Thursday, 2 February 2017


Guest Post Written By Donna Thistle

Dear Uncle Gnarley,

I read your piece Rural NL Needs to Save Itself.

You are right about the unsustainability of the many services offered to a very few, seemingly in “rural” NL.

I think you’re on to something.

But I think you got lost on your way there.  You read two of the signs wrong.

The first wrong turn was on the corner called “Municipal Leadership”.

You are wrong that no Municipal Leaders have ever spoken up about this problem and you are wrong that no municipal leaders have tried to fix it.  Fogo Island being one glaring example.  There are others.  

Now, you’re a pretty good guy Uncle; I’ve been reading your blog for a long time. You are doing your best to bring some important issues to the attention of the general public (ever feel like you are talking to the wall with all the work you are doing to expose Muskrat Falls?) Yes? Then you know exactly how some of the municipal leaders in “rural” NL feel. 

Craig Pollett (executive director of Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador) can supply you with books of facts about what that organization has done to encourage regionalization.  And, by the way, he can’t do anything without the support of his board and that board consists of the very Municipal Leaders you think have been silent. Craig has been on open line shows – brave soul that he is- trying to push this conversation into a place where action can begin and he’s had support…just not enough.

One of the first papers on this subject was written back in the early sixties.  Many, many municipal leaders over the last 50 years have seen the writing on the wall.  One such municipal leader (I blush) wrote a piece for the Western Star on this very subject almost 4 years ago.

Now, you may well ask, if this conversation has been going on for so long why hasn’t something been done about it? Excellent question Uncle and there’s a whole crowd of us that want the answer as bad as you do.  This is an issue that must be changed by the provincial government.  Of all the things I could damn Danny Williams for, the biggest one will always be - he had a large enough majority and enough goodwill from the electorate that he could have shoved regionalization down our throats and still got re-elected.

The other place you took a wrong turn was at the Isthmus.  Right there where the Avalon Peninsula joins the rest of us…Bull Arm. Bull Arm is an hours drive from EVERYTHING…it is not rural by my definition. 

The words rural, small town, out port and traditional lifestyles are NOT interchangeable although many in this conversation need a dictionary. Until everybody and I mean everybody…pundits, politicians, media and citizens… sort out the difference, we can’t fix the problem.

Donna Thistle
There are more people living in St John’s who adhere to traditional values and lifestyles than there are in some “outports.” I LOVE St John’s!  What’s not to love about getting in a cab, arriving at your destination and saying “charge it” and a driver, who doesn’t even know you, simply says “who to”?  I can’t even do that in Corner Brook! I mean if it was Ramea or Paquet or some outport where everyone knows everyone else you might understand it, but St John’s? Really? A city of 214,000? No. Where. Else. On. Earth.  You can buy fresh fish in St John’s somewhere besides Sobeys or Dominion. You can buy your produce from a farmers market, run by a real farmer. You can smell the fish offal in Quidi Vidi right next a microbrewery that is alongside a world famous artist or author or poet.

When anyone starts a conversation about amalgamating or regionalizing, or sharing services in rural NL, the hue and cry goes up about us losing our traditional life style. Bulls poop.  Our traditions and values are more alive in St John’s than many small towns so let’s stop using that argument. It is counterproductive, it is inflammatory and it starts an argument that is not useful. 

Now, let me shred “small town.”

A small town can be an independent governance structure, within 10 minutes (drive) of a large urban center.  There are many of them in this province. I’ll stick to what I know. Steady Brook is 10 minutes from down town Corner Brook. Massey Drive is even closer.  I can get to work in Corner Brook from Steady Brook faster than you can drive from Kings Bridge Road to Stavanger Drive!

Many can name similar small towns in their own area. Towns with the benefits of urban living without the tax burden of paying for them.  They get 90/10 cost sharing for municipal infrastructure with the province coughing up the 90. Many of these “small towns” have a demographic that can well afford to pay a bigger share of their infrastructure. Why does this happen? Because successive provincial governments are too stunned to figure out that a small town does not mean rural. If your population is less than a few thousand, you get the same bowl of cherries as a small town that is also an “outport.” 

Now Uncle…I know you suggested that the “rural” municipal leaders need to address just such issues for survival but seriously… that is like giving a child the key to Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory and asking them not to use it. 

This leaves us with the word rural.  The definition of rural must be changed.  The true rural areas of this province must be supported if they are indeed dependent for their survival on resource harvesting.  We need people who still want to fish and cut down trees. This work needs to be done and Lord knows the ones that want to do it are few and far between. 

I propose: Rural NL be defined as any community whose citizens DO NOT have REASONABLE access to, well rounded education, normal medical and dental attention and cost effective shopping.  Further, that the majority of the citizens of that community make their lively hood from primary natural resources.

We have to rationalize what rural really means.  

And another little thought. In your blog, you talked about high wages and low productivity, union agreements and the fly in, fly out syndrome.  These are also urban problems Uncle. Important points you made but grossly unfair to lay them at the feet of Rural NL.  It was not likely a municipal leader that negotiated an inappropriate union contract. It was never a municipal leader who built a shipyard in Marystown or negotiated a contract to build a big ship there.  It was not a municipal leader who decided Bull Arm was a good place to build a mega project. I expect they were happy enough but I also expect they weren’t at the negotiating table when the big decisions were made. 

There were a lot of important points in your piece Uncle but way too many of them are not under the control of municipal leaders.  And it is unfair to lay the solution to the financial woes of the province on the shoulders of municipal leaders many of whom know exactly what you are talking about and have tried to get this conversation going for a long time.

 Talk. To. The. Wall.

Public policy enemy #1. Open line shows encourage the lowest common denominator of whiners, which reduce the political will of the real decision makers whose job it is to do the right thing. 

Political leadership will bow to a handful of the outspoken. It’s like the Captain of sinking ship swimming off to save the rats, ignoring the thousands of people who can actually swim and help each other get to shore if only they had a compass and a bit of help.

You are right that the financial crisis is going to force change on the area of the province you call rural. Some of it is necessary and if properly executed, it can protect the truly rural areas as it forces the small towns and local service districts, close to large urban centers, to pay their fair share of the service they take for granted.  

Uncle, you are right about the “what” needs to happen, but you are wrong about the “how.”

I have a few ideas, if you’d like to hear from me again.

Kind regards,

Donna Thistle
Editor's Note:
Donna Thistle is a born again Newfoundlander. She studied at Fanshawe College and Western University in London, Ontario.  After the obligatory 13 year educational and employment hiatus in Ontario, she returned to NL to teach at CNA in the Hospitality Management program.  She is now a successful entrepreneur in Western NL and was the Mayor of Steady Brook from 2009 to 2013. She made an unsuccessful bid to join provincial politics in 2015.  Her commentaries on social and political policy have been aired on CBC as well as published in The Western Star and The Telegram.  She has served on many private and public Boards, is an unapologetic feminist, a strong advocate for good governance, and an outspoken critic of bad public policy.  


  1. Great that the better half has accepted Uncle`s invitation to his blog. And she makes good points.
    Winston Adams

  2. There are some 276 incorporated towns in NL and numerous Local Service Districts.

    The normal standard to be called a Town is to have a population base of 3000. Less than that you are either a village or a hamlet and therefore part of a larger municipal governing body.

    In Nova Scotia there are only 27 Incorporated Towns the rest is part of a County System.

    Donna is right. We have to define what is a town and what is rural. Juran would tell you that you have to set a standard. If you live an hour from a medical facility, major shopping, recreational facilities, then you are consider rural.

    The major stumbling lock that always seems to put a road block in moving the yard sticks on this issue is the A word.

    We, like Donna has clearly highlighted, only have to turn to Fogo Island. Each of the 11 communities on that Island still have their own identity and have their own representative on the combined council.

    We desperately need Regional (County) government in NL. For example, in the Humber Valley, Reidville, Cormack, Howley, St Judes, Pynn's Brook could all be part of Humber Valley County with each of these communities with there own rep on the County Council.

    In Howley we have a 7 person council. That is one Councillor for every 29 people. The 200 residents of Howley could easily be represented at the County Table and being only 30 minutes from Deer Lake residents can easily pay their taxes in Deer Lake or do them on line. It is 2017!

    Time to get off the pot!

  3. It boggles the mind to think what just a billion or two, wisely spent, of the 12 billion wasted on Muskrat could do for rural Nfld.

    1. Yupp you can sing that again...I just moved back from 45 years away and the state of our HAVE province now is sad state of affairs...A couple of billion dollars could work wonders..I recently suffered a severe pain form a kidney stone,travelled to corner brook hospital at about 9 pm to find out from the doctor in emerg that he could not do a cat scan because theres no coverage at night or weekends..He surmised it was maybe a stone or maybe an aneurysm but had no way of checking.I said sweet god are you serious..He threw his hands up in the air and said yupp .....I have observed many different injustices the people of this province endure.....I remember when we were a have not province and services were so much better...

  4. Des everything is already inplace to put regions in place. 19 yrs ago the Provincal Govt put in place an accounting system that would do this. At that time I worked with a Company that wrote the software and upgraded it with the Minister and six of his staff to do this job.
    It was designed with 999 Departments of them was 999 Sub Departments and of them was 999 Catg Departments.
    Eg. Washroom supplies for the Fire Department for the Town of Reidville or Washroom supplies for the Swimming Pool for the Town of Deer Lake. All in one system. Half of the towns are running on this software now because the Provincial Govt paid for that software years ago.

  5. The meandering and rather disjointed prose in this submission is at times somewhat nebulous and difficult to follow... regardless, the definition of "rural" offered up is problematic and wide open to interpretation... to the degree that the attributes of the definition itself require their own definitions.

    For example, what is the definition of "reasonable access"? For that matter, what is the definition of "normal" medical attention? There are many people in the Corner Brook area who cannot find a family physician because of a doctor shortage there. Does that make Corner Brook a "rural area"?

    What is the definition of "cost effective shopping"? The term itself is confusing. As for the proposed attribute that "the majority of the citizens"... "make their lively hood (sic) from primary natural resources"... well then, what if the majority of citizens in a particular community are mainly supported by social assistance ­vehicles such as welfare or old age security? In many dying outports this is in fact a reality. Does this then disqualify these community from being considered "rural"?

    I would suggest that, rather than inventing new and somewhat simplistic definitions whose attributes themselves remain undefined, perhaps... in the interests of consistency and unambiguity... the established international standards should be employed. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development defines a "predominantly rural region" as having more than 50% of the population living in rural communities where a "rural community" has a population density less than 150 people per square kilometre.

    Perhaps this definition may suffice?

    There are several other questionable points made in this submission... low-hanging fruit should anyone else wish to challenge them.

  6. There may be hardly any rural communities in Nfld if the 150 people per square kilometer applied.
    The town of Logy Bay requires 1 acre lots and is not crowded, yet is very close to all services. Hardly rural. Many small communities that were fishing communities have houses closely spaced due to the the nature of the rugged land, with density more than 150 per sq kilometer , yet very far from services. This density thing may apply to farming areas, but not rural Nfld.
    Cost effective shopping.......not very precise, but compare St johns and coastal Labrador and cost effective has meaning when everything is double the price, and rural is very evident.

    1. According to Stats Canada there are in fact 244 municipalities, out of a total of 272, across Newfoundland & Labrador listed as having a population density of less than 150 people per square kilometre.

      These 244 municipalities comprise about 90 percent of the municipalities on the list.

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. The author can employ euphemisms and anecdotes and argue semantics all day. And she very nearly did.

    Let's agree that Fogo Island, a favorite of all who crave an outport experience, is one of very, very few "others" doing something correct (vis a vis tourism). Perhaps Trinity and maybe Bonavista are the other two such rural communities. Very few rural outports are maintaining their heritage in a way that drives some economic benefit. But they are still rather removed from a larger Center and, say, healthcare services.

    But let's also agree that while the beautiful community of Steady Brook is close to the service hub of Corner Brook, it too is an outlier among communities its size. It's but a few kilometres over a rare decent stretch of the TCH right into doctor's or dentist's office. The same can't be said for communities in similar proximity to Stephenville, GFW or Gander.

    When one looks at Conche or Croque or King's Point or Beachside or Ramea or Burgeo or Buchans or Harbour Breton or Ferryland or Bell Island or even...Fogo decisions around changes to service provision need to be made.

    The delivery of many government services to rural Newfoundland needs to be re-architected. Regionalization as well as another "R" word needs to be more seriously discussed and it sounds like the author would do so.

    Upon reading the blog post to which this essay replies I said, "ask not what the province can do for rural NL, ask what rural NL can do for the province". This needs to be asked and answered.

    Ed Flynn

  9. I agree that Danny Williams could have undertaken a reorganization of the municipal level in the province and still would have been re-elected in subsequent election. This perhaps would have been a more positive legacy than what he will be known for.

    Perhaps this is a golden opportunity for the Ball government. Based on their performance since being elected their hopes of re-election look pretty slim. Perhaps setting in motion regionalization during the remainder of his term would leave a positive legacy for him and the Liberal government 5 or 10 years down the road when the system has been operating for a few years and the benefits are realized.

  10. I agree with the writer of this article. Another thing we need to do for the smaller, more isolated parts of the province is come to a final conclusion, one way or the other with resettlement. There are several communities which have had unsuccessful but close votes, and there are others which are considering it. They are all looking at the money that is being promised if they vote to proceed with resettlement. There needs to be a firm deadline placed on the availability of this money, otherwise it will sap the life out of any remaining viability. If there is energy and innovation in these smaller communities (which I know there is) it cannot succeed if there are others in the community who want it to fail so that they can have their planned retirement move to another community paid for by the public purse. These communities have to piss or get off the pot, and the remaining ones need to unite their citizens and try to move forward, which they will not be able to do if this option is perpetually on the table. By holding out this promise of a cash reward, it is like a permanent weight on the shoulders of enterprising and energetic folks who want to improve their communities.

    1. With respect, it is long time to sacrifice a sacred cow. The fishermen.
      They have all of the protections of business enterprises, but they do not pay any business taxes. If the provincial government passed a law requiring fishermen to pay ten cents a pound for every pound of cod, lobster, crab, shrimp, whelk, and halibut landed in the municipality where it is landed, the municipal governments would not have to be funded by the province.

  11. Meanwhile ......speaking of Muskrat.......and speaking of the Telegram.
    Two recent letters, one by Dave Vardy on the PUB issue of excluding evidence relating to reliability, and one by Alex Campbell, on the effect of rate increases that will drive down demand for electricity.
    Each well written letter got only one posted comment, by the troll that has for 4 years promoted Muskrat as the best thing since sliced bread, and says any critic is a part of the raving lunatic fringe. The Telegram makes it so difficult to comment that no one bothers any more. Previously, on Muskrat issues, when that troll posted nonsense, about 10 to 1 would counter his silly statements. Now the Telegram has him as the only voice on the subject. Good job Telegram. I thought the Telegram would fact check to counter the troll, but instead they just now publish comments, almost exclusively by the troll. So why would anyone even bother to write letters to the Telegram

    1. "...rate increases will drive down demand" : totally agree with this, Winston. It's called demand "elasticity".

      Tom Adams also mentioned it in his blog. (I brought his comments here on Jan 13th at 16:35):

      (About what raising electricity rates/falling demand will result) "Falling usage of power means that costs are spread over declining units of sales, which further increases rates."

  12. I read that Manitoba Hydro is cutting 900 jobs, including 3 vice presidents. MH`s debt is to go to 25 billion form 13 billion due to having proceeded with large hydro projects, as we did with Muskrat, with poor economics. And MH`s consulting arm, Manitoba Hydro Int, endorsed Muskrat, with a less than very critical eye, as to forecast loads for Nfld, which are already proved wrong.
    Winston Adams