‘THEY DON’T CARE’
Group seeking equalization payment reform disappointed with politicians who declined invitation to discuss issue
Equalization advocates unhappy with MLA turnout at meeting.
As far as John R. MacDonald is concerned, the empty chairs said it all.
But as a member of the group that organized a Thursday-afternoon discussion on the issue of equalization payment distribution, MacDonald said he was not surprised that Cape Breton’s two provincial cabinet ministers were among the politicians who declined invitations to take part in the discussion at the Cedars Club in Sydney.
“We’re not going away — I don’t think they can continue to hide from the fact that this is a major issue and that our community is dying,” he said. “It’s time we took care of our own community.”
The event was hosted by the Nova Scotians for Equalization Fairness organization, which issued invitations to Municipal Affairs Minister Derek Mombourquette, Energy Minister and Government House Leader Geoff MacLellan, the island’s five Progressive Conservative MLAs, Cape Breton Centre New Democrat MLA Tammy Martin, Liberal MPs Mark Eyking and Rodger Cuzner, CBRM Mayor Cecil Clarke and all 12 municipal councillors.
But only Martin and nine members of the CBRM council showed up to meet with members of the advocacy group’s board, prompting Sydney councillor Ray Paruch to declare that equalization is most assuredly a political issue that needs to be addressed by the area’s elected representatives.
“We have a major problem with leadership here, I mean, look at the table, we had only one MLA here — they don’t care, we have two provincial ministers, but where are they?” said Paruch, who, not for the first time, singled out Mombourquette as a key player.
“As the minister of municipal affairs, he is probably the guy we need most — he has the benefit of being a (CBRM) councillor in the past and, given the information and reports we got on this issue, he has to be involved.”
Despite the lack of MLAs and MPs, whose absence was deliberately highlighted by the empty places marked with the names of those not in attendance, the meeting went on as a discussion involving the advocacy group’s board, the CBRM councillors and Martin. And, although the event was held behind closed doors, it was streamed in real-time on the advocacy group’s Facebook page.
The dispute centres around the annual $1.8 billion equalization transfer payment that Nova Scotia receives from the federal government. The province asserts that the money goes directly into its general revenues and is responsibly used to fund services and initiatives across Nova Scotia. However, that claim is disputed by many in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality, including the advocacy group’s Rev. Albert Maroun, who has become the face of the fight to reform the equalization distribution process.
“We’re suffering — we may not be dying, but we’re fighting to the end — this is important, equalization is for you, your children, your children’s children, so we are doing this for them,” said the 87-year-old former priest, university physics professor and well-known philanthropist.
“It’s very important that we have these meetings — nobody’s on trial here, but we can see who’s concerned about the community by their presence here.”
If there was a theme that ran through Thursday’s meeting, it was that the province is not listening to the concerns of Cape Breton and that the Nova Scotia government is not giving the CBRM a fair portion of the federal transfer payments that were introduced in 1957 as a measure to helping the Atlantic provinces, that were, and still are, suffering from depressed economies and a high rate of emigration to Central and Western Canada.
But while many Cape Breton residents are up in arms over the equalization issue and are calling for a larger cash infusion into the local economy, Mombourquette has maintained that the $15 million the CBRM receives each year from the province is not a redistribution of federal transfer payments and, instead, is a provincial transfer operating grant funded by the Nova Scotia Power Inc. grant-inlieu of property tax program and partly from the province’s general revenues.
Meanwhile, Nova Scotians for Equalization Fairness is asking residents who are concerned about the equalization issue to call and send letters to their MLAs and MPs.
New Democrat MLA Tammy Martin, top left, was the only Cape Breton MLA to accept an invitation to meet with board members of the Nova Scotians for Equalization Fairness advocacy group on Thursday at the Cedars Club in Sydney. However, a majority of the CBRM council, shown at the table to Martin’s left, showed up to discuss the equalization issue with the group’s board members, who sit in the foreground facing the councillors.