PC MLA reflects on 2017, looks ahead to 2018

The Constituency of Inverness had an incredible year with significant growth in our tourism and seafood industries.

Our citizens left a mark: Liam and Shane Bernard received Nova Scotia Medals of Bravery for helping to save people from a burning car; the Cape Breton West Islanders were crowned national Midget AAA hockey champions; we lost historic leaders with the passing of once Deputy Prime Minister Allan J. MacEachen, Grand Chief Ben Sylliboy, and Nova Scotia’s first Acadian education minister Gerry Doucet.

A May election returned Premier McNeil’s Government to office but with a small margin of power in the legislature. We started 2017 with great disruption in the school system, and finished the year with many people in need of a family doctor or specialist medical services. Over the past year, I have made recommendations to fix traffic delays at the Canso Causeway, took action through social media to save a bear cub during the election campaign (the Facebook post received over a quarter of a million visits proving people care about wildlife), and on April 4, Feed Nova Scotia informed the Standing Committee on Community Services, that during the first eight months of a tax credit which encourages farmers to donate to food banks – legislation first introduced by your MLA – there was a 108 per cent increase in donations of fresh produce.

The future of trade agreements between Canada and other countries featured prominently in the news. Statistics show free trade agreements grow the wealth of a nation, but does that wealth find its way into the pockets of the common person? Possible changes in these agreements will affect fishing, farming, forestry and other sectors in our local economy. So will changes to the Income Tax Act proposed by the Trudeau Government for people who work for small business.

Anyone interested in getting a grant to hire a student should have their provincial application in by January 28. To learn more about the provincial programs, visit: https://novascotia.ca/programs/student-summer-skills-incentive/. The deadline for the federal program is February 2 with details found here: https://www.canada.ca/en/employment-social-development/services/funding/canada-summer-jobs.html. The federal program is open to small businesses but the provincial program only serves non-profit organizations.

There was very little mention of high speed Internet and no mention of improving cell phone coverage in the provincial budget. Your Internet service providers seem to be waiting to see how a $500 million federal government fund, and a $750 million CRTC fund will be invested. Our provincial share of the $1.25 billion would be about $36 million based on our population. That is more than twice the amount the feds provided in 2006 when they partnered with the Nova Scotia plan to “provide everyone with high speed Internet.” The technology recommended to government at that time did not keep pace with data volumes required by users (ie: Netflix, frequent Windows updates), and Internet Service Providers prefer to use government money rather than their own to make further investment to help rural users. We can only hope the upcoming federal investment will make a difference and that the technology chosen will stand the test of time.

Four years ago I started working with Bell Mobility to identify areas with poor cell phone coverage. This included mapping Inverness County with sites identified for improving service. Bell is happy to do business but will not put towers up that do not recover their cost after 10 years. They are open to government partnerships to improve the service. Other options exist including government putting up its own towers and renting space to telecommunications providers.

Our rural roads will be helped by a new gravel road reconstruction budget. The Deepdale and Big Harbour Island roads benefitted this year and the Whycocomagh-Port Hood Road in Roseburn, East Skye Glen Road and Lake Ainslie Chapel Road will benefit next summer. This program will help to fix a road or two each year, but maintenance budgets remain 25 per cent less each year since 2010. That means rural roads are not getting the attention they need. This is important rural infrastructure and an issue I raise regularly in the legislature.

Paving in 2017 included roads in Petit Etang, Plateau and Cheticamp, the West Mabou Road (Little Mabou Road), Broad Cove Banks Road, Route 395 at East Lake Ainslie, and on Highway 104 at Waycobah toward Port Hastings. Next year repaving projects will include Route 19 in Harbourview (work has begun on Captain’s River Bridge), the Mabou Harbour Road, and the Cenotaph Road at West Bay.

The Creignish Youth, Adult and Seniors Wellness Club received help for improvements to their ballfield, tennis court and playgrounds. Organizations with similar projects should contact our office so we can help you. Local news articles have detailed how affordable housing can be constructed with partnership from government, with Danita Rooyakkers providing new affordable housing in the Strait area – something our office has helped with.

People raised the state of the water in the community of Inverness many times during the spring election campaign. Over $40 million has been budgeted this year by the province to help with projects like these. It is an opportunity I have raised for the people of Inverness (and other areas) with municipal council because project applications require municipal approval.

The year 2017 began with students missing sport, artistic, and other activities because of the relationship the McNeil Government had developed with teachers. We need a government who will work with teachers to make things better so that children will be ready for life when they graduate. We do not need emergency school closures and sittings of the legislature like we saw last December (2016). You may recall MLAs were called to the legislature for an emergency sitting for what amounted to a 3.5 hour recess which the Premier chose not to attend. Let us hope teachers efforts through the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions will make learning better for students. Many of the changes needed in the classroom do not cost a lot of money, but they do need a government who wants to help.

The introduction of Pre-primary classes for four-year-olds has been the biggest change at the Department of Education. We now have people employed in Inverness County providing this service, and I am sure the many families who have children signed up are happy to have this option. Proponents of local childcare centres are concerned that some of their children will be taken from them to go to the new pre-primary classes which are free. Consultation on pre-primary ended on November 21 so it will be interesting to see if outstanding concerns are addressed. While the case has been made that early learning needs will now be identified before grade primary, funding for things like assessments in elementary school to identify learning difficulties remains strained. The wait times can be up to one year.

Nova Scotia agreed to a new health deal with Ottawa in 2017. It’s about money and how much more we get each year. Premier McNeil is right to have asked for more because our population is older and needs more care than other provinces, but the formula was not changed to recognize this. He agreed to an increase of about three per cent per year; a big change from what we have been getting: a six per cent increase each year. The provinces had agreed to stick together to hold out for more, but New Brunswick, and then Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, weakened the cause by giving in. Hospitals will face new pressures as we try to care for those who need it with less money. Federal health transfers support almost $1 in every $4 spent on healthcare.

Doctors Nova Scotia says we need 100 new doctors each year just to maintain what we have, and that would still leave thousands of people without a family doctor. The government plan to fix this has been criticized by the Auditor General, and we hear each week from physicians around the province who are frustrated. People speak highly of their experiences at hospitals in Cheticamp and Inverness, but we must keep our eye on decisions about kidney dialysis, lab services, surgery at Inverness Hospital and the ability to see specialists locally. Centralized decision making does not always favour our rural interests. One example of this was when the community had to raise 100 per cent of funding for new X ray equipment at Sacré-Coeur Hospital in Cheticamp. Staffing issues in nursing homes are a problem, and it is affecting the quality of life for our loved ones. A proposal to create a new wing at Foyer Pere Fiset has not yet been approved.

Marijuana will be legal in July. The message I would offer youth is that marijuana is not harmless for everyone. Doctors are concerned about its impact on mental health and have recommended no one under the age of 25 risks using it. The McNeil Government has said it will set the minimum age at 19 with the drug sold through NSLC stores. The stated purpose of legalizing and regulating it is “to protect the health and safety of youth and children,” but government procuring and selling it sends a mixed message.

A cap and trade system will be introduced in 2018 “to protect the environment,” but it may be more about creating smoke than removing it. The Trudeau and McNeil governments want to make it look like they are doing something for the benefit of our environment, but they don’t seem to care if it makes any difference. One would think the purpose of any measure, be it a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system, is to reduce consumption to reduce emissions. You and I must be penalized with a hidden fee for our consumption so we will buy fewer things and use less heating oil, electricity, and gasoline. Yet in response to my questions, the Minister of Energy has essentially said no one will be hurt by these changes. How can the government claim their cap and trade system will not hurt anyone, but also claim people will have a reason to reduce their consumption?

I do not support penalties designed to hurt people who have no choice in how far they have to drive to work or who need to heat their home in winter, and we will not help the planet by exporting jobs to places like China because government imposes penalties to do that business here. Some of our largest job creators like tourism, fishing, farming and forestry cannot function without fossil fuel use. People need choices, not penalties. LED lights and heat pumps have been good choices that have helped. How many solar panels, windmills and hydro dams need to be constructed to replace the energy we get from fossil fuels? Do they not also impact the environment? Until renewable energy can replace fossil fuels, why punish the public with high energy costs?

Government has a role, but we have some power too in making decisions that help future generations. Are we ready to reduce our consumption and our impact on the planet? Should products be required to have a minimum lifespan to avoid the “throw away” culture we live in? So much of what we have is not made to last, and we throw it away only to buy it again. Yes, we can recycle, but repeatedly buying poorly made products from big factories is hard on our planet.

Our office is always glad to hear your ideas and to help people with available government services. We look forward to serving you in 2018.

Allan MacMaster

MLA for Inverness