GUYSBOROUGH – In less than a month, Iain Rankin will become the 29th Premier of Nova Scotia and, at age 37, the second youngest in the province’s history – the youngest was Rodney MacDonald, who became premier at age 34.
Rankin is coming into office after winning the Liberal leadership race held after party leader and Premier Stephen McNeil announced his resignation in August.
The Liberals were given a five-year mandate in May of 2017, which means Rankin has more than one year to put his stamp on a new Liberal government before an election must be called in May of 2022.
Premier-designate Rankin, who has yet to be sworn in, spoke to The Journal about his approach to issues top of mind in eastern Nova Scotia and his new role.
As has been reported this week, and in previous issues of this newspaper, high-speed Internet access is pivotal to the success of rural Nova Scotia. One of the silver linings of the pandemic is the real estate boom that has spread beyond urban centres and into remote communities like Canso. But one of the obstacles for people looking to relocate to Guysborough County is unreliable Internet access.
While the provincial government has announced and is proceeding with plans to bring high-speed Internet to rural areas through the Develop Nova Scotia initiative, infrastructure development cannot keep pace with demand. Poor Internet service may mean some communities are missing out on a major opportunity to grow their population base. The Journal asked Rankin what can be done to prioritize Internet access.
“It will remain a high priority. I think it’s really important for rural communities to ascertain relatively equal access to high-speed and we do have a plan rolling forward. My understanding is it will become more specific online soon and we’ll continue to find ways to connect Nova Scotians. We have made a very significant investment, over $100 million and Develop Nova Scotia continues to work out the contracts … we will continue to support that initiative,” said Rankin.
Back to business
Small business is the keystone to economic sustainability in rural communities. A decade ago, there were three coffee shops on Main Street, Guysborough. Today, there are none. When asked what government can do to stop and reverse the erosion of small business in rural areas, Rankin said, “We’re going to have to look closely at how the federal government intends to position their programs. They have done very well to support the labour side, really targeting support at people, people who work for those small businesses. We have programs out there to support businesses.
“Once I get briefed and see where there are potential areas that require support, we’ll do that while focusing on ensuring that we have a strong economic rebound. We’re, fortunately compared to other provinces, doing very well (in regard to pandemic impact). Our restrictions aren’t nearly as aggressive. I think we’ll be in a better place as we move forward with this budget, as long as we keep our caseloads down,” said Rankin.
Addressing ambulance service
Health care in rural areas, like business, had problems in need of answers long before the pandemic hit. One item that has recently topped the municipal council agenda at several meetings in the Municipality of the District of Guysborough is ambulance response times. Examples have been given at the council table of residents waiting seven hours for an ambulance transfer from one hospital to another and waiting 20 minutes for ambulance service, when the 911 caller was located near an ambulance dispatch station.
In addition to these concerns, there has been a call from ambulance service employees, the opposition parties, and the public to release the Fitch report – a consultant's report on Nova Scotia's ambulance system commissioned in Oct. 2018 by the current government and completed the following October. Rankin said he had not yet been fully briefed on this file and when asked if he would agree that urgent work was required in the EHS system he replied, “I think there is a lot of work to do in the healthcare space. I have spoken a lot about where we need to target funds for mental health and addictions and long-term care.” He will, he added, look at the needs of the ambulance service.
One of the often-voiced criticisms of the McNeil government is lack of transparency on files such as the Fitch report, public school ventilation and water quality. When asked if this would change under his leadership, Rankin said, “I think government can always work on providing information more proactively. There are some circumstances, as either private information for individuals or companies, that needs to be looked at … But where there’s certain information that the public needs to see, that will be released.”
The days ahead
The legislature is scheduled to return to session on March 9. Rankin said the government will work on specific legislation, including the Biodiversity Act, Crown Lands Act and the Conseil scolaire acadien provincial (CSAP) Act, present a budget and deliver a Speech from the Throne during this sitting.
“It will be a busy session,” he said.
As he begins his time as premier, Rankin said his first priority is to continue managing COVID-19 with Public Health “in a way that protects the public safety and ensuring our restrictions are appropriate. Following that, it is preparing for an economic rebound that focuses on inclusive economic growth and better protections for our environment; that’s an economic opportunity for us and those are areas of focus that I’ll be pursuing.”
While some may anticipate an early election call, Rankin said, “My immediate focus is putting together a team, a cabinet, and going into this house session and bringing my priorities forward. And then I’ll be reviewing when an election could be.”
Getting to know the Premier-designate
For the past eight years, Nova Scotians have gotten to know Premier Stephen McNeil. And, while some citizens may have a passing familiarity with Rankin as a cabinet minister – he has held the environment and lands and forestry portfolios – he’s not a household name.
When asked to talk about himself outside of the cut and thrust of political life, he told The Journal, “I’m a business background person that enjoys spending free time in recreation, staying active.”
Rankin said he has strong connections to eastern Nova Scotia through his wife [Mary Chisholm], who is from Antigonish, and he thinks, “It’s really important that a premier has a good understanding of the different qualities across parts of the province. I think that’s what you’ll see in me. I’m someone that has a lot of energy and focus on making progress … that is what I am looking forward to do.”