Fighting the big split in Avalon

By Mark Squibb/September 16, 2022

Members of the Federal Boundaries Commission were apparently caught off guard by the number of people, roughly a dozen, who showed up for a public hearing at the Bay Roberts Hotel Tuesday regarding proposed boundary changes to Avalon riding.

“There must be something in the water in Conception Bay North,” joked Commission member Justice Alphonsus Faour. “In all of our meetings, we have never had this many people come out, so I’m looking forward to a good discussion, and I know myself and my fellow commissioners are interested in what a number of you will have to say.”

Political leaders representing all three levels of government were not shy in expressing their disagreement with the Commission’s proposal to split a number of Conception Bay North communities away from Avalon – namely Spaniard’s Bay to Victoria and everything in between – and attach them to a new riding that includes the Isthmus and a swath of Eastern Newfoundland west of Clarenville and encompassing the Burin Peninsula and Bonavista Bay.

That riding would be called Terra Nova – The Peninsulas.

“I am coming before the Commission today to express my disapproval of the proposal, and to present to the commission an alternative redistribution that I believe would help the Commission reach it’s targets,” said Avalon MP Ken McDonald, the first of about a half a dozen speakers who participated in Tuesday’s hearing. McDonald was the first MP, according to Faour, to attend a hearing, of which Tuesday’s was the ninth.

McDonald argued against dividing CBN given the region’s connectiveness.

“I must express my disapproval on behalf of my constituents and municipal councils here in this area,” said the MP. “I believe the most important factor the Commission should consider is the cultural, economic, and historic connection that exists between all the communities in the Conception Bay North region. Almost all the communities in the area, from Victoria to Brigus, rely on one another for shared services, businesses, doctors, groceries, and so on. They are a region that rely on one hospital, in Carbonear, who have a joint council for Conception Bay North region, and who all share the Veteran’s Memorial Highway as the primary roadwork to and from each of their towns. Each of these communities work together to leverage funding for major infrastructure projects in the region and are prime candidates for the regionalization structure that is being promoted and encouraged by our provincial counterparts and neighbouring municipalities in Conception Bay.”

McDonald said dividing the communities between two federal ridings would set up barriers to future development, and interrupt the regionalisation process.

“There are many individuals in this region who have worked over the last number of years towards the regionalisation of Conception Bay North region, “said McDonald. “Neighboring communities in Conception Bay Centre just, in the past year, took a step toward amalgamation when the communities of Colliers, Conception Harbour, Harbour Main-Chapel’s Cove-Lakeview and Avondale, all agreed to share services and work together to access funding for municipal infrastructure under the guise of regionalization.”

McDonald said the Commission’s proposal would stop regionalization and pit communities against one another in applying for funding.

He suggested that all communities south of the Trans Canada highway, from Long Harbour- Mount Arlington Heights to the interception of the highway and Salmonier Line (including the western side of the Irish Loop) be redistributed to the proposed new riding.

The MP said his proposal would bring the riding to a population of roughly 80,830; the Commission’s proposed changes would bring the population of 79,745. Trying to make the federal ridings roughly equal in population size is one of the goals of the Commission.

The province’s electoral quota, which is determined by dividing the population by the number of seats, is 72,936 per district. Avalon, as it currently stands, boasts a population of 87,191, an almost 20 percent deviation from the provincial quota. The proposed changes to Avalon would cut the riding’s population to 79,745.

McDonald argued further that by cutting some rural communities while incorporating the entirety of the Town of Paradise, the Commission’s new boundary will emphasis the clash between urban and rural interests.

McDonald said little else about the proposal to incorporate all of Paradise within Avalon, other than that he agreed with it.

“I know how difficult it is when a town is split between two ridings, especially one the size of Paradise,” said the MP, who noted that Conception Bay South was once split over two ridings— Avalon and St. Johns East. McDonald was mayor of CBS in 2013 when the town was incorporated entirely within the Avalon district.

“I believe that incorporating Conception Bay South under one federal riding allowed for a much more streamlined process for accessing federal funds, forming relationships with all levels of federal funding, and, overall, caused less confusion for constituents,” said McDonald. “I believe that bringing the remaining portion of the Town of Paradise into the boundary of the riding of Avalon will result in these same outcomes as it did for the Town of Conception Bay South in 2013.”

Dr. Amanda Bitner, a member of the Commission, said she understood the logistical challenges of having a region split between two ridings, but wondered if there weren’t benefits to having two MPS serving a town.

“No,” said McDonald after a moment’s thought. “It’s more streamlined if there’s one MP. And I know the word amalgamation, a lot of people don’t want to hear it, but I think, right now, this area in particular, the Conception Bay North area, is ripe for regionalization, which may or may not lead to amalgamation.”

He argued that amalgamated communities, using the example of CBS, may have more clout when applying for funds. He added that he sometimes gets recognised for funding approved through St. John’s East MP Joanne Thomas simply because the Paradise Town Hall is in his riding, not hers.

“The province can’t afford to give every community a fire hall, a new pumper, a new this, a new that, and if regionalization takes place, a lot of that will become one and join, and down the road, maybe people will say, ‘We should amalgamate,’” said McDonald.

Faour questioned how a shift in federal boundaries would negatively impact funding for provincial regulated services and regionalization.

“You made the comment that the process of regionalisation in the communities would stop if we put the line in where we proposed to put the line,” said Faour. “And I’m finding that a little hard to understand. Why would it stop, when all of the issues have to be resolved between the communities, and with the provincial government, not the federal government?”

McDonald maintained that being separated by federal lines would make communities feel separated from one another, and that communities on the boundaries of a riding, such as Spaniard’s Bay would be, would feel isolated from their MPs.

Next up to the mic was Harbour Grace – Port de Grave MHA Pam Parsons.

Parsons pointed folks back to 2015 when there were changes to the provincial electoral boundaries and Port de Grave became the Port de Grave-Harbour Grace district, and Makinsons, North River, and Clarke’s Beach were shifted to Harbour Main district.

“I can attest, from a provincial perspective, that those constituents still come to me,” said Parsons. “They belong to the district of Harbour Main, and of course that MHA has a constituency office located in the town of Holyrood and as you can appreciate, Clarke’s Beach and Holyrood, what do they have in common with regards to constituency matters and services?”

Parsons also raised a matter that McDonald had touched on, that of the Conception Bay North Joint Council.

“They’re working together toward common goals based on the geography that we have,” said Parsons. “Our fire emergency services, our educational systems, and our health care.”

She noted in particular the importance of keeping Carbonear, Harbour Grace, and Spaniard’s Bay together due to their proximity to one another.

She reiterated McDonald’s concerns that the proposed boundary change might negatively impact the progress made on regionalization.

Faour didn’t seem convinced.

“I’m finding it hard to relate a change in the boundary for a federal riding to the provision of provincial-based services, and whether communities and the Province can work together,” said the judge, who is himself a former MP. “How would that change the Province’s role in working with these municipalities?”

Parsons said while it wouldn’t necessarily change the province’s role, it makes more sense that an MP represent an area based on geography, and that splitting a region up would result in communities within the same region competing against one another for federal funding.

“I think it would create more conflicts and unnecessary challenges to break that area up,” said Parsons.

Next to speak was Harbour Grace Mayor Don Coombs.

“This change is not good for our town, or for our region,” said the mayor. “We feel that the proposed change would be a detriment to all future development and growth in the municipality of Harbour Grace. We as a municipality have worked hard for change in this region – and I say region, the CBN region. When government at all levels talk about shared services, we feel that organizations within the CBN Joint Councils have been productive on working towards projects and have a vision for the future. We work well as a team in this region.”

Coombs gave the audience an example, saying that about three weeks ago, staff were unavailable to work at the Danny Cleary Centre in Harbour Grace. So, staff from Bay Roberts worked at the Centre to ensure programming could go ahead.

“That’s what we do in this region,” said Coombs. “We share our resources.”

Coombs applauded the ability of CBN communities to work together to accomplish goals throughout the region— and worried about how the boundary change might affect that ability to cooperate.

“I grew up in the days, and I’ve been a volunteer in this area for over 50 years, when Bay Roberts didn’t like Spaniards Bay, Spaniards Bay didn’t like Island Cove, Island Cove didn’t like Harbour Grace, Carbonear hated Harbour Grace, but that’s changed,” said Coombs. “The area would be divided, and therefore we would have two separate groups competing for the same dollars, with two MPS, and two ridings and decades of work and our future vision would be gone. I really, truly believe that… One MP. One Vision. One Region… We are not on separate teams; we are all on the same team. We have different names on our towns, but we share the same vision.”

Councillor Chris O’Grady represented the Town of Carbonear at the Hearing, a town which would also be relocated to the new riding that would be heavily weighted off the Avalon.

“The Town of Carbonear would like to voice our concerns and ask for reconsideration from the Commission with regards to redistributing Conception Bay North towns from the district of Avalon to the proposed district of Terra Nova – The Peninsulas,” said O’Grady.

He noted Carbonear is a center for health care and retail, and has been nicknamed the ‘Hub of the Bay’ due to it’s prime location and services.

“The proposed electoral boundary, as you know, is going to split the Conception Bay North region between Spaniard’s Bay and Bay Roberts,” said O’Grady. “And as everyone has already said, the CBN towns are closely connected, as we share facilities, programs, and resources. Residents of the CBN towns are intertwined through employment, socialization, and recreation with the neighbouring towns.”

O’Grady listed several Carbonear facilities, such as the hospital, softball field, swimming pool, and nursing homes, that benefit neighbouring municipalities, adding that neighbouring communities also have facilities that people from Carbonear enjoy.

‘The point I’m making is that we are economically, socially, and politically aligned with our neighbouring towns,” said O’Grady. “Although CBN is not one amalgamated community, such as, say, the Town of Conception Bay South, there is increased pressure coming from governments for towns to start sharing services, resources, education facilities, etc. We feel that it would be better serve the towns of CBN to be represented by one strong voice from the federal government, as our towns move forward in areas such as climate change, wastewater, technology, crime, etcetera.”

O’Grady pointed to the specific example of federally mandated wastewater effluent targets, which are to be achieved by 2030, saying the region would be better served by a single MP when it comes to meeting those regulations.

The boundary consultation is mandated by law, and takes place every 10 years following the release of census data.

The three Commission members, Justice Faour, Dr. Bitner, and Julie Eveleigh, were appointed last Fall, and their work began in earnest once last year’s census data was released.

Boundaries, said Faour, are largely based on population, and any changes will be in effect for the next federal election, which is expected by 2025.

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