Provincial cabinet ministers fielded angry questions from municipal councillors yesterday during a bearpit session at the annual conference of the Nova Scotia Federation of Municipalities.
Councillor Mike Gunn from Annapolis county noted that volunteer firefighters in his area had been called on 200 times in the past year to respond to accidents and emergencies that rightfully should be the job of trained paramedics paid by Emergency Medical Care.
Asked what the government intends to do about the growing demands placed on first responders to respond to 911 calls when paramedics are unavailable, Housing & Municipal Affairs Minister John Lohr said “we are working hard to bolster our paramedic service.”
In fact the province has been bleeding paramedics to jurisdictions such as Ontario, which pays $10 an hour more, or the paramedics are simply quitting the field altogether.
The last contract with paramedics expired 10 days ago, and in October paramedics voted to reject a tentative agreement reached between union leaders (International Union of Operating Engineers) and the employer. Negotiations have not resumed and paramedics continue to wait hours to offload patients at major hospital Emergency Departments.
Housing is also a major concern for most of the 49 municipalities, many of which are growing and want the province’s help to hire more planners and engineers.
Patti Cuttell, the councillor who represents the Spryfield-Sambro-Prospect area of HRM, voiced her concerns about a new law (Bill 329 passed yesterday during the last day of the fall sitting) which gives Lohr the power to override HRM and make decisions about where and how fast new housing gets built.
Cuttell is an urban planner by profession. She challenged a statement made by Lohr suggesting special powers are needed to deal with not-in-my-backyard sentiments from residents who oppose future development. Cuttell is also worried about what could be a provincial end-run around the municipal planning process. Said Cuttell:
My concern is by dismissing people as NIMBY we risk missing some important information we would get through a public consultation process — information about the environment and about access and transportation. By bypassing these processes, we aren’t going to be building healthy sustainable communities.
One example: recently a provincially owned property was approved for a housing development in Herring Cove. I learned about this through the media and I was the one who informed the (HRM) planning department. So when I see decisions like that, I get concerned.
There wasn’t transparent process for how this group was selected to develop that property. This raises fear in the community and I want to know how you are going to guarantee that prior to approvals, the proper consultations take place.
Lohr offered little in the way of reassurance other than to say the province doesn’t intend to get involved ‘at the front-end” of projects over which municipalities have jurisdiction. Lohr:
We don’t have a solution for the NIMBY thing, we are looking for one… We do want to see public consultation be part of the future but only to a certain point. What we did see in public consultations was only a few voices were often heard and when there were multiple rounds of public consultations, it was usually the same voices being heard. So this is the reason why we have taken the steps we have and we realize it has been difficult for Halifax council.
It was only a few days ago Premier Tim Houston and other Canadian premiers meeting in Halifax lambasted the federal government for providing housing money directly to municipalities without first consulting the provinces. (Federal Housing Minister Sean Fraser politely rejected the request). Meanwhile, HRM accuses the provincial government of doing the same thing by choosing which housing developments go ahead before checking in with HRM planners and politicians.
According to Cuttell, last June the province made the land available to a non-profit group called the Spryfield Social Enterprise and Affordable Housing Society. The group was incorporated two years ago and one of its directors is Bruce Holland, the current executive director of the Spryfield Business Commission.
Holland ran for HRM Council and narrowly lost to Cuttell following a recount. In 2019 Holland ran in the federal election for the Conservative party and in 2017 he finished fourth as the Progressive Conservative candidate in Halifax Atlantic. In a previous political life, Holland served as the Liberal MLA for Timberlea-Prospect from 1993-1998.
Cuttell says the Spryfield-Sambro area is home to other housing providers such as YWCA, Shelter NS, and Habitat For Humanity, which the province should have included before quietly handing over provincial land to a relatively inexperienced group.
While municipal councillors were told the province is moving with “urgency” to address the housing shortage, the same cannot be said for regulations governing building next to the coastline.
Environment and Climate Change Minister Tim Halman was also part of the Q & A session. As reported in the Examiner earlier this week, a dozen municipalities have either written Halman or signed a joint statement penned by the Ecology Action Centre calling on the Houston government to pass regulations and implement the Coastal Protection Act .
The Act was passed four years ago following two rounds of public consultations. Neither the Houston nor Halman will commit to a timeline for when the law will be proclaimed.
Halman told the conference he will now analyze the feedback he received this week from coastal property owners to whom the government sent 40,000 postcards inviting their opinions.
I recognize with key decisions not everyone will be happy. There’s a lot to consider and a lot to get right… people love our coast. They want to live safely by it and they want it protected. That is the crux of this issue and we need to figure it out… Both levels of government, municipalities and the province, will need to have a role in the go- forward. I’m giving this a lot of thought and we are going to do a lot of analysis and further consultation because I know how important this is.
The prospect of “further consultation” prompted Pictou County warden Robert Parker to get to his feet and make the following plea:
I think the last thing we need now is more consultation. If we didn’t learn from (hurricane) Fiona up on our shore and (tropical storm) Lee down on the south shore, times are changing. We need to have provincial rules — not municipal rules — we can’t do it by each municipality. When are we going to move beyond consultations to actually enforce something so we don’t have all this terrible loss along our shores?
Halman said previous consultations captured the views of engineers, environmental groups, and planners but not property owners themselves. Halman said he is committed to coastal protection and he hopes to arrive at a decision “in a few months” about what coastal protection will look like for Nova Scotia.
The ongoing war in Gaza and the emergence of hate crimes targeting both Muslims and Jews across Canada prompted Patti Durkee, municipal councillor from the District of Yarmouth, to ask Justice Minister Brad Johns the following question.
In a couple of days we celebrate our veterans…but our world is a mess right now. What is your government prepared to do about the rise in antisemitism that’s happening right now in our province? Because it is happening.
So having the Office of Equity and Anti-Racism under me, I will try to answer this one. This is a broader discussion. We are seeing a rise in hate crimes not just antisenimism [sic, Johns clearly meant antisemitism and made a second attempt at the pronunciation] but also towards our LGBTQ community. We are seeing a rise in hate everywhere. Not just as a province but municipalities need to take a responsibility too — through education and try to work together.
It seems like since COVID, everybody’s cranky. We are all politicians and we all get the calls. I can’t be alone when I say I’ve noticed a significant change in society. The calls that I get — and I’m sure everybody here gets the same. It’s a challenge. With the creation of the Office of Equity and Anti-Racism, it’s one step the province is taking to try to address some of these issues…because we are seeing this everywhere.
The Office of Equity and Anti-Racism was established last May. Prior to being elected as an MLA and appointed Justice minister, Johns was a municipal councillor who represented the Sackville area for 16 years.