GUYSBOROUGH – Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston visited the Municipality of the District of Guysborough (MODG) with Guysborough-Tracadie MLA Greg Morrow on June 16.
Their tour included a stop at the Old Court House Museum, where they presented a certificate of congratulations on the occasion of its 50th anniversary.
Houston sat down with The Journal for an interview in the museum with the banner stating ‘The eyes of all are upon you’ in the background.
The top priority of the Houston government has been fixing healthcare. In the MODG, the issue of most concern is the closure of emergency departments (ED) in Canso and Guysborough. In January, The Journal reported that, in the master agreement between Doctors Nova Scotia and the province, doctors at a Level 4 site are paid $77.18 per hour, while those at a Level 3 facility are paid $154.31 per hour—a discrepancy which impacts physician recruitment in rural areas.
In an interview at that time, Michelle Thompson, minister of Health and Wellness, told The Journal that negotiations were in progress with Doctors Nova Scotia.
The Journal asked Houston for an update on the negotiations.
He said, “My understanding is that that process has been productive from both sides…And, I think, everyone kind of entered those negotiations knowing that compensation is a big part of this negotiation, but there’s lots of moving parts. We tried to enter those negotiations putting patient care at the center of it saying, ‘What can we do and how can we support each other?’”
Continuing in the healthcare vein, The Journal asked about the model for ED operation that requires a physician to be present, which is often a challenge in rural areas.
Houston responded, “We had a really meaningful meeting this afternoon with a group of nurses from Canso and just talked about rural medicine, the delivery of rural healthcare in rural hospital settings. I think, if you look at a number of the initiatives that are taking place right now, first off – we know that staffing is an issue. With the Patient Access to Care Act that we introduced, I think people will look back in the fullness of time and say that that act changed the delivery of healthcare in the country, not just in Nova Scotia.”
Components of the act that Houston thinks will positively impact the issue of ED closures in rural areas include common sense credentialling, scope of practice for different healthcare providers, introduction of technological solutions such as virtual emergency departments and active recruitment of healthcare professionals.
The funding formula for public education in Nova Scotia is based on enrollment; the more students you have, the more money the provincial government allocates to the school. Rural schools, in areas with low population, get less funding than schools in more densely populated areas, but they are expected to deliver the same curriculum. The disparity in funding means that rural schools often have fewer teachers and high school students must often take courses online [aka virtually]; sometimes these include courses required for graduation.
In the coming school year, Chedabucto Education Centre/Guysborough Academy will reduce staffing by 1.5 teaching positions due to funding. The Journal asked Houston how the government would level the playing field and make public education equal for all.
“I think access to education is obviously critical,” said Houston. “Access to curriculum that is of interest to students, so students can find their passion, is also critical. I think the reality is that in a rural, diverse province like Nova Scotia, there will be certain courses that are offered but may have to be offered virtually and through other online mechanisms. I think it would be difficult to just assume that every single course option would be available in every single school. I don’t think that’s the reality of a rural province but making sure that there is a way to access those courses, and that education, that curriculum, is important.
“I think virtual will be part of our society. Certainly, the pandemic put it into focus as to what’s possible. A lot of people found that virtual worked well for a lot of things…and delivery of certain courses, not entire curriculums, but certain courses, maybe some electives, maybe some alternatives, maybe some core programming in certain instances. But, I think Nova Scotians should expect delivery of virtual healthcare is here to stay…and by the same token, the same with education,” he said.
Creating policy and living with it are different realities. The Journal asked Houston if he would be happy if his children only had the option of taking a course, like calculus, online.
“I wouldn’t say that I’d be unhappy,” he replied, adding, “I think those are blanket statements. I wouldn’t say that I agree with that. There’s lots of things that, if somebody had said 10 years ago that somebody would be happy talking to a doctor virtually, maybe not. So, I can’t speak to certain courses, but I say that, as a general concept, I think the reality is, especially today’s students, they do a lot of stuff online, a lot more than certainly I did growing up.”
One of the most important aspects of provincial influence on rural residents is roads. While some roads in the MODG have recently undergone major paving projects—other areas are left in bad condition. Of great concern is the state of disrepair that can be seen on some bridges in the municipality. Over the last year, MODG council has repeatedly discussed the poor condition of the bridge between Cooks Cove and Dorts Cove, which is frequented by large trucks hauling stone, wood and fisheries products. Despite council’s concern, the bridge is not yet on the province’s five-year highway infrastructure plan.
Asked why it wasn’t, Houston said, “The bridges certainly get a lot of focus from the engineering staff at the Department of Transportation. We know that bridges are classified and assessed on an ongoing basis and, I think, as part of the bridge strategy for the province…it can’t be just whichever one fails first is the one we fix, we need to identify critical infrastructure and I think that work is happening through the department. That’s one [the bridge between Cooks Cove and Dorts Cove] that certainly, with MLA Morrow’s help, we can refer to them to make sure it’s constantly assessed and evaluate. Key infrastructure is important to maintain.”
While the housing crisis is most visible in bigger centres, such as Halifax, the crisis in rural areas is often hidden, taking the form of couch surfing, living in camps or in inadequate older homes. In the community of Guysborough, new, affordable housing for people 55 years old and up is on the horizon with the construction of an apartment building; but much more is needed.
Houston said, “There’s a lot being done on the housing front for sure. The solution to the housing crisis is more housing. So, to build housing you need the people. You need the skilled tradespeople. We have the MOST program [More Opportunity for Skilled Trades – provincial income tax refund], which is totally focused on young skilled tradespeople, encouraging people to get in the skilled trades, encouraging people in the skilled trades to move here to rural areas…that’s a focus on the people side of things. We have the joint transportation taskforce, which looks at how you move people around so we can get them from housing to employment.”
Additionally, Houston said the province was making land available and asking municipalities to identify land suitable for housing as well.
These strategies are, “All part of making sure that we’re meeting the needs of people… [and] doing it in the most efficient way,” said Houston, adding, “We’re working quickly to encourage the municipalities to move those along—planning and development permits—where it’s appropriate to build housing but also, as a province, making significant investments in affordable housing, rent supplements and trying to support people where we can.”
It’s often said that volunteers are the heart of the community. It could also be said that non-profits keep rural communities running—supporting the economy and welfare of residents. Whether it’s the museum which brings tourists to the area or the Guysborough County Housing Network, the Guysborough County Trails Association, Transit Association of Guysborough, etc.—all of them fill an essential niche that makes living in rural communities a viable option.
Every year, these groups must apply for and hope to receive a patchwork of grants to keep their operations afloat. As noted in the Nova Scotia Mass Causality Commission report, as pertains to programs like the Canso area Circles of Support and Change project, which addresses gender-based violence, the need for stable core funding is essential to secure the future Nova Scotians want.
The Journal asked Houston what the province would do to move stable, core funding forward for non-profit groups.
“As a province, we try to support organizations…I hear the calls for core funding from various organizations of different sizes and focus around the province, and it is something that we try to look at where we can and, if we can extend core funding and support those that are supporting others, we’ll look to do that. It’ll always be a discussion because there’ll always be new organizations popping up, serving different needs. So, it will always be an evolving process.”