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.