Separatism, Nova Scotia style.
by Don Cayo


Nova Scotians were Canada’s original separatists. Way back in 1867, with the ink barely dry on the deal to create Canada, old Joe Howe was already changing his tune. He turned his considerable powers of oratory and persuasion to trying to undo the deal he had helped to forge.

Quite a number of folks down here agreed with him at the time. And now some of their descendents are at it again.

We hear a new and growing clamour from those who want to get out from under the thumb of the big, expensive, out-of-touch, central government. They figure they’d be better off on their own.

But Lucien Bouchard won’t find many allies here. The big, bad bureaucracy that these people revile is not Ottawa, but Halifax.

And, oh boy, is it ever big. The Regional Municipality of Halifax has swallowed up the former city of Dartmouth and some sizeable bedroom communities — not to mention scores of square miles of rural land and several coastal villages. It now sprawls over nearly a tenth of Nova Scotia’s landmass.

The apartment where I live half-time is on what I used to consider the periphery of central Halifax. But in fact my pleasantly residential South End neighbourhood, near the tip of the Halifax Peninsula, is better described as on the fringe. The new geographic centre of the city is miles from my place, in a farmer’s field or a woodlot somewhere out in the pastoral Musquodobit Valley. Folks living out there have about as much in common, when it comes to city services at least, as people in Winnipeg or Regina share with the farm families living outside of Moosemin.

If you think it makes no sense to amalgamate such disparate communities, you’ve got that right. The official rationale is to save administrative money, but all the fledgling Regional Municipality council has managed to do so far is to spend more and more and more. Once-moderate taxes, especially for rural dwellers, are heading up, up, up.

It’s the same all over the region. Saint John, the city next door to my other home in the semi-pastoral Kennebecasis Valley, is just 74,000 strong in population, but it’s huge in land area. We’ve just been through a huge amalgamation fight. The upshot was an uneasy compromise that allows Saint John to get quite a bit bigger but not, thank heaven, big enough to take in my home. For years I’ve seen people on the outskirts of the city pay high taxes for crummy services, and I and my neighbours want no part of that.

In Prince Edward Island, where I used to live, a lot of people on the fringes of Charlottetown weren’t so lucky. Their charming little communities have been swallowed up by the capital city. And their taxes have soared.

The same kind of mindless growth is happening with school and hospital administrations. New Brunswick went so far as to eliminate school boards, consolidating power in the Department of Education and dispersing influence to three levels – local, district and provincial – of elected parent committees.

Nova Scotia just made its school boards bigger – much bigger. An octogenarian retiree tells me about how he used to meet half of his local school trustees some days as he’d go about errands in the small town where he lived and taught. Today, he’d have to drive more distance than he’d cover in a trip to Toronto if he were to visit every member of the board that decides the fate of schools in his community – and every other community in a broad swath across northern Nova Scotia.

The upshot is bigger and nicer school buildings, to be sure. But community life is being eroded as small schools close. Costs are spiraling out of control. Kids are spending hours on buses. And a lot of people say our young people aren’t being educated as well as they used to be. So no wonder people are fed up.

Grand big hospitals, the product of the same kind of process, are sinking deeper and deeper into debt throughout the region, and I don’t know of any local groups who have any specific plans to try to wrest back a modicum of control.

But plenty of people are trying to get education decisions back in local hands. One group of parents – neither the first nor, I suspect, the last – is currently occupying a school fated for closure in Cape Breton. And groups that are investigating and promoting charter schools are springing up all over.

Where will it all end? My guess is with smaller school and hospital administrations, and smaller municipalities. Not far, in short, from where we were before this round of bureaucratically driven merger mania took hold, but tens of millions of dollars poorer, and maybe – just maybe – a little wiser.