It’s like the Star Wars Empire against the rebels, the forces of evil against the forces of good. Or in this case, the forces of centralized urbanization against the unorganized rural residents of the province.
That’s a rather roundabout way of introducing the new Federation of Rural New Brunswickers, a group that’s dedicated to protecting the rural interests. So what is this federation, how did it get started and why should we care? Well, I believe it’s a direct response to the provincial government’s consultation with rural Local Service District (LSD) residents about the new Regional Service Commission plan.
The plan is slated to be implemented on the first day of 2013, so the clock is ticking. So what’s the plan? It’s important to understand what the provincial government is attempting to do in their own words:
“There are currently 12 commissions providing planning services and 12 commissions providing solid waste management. There are also a number of mutual aid agreements in place across the Province between Municipalities, Rural Communities and Local Service Districts for the delivery of services such as fire protection, as well as a number of agreements for cost-sharing and managing services such as recreational facilities.
“Neighbouring communities often compete for new investments, build infrastructure or acquire equipment which can result in duplication. Many struggle to maintain these assets with limited available revenue. Communities tend to individually purchase or acquire needed expertise to manage or administer services rather than collaborate and pool resources.
“Government recognizes that this approach to service delivery is inefficient and doesn’t capitalize on the collective strength of neighbouring communities.
“One of the primary challenges is that there is no existing structure to enable communities to communicate with one another, to plan and prioritize from a regional perspective, collaborate on projects, cost-share on service delivery, and make mutually-beneficial decisions on investments, or share expertise.”
That sounds OK, I guess. I mean, who could argue with increasing efficiency and saving money?
But this is where it gets tricky. There’s clearly a misfire between the desire for a streamlined service delivery and the need for a noisy and active rural political voice, a voice that’s particularly important in a province that still has about 50 percent of its population living in rural areas.
The new Regional Service Commission (RSD) structure will have sweeping centralized powers, and yet will remain disconnected from central government, that is, disconnected from the direct political process. How’s that? Well, the 12 new RSDs will have local representation on a board that will set direction for the whole show, which will be run by a hired management team plus private contractors.
Just how sweeping are these powers? The Commission will directly control regional planning, local planning in local planning districts, regional policing collaboration, solid waste management, emergency measures planning, regional sport/recreation/cultural infrastructure planning and cost sharing, collaboration on regional issues (one wonders if those “issues” might become political), services to First Nations and “other” which could include bulk purchasing, corporate services and issuing building permits.
That is a lot of stuff. To be crystal clear, this creates a government within a government, one which doesn’t directly report to the people’s elected representatives whatsoever. I could see how some rural residents might be concerned.
Just what is this Federation of Rural New Brunswickers doing about it? So far their website and Facebook page sets up a forum for rural living, which is an important, but wholly different, discussion. Current topics include general discussions about financial and food sustainability.
Not that there’s anything at all wrong with all that. But there’s still that nagging matter of governing one’s own affairs.
Here’s what former Green Party candidate, Janice Harvey, has to say about it:
“Most of rural New Brunswick has no local decision-making authority and therefore no representation (LSDs don't count, no offense to all those faithful people who serve on LSD committees, but you know how little power you have). We will never achieve any meaningful autonomy and self-determination until we form actual rural communities with democratically elected and accountable councils. This has been done in Upper Miramichi and Campobello. It needs to expand.
“The first step to protecting our assets and quality of life is to take responsibility for it through incorporating as real communities. Without this we will always be vulnerable to whatever development or plan the government may want to foist on us. While incorporating as rural communities won't solve everything, unless we do it we don't have a leg to stand on. Assuming responsibility for local self-government is a proactive move, it puts us in the driver's seat. Organizing to oppose or fend off threats is defensive, reactionary; we are being led by someone else's agenda and on their time line. While defensive action is always necessary, I would suggest it isn't sufficient to achieve the goals we all want for our province, a sustainable economy that doesn't ravage the rural landscape.”
And I would agree. Without direct political authority over their own local affairs, rural residents will exist at the whim of paid centralized bureaucrats. Frankly, handing over the rural portfolio to a management company is just not good enough for half of the province’s population.