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  • Writer's pictureJohn Chisholm

How We Got Amalgamated

Updated: Sep 7, 2020

Wait a sec. Before you read this answer one question.

Where do you live?

Don't think of what you'd say to someone from somewhere else. Don't think of others opinions, or even your own. Just your feeling. Direct. Where do you live?

You may live in Waverley, Bedford, Dartmouth, Musquodoboit Harbour, Hubbards, Fall River. There's a good chance you have a very specific sense of where you live. Most people do. There's an old joke that no one lives in New York City. People live in neighbourhoods. Bedford-Stuyvesant, Alphabet City, Harlem, Rockaway Park, Williamsburg, Flatbush, and so on. We can't simply discount as trivial that everyone has a sense of where they live, or where they come from. It's important. It's the basic building block of human community. Most importantly, it should be the fundamental element of local government.

Wherever you feel you live I know this about it. It's a living place. It has a quality of community. To you, whatever its natural boundaries that define the patterns of your life, it is home.

The amalgamation by an act of the provincial government on April 1, 1996 created the Halifax Regional Municipality, Nova Scotia, Canada. It resulted in the regional municipality's current boundaries.

Picture: Flying over and past Halifax while flying in to Halifax.

It's actually the second amalgamation. The first was Halifax County. Wikipedia summaries the backstory. The current boundaries of Halifax County were established in 1908. Owing to the need for a more efficient county-wide government, the Municipality of the County of Halifax was incorporated in 1962, including all areas in the county outside of the cities of Halifax and Dartmouth. The City of Halifax gradually grew to occupy the entire Halifax Peninsula by the end of World War II. The late 1960s was a period of significant change and expansion of the city when surrounding areas of Halifax County were amalgamated into Halifax: Rockingham, Clayton Park, Fairview, Armdale, and Spryfield were all added in 1969.

The biggest change to Dartmouth came in 1955 when the Angus L. MacDonald Bridge opened, connecting Dartmouth to Halifax. Unprecedented suburban growth led In 1961 the communities of Woodlawn, Woodside and Westphal along with the area of the town of Dartmouth joined together to become the "City Of Dartmouth" the city was the third largest city in Nova Scotia, after Halifax and Sydney. The A. Murray MacKay Bridge opened in 1970, furthering growth and leading to the economic integration of what many were terming Nova Scotia's "twin cities".

Bedford was organized as an unincorporated rural community in 1921 and underwent rapid suburban growth during the post-war years. One of the largest unincorporated municipalities in Nova Scotia by the 1970s, Bedford incorporated as the Town of Bedford in 1980.

In 1993 Bill Hayward, a consultant, was hired by the government of premier Don Cameron to prepare a report on the potential savings resulting from the merger of municipalities in Halifax County and Cape Breton County. To make that clear, there was only one reason or rationale given for the second amalgamation of urban and rural, and all the various villages, towns and cities... it was a cost saving scheme by 'too clever' bureaucrats in the provincial government. No other real reason has ever been given. Worse, the 'cost savings' was strictly on the provincial books. It would be attained, they imagined, by downloading provincial expenses to the municipal level. To the tax paying citizen, it was simply a shell game. Total taxes did not go down. There was no savings. But was any other advantage gained?

24 years later. Are we better off now than we were before? There's no quantifiable evidence. The decision has never been reviewed, seriously studied, or accounted for. 24 years in and not one single analysis, investigation or question to assess if we're better off or not has been put.

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 a year 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.

The idea of amalgamation goes back to the 1970's. The reasoning is outlined in the Graham Royal Commission from 1974. (yes, the good old days when we could even get Royal Inquiries into accounting ideas.) 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 intense talkshow talk each 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.

Halifax HRM Amalgamation

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. Localism, the idea that the smallest and closest to the ground level of self-government is best being the main theme.

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.

You Don't Live in a big box, one-size-fits-all, amalgamated municipality created to juggle costs between bureaucratic units of government. You can't. It would feel awful.

The result is easier to see. The size, scale, scope, reach, and cost of government has ballooned any way you look at it. Amalgamation obscures where our taxes come from and where they go. Amalgamation obscures where our wealth comes from and where it goes at a moment in history where inequality has become too unfair and unbalanced for a healthy economy. The population, tax base, and industry has not grown at the scale of government. This ultimately is the bureaucratic prize. Public service jobs are now, by a wide margin the best, safest, easiest, most well paid and well secured jobs in the community. Senior bureaucrats have more power and control than ever before. Far out of proportion with the scale of the city. Combined with a real estate class of developers and others working to back fill the outsized growth of government they run the city from a rarefied position of luxury few others could hope for.

So now we have growth, but without a corresponding increase in prosperity. We have the tall buildings and events that symbolize security and success but few of us feel secure or successful. Data shows most of us are just a paycheque away from financial disaster. The public assets that make our city our greatest asset are near ruins. Deferred maintenance not recorded on our city balance sheets belie water, sewer, road, power, parks, and public works in deep disrepair. Public places and the pleasant things that make the city great are constantly being given away to land speculators in wild schemes. Whole downtown streets, sections of waterfront, and public forest acreage constantly converted to private commercial gain with no conceivable return.

Meanwhile, the level of agreement among citizens has never been higher. We all know exactly what a nice building looks like, a nice street, and nice neighborhood, and a nice town or village. And we all know exactly where we live. Yet, we are powerless to hold on to these things or build them new. Communities from Musquodoboit Harbour to Enfield, to Hubbards have local leaders and a clear vision of their hopes for their natural communities. Yet they are helpless to even have the power to decide what signage can go where. Government falls to the great labyrinth of amalgamated silos, the palaces of power where petty potentates rule with bureaucratic precision and technocrats tediously revel in one-size-fits all big box rule sets that require insane dedication to jargon to hold back natural communities from creating the kind of places they'd like to live.

This doesn't mean we don't collaborate and work together as we wish. We are a community of communities with many shared interests and values. There is a timeless and natural way of organizing. It's opposed to the imperialistic mega-region.

So what do we do? It turns out 'deamalgamation' is a thing. Google will show you it's happening more than you might expect. If the latest virus business has shown us anything it's that the affordability issue is always false. The truth is we're very rich and we can afford to do anything we choose to do. In another post I've written about sunk cost fallacy. The bottom line is if we've gone in the wrong direction we have to stop and turn around. There is no other way. There's no political answer. If you go in the wrong direction you must stop and turn around even if it's embarrassing and costly. Smart people do not hold on to their mistakes just because they cost a lot of money and we worked a long time making them. We change our mind and change direction.

#Halifax, #local, #politics, #amalgamation, #Municipal, #Election

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