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Potential consolidation of Antigonish town, county stalled

Special legislation will not be tabled during spring sitting

  • March 29 2023
  • By Corey LeBlanc    

ANTIGONISH – A proposed municipal marriage in the region has been left at the altar.

Nova Scotia Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing John Lohr has informed officials with the Town of Antigonish and Municipality of the County of Antigonish that he will not introduce special legislation during the spring sitting of the provincial legislature that would allow for the consolidation of the neighbouring municipalities.

“During that meeting, the minister (Lohr) stated the province has made the decision to not present the special legislation to the House of Assembly,” Town of Antigonish CAO Jeff Lawrence writes in a message to councillors sent on Friday afternoon (March 24) via an email from Kate MacInnis, Town of Antigonish director of community development.

In the same correspondence, Lawrence explained that – earlier in the day – the provincial minister requested Mayor Laurie Boucher and Warden Owen McCarron meet with him and municipal affairs staff, when they were informed of his decision.

In an interview with CBC Nova Scotia published on March 26, McCarron confirmed the discussion took place.

“I’m disappointed, obviously, because we worked for close to 19 months,” the veteran county councillor said.

“We worked through all the steps, and we worked with Municipal Affairs throughout the course of the engagement sessions and making sure that we weren’t out of step.”

In an email response received on late Monday afternoon (March 27) to a weekend request from The Journal for comment on the decision – and what the next steps will be when it comes to a possible consolidation – Shirlyn Donovan, Municipality of the County of Antigonish strategic initiatives coordinator, stated: “At this time we have no update, as we are still gathering information,” she wrote.

In an interview with The Journal, Anne-Marie Long – a representative of Let Antigonish Decide, a grassroots community organization that has questioned the legality of the consolidation process – said that although they were pleased with the news, they were also seeking more information.

“We are waiting to hear if it has been iced permanently,” she added, noting the group wants to confirm if Lohr’s decision only applies to this spring sitting of the legislature.

A response to a pair of requests for comment from the municipal affairs minister and his department on the move – and what’s next – were not returned as of press time.

The choice not to move forward with special legislation by the provincial minister is the latest chapter in the story of a potential municipal marriage in Antigonish that began in Sept. 2021, when both municipal councils decided to more deeply explore the idea of consolidation – a more than year-long process that included a public engagement process conducted by a consultant.

Last October, in special meetings conducted simultaneously, each council voted – not unanimously – to make the request for special legislation that would allow the merger process to move forward.

As this journey unfolded, common resistance to the process and not consolidation itself – as the group has repeatedly reiterated – spurred the creation of Let Antigonish Decide, which now boasts more than 1,600 members on its Facebook page. They have not only voiced concern over its legality, but also the exclusion of providing residents with a voice – through a plebiscite – on the consolidation question; not to mention what it argues is the lack of information that has been shared that would be crucial in making such an important decision.

Since its creation, Let Antigonish Decide has hosted a series of public meetings geared towards sharing information and gathering community feedback. The call to hold a vote on the issue has remained a consistent and constant message.

And, most recently, the group commissioned a phone poll on the consolidation question, with its findings released earlier this month. Long agreed that the results may have influenced the decision not to move ahead with tabling special legislation.

“It showed that we were not just a small group of dissidents, as we were being called,” she offered of the opposition to the consolidation process.

As for the numbers, 70.4 per cent of respondents said they should have an opportunity to vote before any consolidation is considered. When it comes to councillors who voted to move ahead with the process, the poll indicated that their political futures could be affected; 75.5 per cent of residents polled said they would be ‘less likely’ to vote for them in the next municipal election – 62.7 per cent ‘much less likely’ and 12.8 per cent ‘somewhat less likely.’

And, if the provincial government approved consolidation – without a plebiscite – the poll showed that 71.9 per cent of respondents said they would be ‘less likely’ to vote (53.9 per cent ‘much less likely’ and 18 per cent ‘somewhat less likely’) for the governing Progressive Conservatives, their MLAs and Premier Tim Houston.

Let Antigonish Decide has also financed a court challenge. The Nova Scotia Supreme Court will decide if the request for special legislation should be thrown out during a hearing on Friday, July 7. Long explained the future of that process will depend on if Lohr’s decision not to introduce special legislation is a blanket one or, again, only applies to the ongoing spring session.

Coupled with the poll findings, Long agreed that the ever-increasing resistance “has been effective.” She offered that people have been “awakened” and the group is confident that any talk of a municipal marriage will not move forward without residents having more information on the reasons for consolidation, along with the “state” of the town and county – financially and otherwise.

“We need to know these things in order to make an informed decision,” she said.

While repeating that the idea the group is against consolidation is “so false,” Long explained that – if a decision is made to continue to pursue a municipal marriage – having a plebiscite is a must.