Communities in the North are challenged with high operating costs, failing infrastructure and an eternal struggle to keep good admin staff to run things. It’s like being stuck in a deep hole, scrambling to get out while the sides keep caving in. Senior governments are sympathetic, but distant. Communities are forced to struggle along finding solutions on their own.
This is where most Northerners live – in towns and hamlets – the all-important hubs of economy and cornerstones of society. When things go wrong, when there is mismanagement, bad decisions are made or important matters of any kind are not dealt with, we are affected where it matters most – in our homes.
Communities that are run well should be celebrated. Clean, safe water to drink; sewage and garbage disposed of in smart, environmentally-friendly ways; well maintained streets; services like recreation and seniors’ facilities; all are too often taken for granted – unless they have a problem, at which time citizens become upset. Well run communities need to be appreciated and acknowledged.
What, however, is to be done about the ones that aren’t? In the too common circumstance where competent, reliable administrators willing to stay for a number of years are not available, how will things be managed and run? Rather than simply letting community operations founder, sophisticated support and resources must be available.
There is a fine line between assisting and interference – perceived or real. Community governments want to be, and should be, as independent as possible, something that should be fostered, encouraged and never disrupted. Crafting support resources and networks with that in mind is critical.
There are a number of major challenges that are simply too much for most community administrations. That is certainly true in many cases of emergency preparedness where local committees need to be initiated, trained and then kept sharp over time. Fire abatement programs that would give a community a fighting chance against wildfires, of utmost importance for all Northern communities during the current period of drought, are rarely done well.
Some administrative support is offered to communities by the NWT government but generally they are on their own, unless they fail. Then the territorial government steps in and takes over. A proactive approach is badly needed.
By nature, community councils are renewed regularly. Unfortunately, the turnover of community administration staff is almost as frequent. That means too often there is no consistency or overlap of knowledge and experience. Not only are big things like fire abatement neglected, but regular maintenance to infrastructure for services such as sewer and water miss out as well. Creative programs to alleviate those types of burdensn should be made available. In a word, Northern communities need more help.
Last month, municipal representatives of Canada’s three territories served notice of their needs to the federal government, getting their shopping list in early for the upcoming federal election.
“We need to build a Canada where our cities and towns are more innovative, our communities more livable, our streets safer and where we contribute to a cleaner environment and a more connected world,” said Brad Woodside, president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.
The priorities the three territories presented included: the development of available housing; decreasing the cost of living above the 60th parallel; increasing broadband connectivity; and improving airports. Territorial leaders also made the case for an infusion of $14 billion for more community infrastructure through the Building Canada Fund.
“With unique living conditions, remoteness and infrastructure challenges, we must ensure that our needs are met with the support of all levels of government,” said NWT Association of Communities President Charlie Furlong of Aklavik.
The NWT department of Municipal Affairs works off 20 different pieces of legislation, including the Towns and Villages Act and the Hamlets Act, both of them enacted in 2003, the Dog Act, the Fire Prevention Act and 16 sundry other acts, most of which impact how NWT communities are administered. It is a fragmented approach that needs to be updated.
The Alberta government is in the process of completely revising its Municipal Government Act, including an extensive consultation process with municipal governments over the next year.
“Alberta’s rural municipalities face unique challenges and need a strong piece of legislation that provides the necessary tools to grow and shape our communities,” commented Al Kemmere, president, Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties. He said they want legislation that “promotes sustainability and prosperity.”
Needless to say, that is something that is needed across the North as well.
Senior governments need to do a better job of supporting local governments in Northern communities, both through the provision of additional infrastructure funding as well as having ready resources that support and add quality to community governance and administration.