Cox, “Halifax-area leaders fuming over plan for supercity,” The Globe and Mail, 28 October 1994, A4)
By late-1994 Dr. Savage’s government sponsored a bill to amalgamate the Cape Breton region. The move avoided the bankruptcy of some cities and towns in industrial Cape Breton. And it went pretty smoothly.
What happened, and didn’t happen, next is really at the heart of the whole matter.
The key point is that there was no lobby, no titan of industry, visionary, no community leader, no interest group driving this process. No citizens, petitions, businesses, organizations, unions, parties or charities were asking for amalgamation or even anything like it. The ‘problem’, if there was one, was a creature of the government mind. Only after amalgamation was announced, the Halifax Board of Trade said it supported the initiative. There was no vote, plebiscite or referendum. In fact, a hastily organized plebiscite in the town of Bedford gave a result of 89% against forced amalgamation and sent its young Mayor, Peter Kelly, complaining about “more broken promises… and more lies” from government.
There was little or no public demand for amalgamation and there were many alternate courses of action.
The notion of an amalgamated city, an HRM, was created and driven completely by the bureaucrats themselves. The bureaucracy alone produced and then pushed the regionalist policy toward amalgamation.
This is what the political scientists would call state-centred policy-making… and it is not a good thing.
This was the Bureaucratic Singularity: the moment when our government-heavy province was taken over by its own Borg-like bureaucracy.
How it happened, through the brief Savage years, why and what it means to us today, and where we should go from here should be things we think and talk about.
Writing about life, citizenship, and Nova Scotia.