REFERENDUMS ARE rare in Canada, and they are more likely to stir controversy than to resolve problems.
Not so in Switzerland where more referendums are held in an average year than have been held in Canada since Confederation in 1867. I have dual citizenship, Canadian and Swiss, and with that I have the right to vote in Swiss elections and referendums.
The most recent voting package sent to me included six ballots, three for national referendums and three for referendums in my home canton or province of Bern.
The topics range from a proposal to amend the Swiss constitution to make music lessons a mandatory subject in all school curriculums to a choice between two new motor vehicle registration fee schedules.
I lack the mental flexibility to imagine how Canadians would react to a national referendum to make music lessons in public schools a constitutional right, or to a provincial referendum asking voters to pick one of two proposed new motor vehicle registration fee schedules.
One topic of particular interest to me was a proposal to amend my canton’s constitution to make municipal amalgamations mandatory in certain circumstances.
The area of the canton of Bern is a little over half a per cent of British Columbia’s area, and its population at 980,000, is ten per cent less than the combined populations of Vancouver and Surrey.
Where the canton of Bern leads BC, however, is in the number of municipalities: 388 compared to British Columbia’s 160. Many of these are truly tiny villages.
Municipal amalgamation would appear to make a lot of sense there, but Bernese people are a stubborn lot and many of their villages have a lot of history.
The subject of amalgamation brought to mind the local political hot-button/back-burner issue of a Terrace-Thornhill union. The idea of amalgamation was put to a public vote years ago, but the issue does not appear to have been put to rest.
That Thornhill was (and likely still is) less enthusiastic about the idea of amalgamation than Terrace was should not be a surprise.
Both Thornhill and Terrace have a local government established pursuant to British Columbia’s Local Government Act: regional district in Thornhill and municipal in Terrace.
What the amalgamation idea proposed was for Thornhill to give up its local government and be absorbed into the municipal structure of Terrace. The proposal was not an amalgamation at all, it was a proposal for Terrace to expand its boundaries and annihilate Thornhill.
Who can blame Thornhill for its “Thanks, but no thanks!” response?
If we think of Thornhill and Terrace not in terms of their distinct local government structures but in terms of communities, it becomes immediately obvious that the two are good neighbours who work together, play together, enjoy each others company and, when the need arises, help each other.
Many if not most public services in the two communities are shared. From a community perspective, Terrace and Thornhill sharing one local government would seem to be a sensible idea. But I can feel with what residue of Bernese stubbornness is left in my bones that asking Thornhill to surrender its local government identity to Terrace is not going to fly.
And yet, how can it be unreasonable to consider a common local government when we have so much in common — socially, culturally, and economically?
A discussion on the subject of local government may produce ideas worthy of consideration if we focus on truly amalgamating two distinct local governments, have them join forces to become something unique to both, rather than asking one to be swallowed by another.
To appreciate what that means we need to consider the essence of democratic governance.
Democracy does not care about what government does. A democracy’s streets may be paved or graveled, it makes no difference.
Free and fair elections are important, but who is elected is irrelevant. Democracy does not care who wins. What distinguishes a democracy is how a community governs itself.
British Columbia has two systems by which communities govern themselves: municipal and regional district.
Municipal governments, big or small, north or south, are cookie-cutter creations.
Cities with populations in the hundreds of thousands and villages with fewer than a thousand souls are cast from the same mold. Village councils have fewer members than city councils do, but their election procedures and the way in which they make their decisions and govern their communities are identical.
The same holds true for regional districts. The Greater Vancouver and the Kitimat Stikine Regional Districts govern their regions under the same rules.
A true amalgamation of Terrace and Thornhill would mean creating a new way to govern ourselves, a hybrid of municipal and regional district parentage.
We would not be the only exceptions to British Columbia’s cookie-cutter local governments: Vancouver and Whistler have special legislation applicable to them only, as do the Gulf Islands.
We can take these as precedents to justify special legislation to establish rules for how we govern ourselves.
How could a hybrid local government be organized? Terrace is not a single-cell community; it is a community of communities. There are unique higher and lower density neighbourhoods, on this side and that side of the track, on the valley bottom and on the adjacent benches.
Seen from a neighbourhood perspective, any Terrace neighbourhood is as distinct as is any Thornhill neighbourhood. Why not identify neighbourhoods with populations ranging from 1,500 and 2,500 each and unite them all under a single local government in a manner that will preserve and respect their identities?
We could call them wards and have each ward elect a councillor. That is how Thornhill now elects its regional district director.
We could strengthen the democratic credentials of the councillors we elect. Why not provide for run-off elections to be held between the top two candidates in wards in which no candidate has the support of a clear majority in the first round?
This would ensure that all council members have the support of the majority of the people they were elected to represent on council.
Why not have councillors elect, from within their own rank, a mayor and a deputy mayor? That is how regional district chairs and deputy chairs are elected.
We could limit the terms for mayor and deputy mayor to not more than one year with a provision that a councillor may be elected to just one term as mayor and one term as deputy mayor during a three-year council term.
Every ward would thus have a reasonable chance to have its councillor serve the entire community as mayor or deputy mayor at some point during a council’s term of office.
And if we are going to be unique in how we govern our community of communities, there is one more aspect of governance we may want to give a thought to: the official community plan.
Community plan bylaws are in a class of their own. They are the framework for a community’s economic, social, cultural, and environmental development.
The citizens of a community are the people who have to live with (and pay for) the consequences of the official community plan. Why should citizens not take the responsibility for the final say in its approval? Why not subject the adoption of official community plan bylaws to approval by a double majority referendum?
Double majority would mean that an official community plan bylaw has to be approved by a majority in each ward as well as by an overall majority.
Such a process would not only lead to greater engagement of citizens in the planning of their own future, it would also strengthen a citizen’s sense of community.
To explore such ideas Terrace Council and Area E Director could set up a citizens’ committee with a mandate to develop an outline for how Terrace and Thornhill could be joined to meet their local government needs and ambitions. Whatever the committee recommends, take it to referendum. If voters approve, and keeping in mind the Vancouver, Whistler, and Gulf Islands precedents, Terrace Council and Area E Director could then start the tough job of selling the idea to Victoria.
Andre Carrel is a retired public sector administrator living in Terrace, BC.