The debate over Thornhill’s future? That’s happened before

The first in an occasional series taking aim at Thornhill's quest to define its future considers the issue's familiar history

Headlines from a 1972 newspaper reveal some of the debate then about a local government option for Thornhill.

When the Kitimat-Stikine regional district’s letter suggesting Thornhill be incorporated as a municipality first made its way to provincial cabinet minister Coralee Oakes’ desk last fall, her officials would have had to dig deep into their archives for the whole story.

For this wasn’t the first time the issue found itself on the public agenda.

Thornhill takes its name from Tom Thornhill, an early English pioneer settler who married Eliza from the Kitselas First Nation in 1891.

Spurred by the prospect of mineral development and the arrival of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway in the early part of the next century, the population of both the Thornhill area and of Terrace on the other side of the Skeena River gradually grew.

But if Terrace residents decided upon local government, incorporating in 1927, the Thornhill area did not.

Studies in the early 1980s prepared for the regional district suggest the desire to live in Thornhill and rural areas surrounding Terrace was motivated by cheaper land and fewer taxes.

Large-scale logging and sawmilling added to the population of both Thornhill and area and Terrace with more than 3,000 people living in what was described as Thornhill in 1971.

Thanks to a copy of the area’s main newspaper of that period, The Herald, made available by the regional district, Thornhill’s governing future was a hot topic.

Through several lengthy articles in the Sept. 13, 1972 issue of The Herald, a debate emerged as to how large an area an incorporated Thornhill area should cover.

Indications are that the provincial government took a dim view to a large-scale incorporation sweeping, for instance, down Queensway.

Instead, taking the advice of the provincial government, the Thornhill Incorporation Committee, with its chair also being the elected Thornhill regional district representative, began to organize for the most basics of local government, a water system, through a water improvement district.

The Herald’s article gave as the area under consideration to be “the central densely populated sector of Thornhill.”

And with water – either from wells or the Skeena River or, supplied by Terrace via a pipeline across the Skeena River – would come the ability for firefighting.

It’s telling that then, as now, the supply of water, along with sewer, was a challenge for Thornhill.

And if having one incorporation group wasn’t enough, a second one seems to have been formed, naming itself the Thornhill Incorporating Committee.

And it’s against this brief historical backdrop that more modern-day efforts at deciding Thornhill’s future should be viewed.

Advancing 25 years past 1972, a 1995 restructure study for both Terrace and Thornhill, which looked at options for both a combined Terrace-Thornhill municipality and a separate Thornhill incorporation.

The steering group of local officials which had commissioned the study ultimately recommended the two communities join.

This resulted in a referendum brought on an Oct. 18, 1997 referendum with just one question: “Are you in favour of the incorporation of the Terrace/Thornhill area as a municipality?” The answer then was ‘no’.

A reply from Oakes to the regional district now states she’s willing to provide up to $60,000 “for a diagnostic and research study on services, governance and planning in the Greater Terrace area.”

She’s also not convinced an incorporated Thornhill is the best option for its citizens.

However the regional district responds to the Oakes offer and however the study is structured, the information will lead to the central lifeblood of any government – taxes and user fees.

The 1995 restructure analysis leading to the 1997 referendum declared taxation to be the number one issue.

Information published cautioned residents that projections were for comparison purposes only.

The impact projected for Terrace following the joining of the two communities was an increase of 3.36 per cent for residential properties that qualify for a regular homeowner grant, and a 12.7 percent increase with the seniors homeowner grant. Terrace voters supported the proposal, but the turnout was so low as to render acceptance inconclusive. Tax increases projected for Thornhill were 12.7 per cent and 16.59 per cent respectively.

But incorporating Thornhill as an independent municipality was projected to increase residential taxes by 112.87 per cent (regular homeowners grant) and 147.44 per cent (seniors homeowner grant).

Thornhill voted ‘no’ to a joining of the two communities.

The referendum placed Thornhill residents between a rock and a hard place. Their choice was to join Terrace at the cost of a double-digit tax increase or to go it alone and swallow a triple-digit tax increase.

The 1995 study’s reminder that “future municipal councils would have considerable flexibility in shifting the tax burden among different classes of taxpayer to address tax increase concerns” would have done little to reassure voters.

Voters may have missed out on an opportunity by rejecting the proposal. Key aspects of the proposal, however, consisted of vague statements. A lack of certainty tends to favour the status quo and the proposal was rejected.

Oakes deems Thornhill’s proximity to Terrace to be a challenge concerning the viability of Thornhill as a municipality.

She indicated that she is “not yet convinced that it makes sense to create another municipal government in the area, and that strong consideration must also be given to inclusion of Thornhill in a reconfigured municipality for a broader Terrace area.”

The power and authority of future councils, be that for a single or two adjacent municipalities, goes to the subject of governance which the minister suggests should be included in that diagnostic and research study.

And how citizens might then be represented comes down to the essential DNA of democracy.

This is the first in an occasional series to be published over the months ahead concerning Thornhill’s future.

Andre Carrel counts nearly 20 years experience of working for small municipalities in the Northwest Territories, the Yukon and B.C. in addition to running his own consulting business and sitting on various local government associations.

Now retired and living in Terrace, B.C., Carrel retains a keen interest in how governments work and should work.