Civil Thoughts Series
As published in: Municipal World (St. Thomas, ON), 118/11, 43 (November 2008).
Amalgamation is a touchy subject.
But it is a common and preferred instrument employed by the Canadian provinces to solve—ostensibly—municipal problems.
Should municipalities be reorganized? Who wins, who loses? Does amalgamation maximize democracy or improve efficiency?
Proponents argue that amalgamation (1) generates savings, largely through economies of scale and consolidation of services, administration, and governance; (2) reduces inequities, by absorption of disparities into a greater whole; and, (3) eliminates inter-municipal competition, by instilling organizational cohesion and hence better enabling competitive advantage.
In practice, however, in Canada forced amalgamations have resulted in (1) increased expenditures, as the consequence has not been better government but bigger government; (2) intensification of inequities, as disparities fail to homogenize, and rather resist one another, in merely a different arena that is larger only by jurisdictional fiat; and, (3) the aggravation of power conflicts, as mores, values, concerns, and objectives are not subsumed in a different and larger whole, and hence do not disappear.
Coupled to a continuation of a lack of essential understanding by senior governments of the nature of municipal dynamics, and their related requirements, the two greatest adverse effects of amalgamation, though, are a severe reduction in the number of elected officials, and hence an equally severe weakening of representative politics, and thus a concurrent lessening of the influence of the voice of the individual citizen.
Regional re-organization favours economic development at the expense of the amalgamated communities’ identities. The resultant changes to and displacements of tax burdens disadvantage working and middle class citizens, even as commercial agglomeration enhances entrepreneurial opportunities for businesses and holders of serviced real estate. Some operational efficiencies may be gained, but are accompanied by the loss of both the number and nearness of elected representatives.
Hence, there occurs an erosion of local identity.
At least three instances in New Brunswick serve to illustrate this: Miramichi, Moncton, and St. Stephen.
The northern coastal town of Miramichi was created by amalgamation in 1995. The impetus for the 1995 formation of the City of Miramichi was a 1994 provincial plan developed by then Premier Frank McKenna to enhance and consolidate regional promotion. The amalgamation was essentially a joining of the two distinct, and rival, towns of Newcastle and Chatham with nine other smaller communities.
Five towns—Newcastle, Chatham, Douglastown, Loggieville, and Nelson—were merged with several other rural communities. This was and remains controversial, due to the strong identities of the subsumed towns. Local demands for a plebiscite went unheeded. Objections were widespread to the appointment of a municipal transition team, and two Newcastle councillors initiated and won a legal challenge, forcing an election in February, 1995. Citizens’ major concerns were, and remain, no say in the process, identity loss, and higher tax burden.
The new city pivots on Newcastle and Chatham, the two largest, frequently rival, towns, located on opposite sides of the Miramichi River, approximately ten kilometres apart. Newcastle, the former shire town of Northumberland County, is the industrial heart of the Miramichi valley—its large pulp and paper mill, owned by UPM-Kymmene (formerly by Repap Enterprises Inc.), employed hundreds. Chatham has been in slow decline since 1919, this exacerbated by the loss to Fredericton of St. Thomas University in 1964, and the closure after fifty-six years with the loss of some 1,000 jobs, of CFB Chatham in 1996. It was the latter that precipitated provincial action.
According to the Business New Brunswick, there has been economic acceleration as a consequence of the considered planning of amalgamation. In the ten years following 1995, Miramichi has seen over $104 millions in new construction, 27% being new commercial development; in addition, educational facilities have attracted significant capital investment.
However, even the City’s 2000 municipal development plan continued to observe that Miramichi has two central business areas, namely the “two historic and traditional downtown areas of the former Towns of Chatham and Newcastle.” The benefits of single-tier aggregation stay unclear, as no evidence supports the claim that consolidation produced savings, but evidence has indicated that the new City’s operating costs increased by $1.5 million annually.
In 1999, Miramichi Mayor Rupert Bernard, at a federal standing committee on finance, commented that amalgamation induced major infrastructural challenges relating to waste water, roads, affordable housing, downtown revitalization, and heritage preservation.
Chatham and Newcastle are over one hundred years old; the villages over thirty; and the local service districts, where growth is substantial, are largely unserviced. Population decline persists. Economic reliance on resources, including cyclical forestry, depleting mining, and fishing, and on CFB Chatham, has been complicated by federal policy shifts on airports and programs for ports divestiture.
The City has chosen to develop tourism, small manufacturing, agriculture, and service- and knowledge-based industries, coupled with riverfront and recreation development strategies. By 2006, these strategies were giving signs of progress and accomplishment, despite the continuing challenges that Mayor Bernard cited.
Although the Province has touted the economic advantage so created over the last decade or so, and insists that the amalgamation is a success, other factors remain very much in play.
Despite the evolution of regional pride in Miramichi, local identities have been diminished, but the desire for their continuance remains much in evidence. Despite the merging of both service delivery and economic planning, the two former towns of Chatham and Newcastle continue very much, sociologically, to function as separate entities, each with its distinct downtown and topographical footprint; indeed, the town plan of Miramichi even accepts this separation as fundamental to future considerations.
Despite an improvement in the critical mass of the industrial and residential tax base, there are increased costs to citizens, especially to those formerly in unincorporated rural municipalities. And, notwithstanding the remarkable efforts of the elected members of the local government of Miramichi, the sense of loss of identity continues to impede effective civic function.
These factors, particularly the last, played such an important role in resistance to the proposed amalgamation of Moncton, Riverview, and Dieppe, that the Province abandoned its intention. Simplistically perhaps, but compellingly, the spiritual and cultural differences of the three towns were based in language, and hence in culture, character, and personality. Riverview is English, Dieppe is French, and Moncton is where they meet on equal footing.
Lastly, there is the instance of my own town, St. Stephen, deep in the Anglophone southwest of the province. Citizens in St. Stephen speak of Milltown and St. Stephen, even though the former was forcibly amalgamated with St. Stephen over thirty years ago, in 1973.
One of the province’s principal motivations for this was the failing economic base of Milltown that resulted from the decline, and eventually closure, of the cotton mill. However, in terms of preservation of local pride, Milltown has never really recovered. In addition to the loss of downtown business related to the decline of the cotton mill, Milltown lost its police and firefighting forces, its post office, its public works crews, and its mayor and council. A mental sense of political and economic disadvantage developed, then set in, and has persisted so palpably that even real estate in Milltown remains some 20% less in re-sale value than equivalent properties in the old St. Stephen.
Amalgamation, to succeed, needs to rise from the citizens, not from a senior government’s planning office. Despite some evidence of the generation of improved economic critical mass, the increased cost to citizens, the reduction in direct politics, and the serious spiritual adversity of loss of identity remain factors that impair civic function at the level of the people.
I compare the Miramchi as it was when I visited there first in the late 80s, before amalgamation, and with my recent visits. Visually, the region has changed little. The barer area between Newcastle and Chatham has grown a little narrower, just as is the case in Thunder Bay between the former Port Arthur and Fort William. But Montréal will always have Westmount and Outremont, and a city such as Surrey could not be successfully subsumed in an amalgamated Vancouver.
To this day a stubborn and willful duality persists in St. Stephen. Even after over thirty years, there are separate St. Stephen and Milltown schools, legions, service club affiliations—and international border crossings. And Boundary Street, the old and once rural road that formed the legal division between the two former towns, remains in everyone’s mind the clear boundary between two towns. Cross it, and you are immediately in another community.