Looking ahead to the next election
College of Continuing Ed to offer 'Municipal Government 101'
Marilyn Smulders - May 5, 2011
During Halifax’s last municipal election in 2008, fewer than four out of 10 eligible voters could be bothered to cast a ballot.
What’s more is that several HRM councillors—including Gloria McCluskey, Andrew Younger, Bill Karsten and Russell Walker—didn’t even have competition in their districts and secured their seats through acclamation.
Voter turnout has been shrinking for federal and provincial elections too. The 2008 federal election marked a historic low, with only 59 per cent of eligible voters marking an ‘X.’ And, despite the high drama and interest in Monday’s election, the number of voters who made their way to a polling station was up only slightly, an estimated 61.4 per cent according to Elections Canada.
“At a fundamental level, we’re talking about our democracy here,” says Jack Novack, a professor with Dalhousie’s College of Continuing Education.
It does seem crazy that at a time when people around the world are putting their lives on the line for the chance to vote, Canadians are snubbing the ballot box.
But a Dalhousie-led project will attempt to stem the tide, at least on the municipal level. Starting with the next municipal election which takes place in the fall of 2012, The College of Continuing Education working in concert with Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations will launch a series of initiatives— “a kind of Municipal Government 101,” says Prof. Novack—aimed at educating voters on the issues and the candidates so they can make informed choices.
“For municipal elections, the voter turnout is the absolute lowest,” says Stephen Feist, municipal advisor for the province. “But this is the level that affects people more on a day-to-day basis. These are the people who make decisions about sidewalks, roads, water, storm water, sports fields, the winter parking ban ... you name it.”
Education, in the form of a dedicated website and a series of workshops in communities throughout Nova Scotia, will also extend to what it takes to run for office: the time involved, the pay, the commitment. (See sidebar below: Running for politics 'uplifting')
Many people who throw their hat in the ring do so out of dissatisfaction on a single issue. “They’re really unprepared for what’s expected of them,” says Mr. Feist.
The project has been supported with $16,000 in funding for the College of Continuing Education from Service Nova Scotia, Municipal Relations and Acadian Affairs. The road show to communities big and small is expected to get started in the spring of 2012.
Sheila Fougere recalls it was a-put-up-or-shut-up moment that convinced her to run for municipal politics.
A stay-at-home mom who worked part-time at the local junior high, she was reading a newspaper story which mused about potential candidates for the by-election which had just been called for District 14 in west-end Halifax — the first by-election since the amalgamation the Halifax, Bedford, Dartmouth and Halifax County into Halifax Regional Municipality.
“Why doesn’t someone normal run for politics?” she grumbled aloud to her husband Joe.
To which he replied: “Well, why don’t you?”
And so, after consulting with friends and neighbors, she decided to throw in her beret into a crowded field. She also talked to councillors who had served the district and basically “anybody I knew who had anything to do with politics,” about what was required of a municipal councillor.
“I made sure I really knew what the heck I was getting into,” says Ms. Fougere who holds a bachelor’s degree in recreation administration from Dalhousie and a Certificate in Municipal Governing from Dalhousie’s Henson College (now the College of Continuing Education). She now works part-time at Integrated Learning Online at Dal.
She was successful that day, June 13, 1998, taking 35 per cent of the vote. But, as it turned out, she questioned if she knew what the heck she was getting into after all. With zero political experience, she threw herself into learning about the city and the unwieldy new region as much as she could, visiting various departments, from pumping stations to traffic control, and asking questions. Acronyms especially stumped her. “I was constantly saying, ‘Excuse me, what does that stand for?’”
She came to be regarded as a councillor who did her homework and could be counted on to be thoughtful when she had the floor at council — the lone woman on an all-male HRM council. She sees the job of councillor as being a full-time commitment, with boards, committees, and of course, council to contribute to. In short, she says, the job is to be informed.
“I see the job as to take the reports, read them, understand them, make sure they’re complete, ask questions, listen to the people who live in my district and understand their perspectives, then to take all this information and go to council and listen to my colleagues,” she says, scarcely taking a breath. “And then to make a decision.”
Failed bid for mayor
After serving on council for 10 and a half years, she decided to run for mayor in the 2008 municipal election, but in the end couldn’t unseat incumbent Peter Kelly.
“I ran and I lost and life goes on,” she says philosophically. But she encourages others to give it a try — “not because you’re mad about something but because you care and you want to do something good for the community you live in.”
She adds that running for municipal council—despite how messy democracy can be—is one of the most uplifting things she’s done in her life. “When you go door to door, you realize the vast majority of people are really nice and really good and that in itself is positively uplifting.”