Monday, August 2, 2021

Special election boosts whales

Former councillor James Harpell returns to fill district 8 seat

  • January 20 2021
  • By Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative reporter    

ST. MARY’S – Riding a groundswell of support for a whale-friendly environment, and with just a hint of déjà vu, James Harpell became the Municipality of the District of St. Mary’s newest council member Saturday night [Jan. 16].

This will be the fourth term representing District 8 for the popular Harpellville ferry-boat skipper, who handily defeated James Bingley of Fisherman’s Harbour by a vote of 158 to 46. Harpell served consecutive sessions between 2000 and 2012.

The seat had been up for grabs since October, when its former occupant – Councillor Peggy Kaiser-Kirk (and Harpell’s successor eight years ago) – resigned shortly after her acclamation in the municipal election.

In an interview following his victory, Harpell (63, and the captain in charge of the Country Harbour ferry operation) said he was keen to get started on a range of issues voters raised during his door-knocking campaign.

“A lot of people were really excited about the beluga whales coming,” he said, referring to the California-based Whale Sanctuary Project slated to commence in Port Hilford sometime in the next two years. “The first thing they wanted to know was what I thought about it.”

Atlantic Gold’s proposed mining operation at Cochrane Hill near Sherbrooke was also top of mind. “It was a hot topic,” he said. “People were on board with the idea of not being left in the wake of an open pit mine that might harm the environment, even in the future.”

He added, “They definitely considered the job aspect of [the mine] as well. Some constituents were really concerned about that. With Covid-19, there’s a lot of that stuff up in the air right now.”

Harpell has endorsed a cautious approach to the mine’s development (which Atlantic Gold recently pushed back to 2026 due to other priorities at its nearby Beaver Dam and Fifteen Mile Stream mining projects).

“What people here are really looking for is something that’s not going to harm the environment,” he told The Journal in December.

“We have a pristine environment here on the Eastern Shore, and the citizens want to be very careful about what they put in here. There must be other ways to lessen the impact on the environment. [That goes for] any business that is even looking at coming over here.”

Meanwhile, the condition of the area’s overland routes was a common thread among voters, Harpell said. “Roads are a big thing. We’ve got some that are pretty rugged on the west side of Port Bickerton, and on the east side as well. The 211 has places that could be fixed.”

Overall, though, the prospect of the area becoming home to a handful of formerly captive cetaceans fired most people’s doorstep conversations, Harpell said. “I think it’s a really good idea. There’s the infrastructure that could happen. We’d have to be careful [with the whales], of course, and I can’t say for sure what’s really going to happen there, but there could be spin offs, like boat tours.”

Bingley, who did not respond to a request for an interview following the special election, told The Journal in December that while he supported the gold mine, he had no opinion about the whales. “I don’t really know a whole lot about it,” he said at the time. “I’m not interested in that at the moment.”

According to the municipality’s returning office, Saturday’s results – which were deemed official on Tuesday [Jan. 19] – showed an unusually high voter participation rate of 73.4 per cent, with 204 of 278 eligible voters casting ballots. Forty-three percent (121) voted online, with 30 per cent (83), by phone.

Said Harpell: “I’ve received a few calls from the other councillors and I told them I am looking forward to working with them. It definitely feels a bit like coming home.”