Improving Rural Governance on PEI

As a Green Party MLA, I approach all issues through a couple of lenses: is this position the right one for the people I represent, and is this position consistent with Green Party values?

Most of the time those two lenses are aligned, and as I’ve discovered to my delight over the last couple of years, Islanders’ values line up beautifully with Green values, so generally the right path is clear to me. And those same Green Values are used in the development of all our policies, to make sure that our platform reflects the principles on which our Party is built. But occasionally an issue will arise where, due to its complexity, or contentiousness, it is hard to craft a position that makes me feel completely comfortable and confident. That, I suppose, is one of the central challenges of politics – as an elected representative, you are repeatedly tasked with making difficult decisions on behalf of your community.

Recently one of these times arose around the debate on rural governance. Two of the core principles of the Island Green Party that inform my political life are “Active citizenship and self-determination” and “Grassroots democracy”. Those two values together suggest that local communities – like the ones affected by the changes in rural governance – should have deeply democratic mechanisms to determine their futures, and the ultimate say in how they are governed. On the other hand, numerous provincial studies have all come to the conclusion that significant reform of rural governance is needed.

For many people, the extent of their activities in democracy is to vote in elections – a critical component of democracy. But for many others, that is not enough: they want their voices to be heard when government (local, provincial or federal) develops policies that affect their lives. We see attempts at that by our provincial government in public consultations and forums on issues such as the recently passed Water Act, or the impending Cannabis legislation. For some people, those exercises are unsatisfactory, as they often feel – rightly or wrongly - that government has already made up its mind on something and that the consultation is nothing more than government going through the motions. In addition to voting and participating in the occasional public consultation, many citizens want a process that is far more collaborative and empowering: one that truly listens to advice from Islanders, and incorporates those ideas and recommendations into decisions as far as possible. So what democratic mechanism would foster and honour grassroots democracy, active citizenship and self-determination?

One mechanism that has been tried in many other jurisdictions to facilitate this deeper level of engagement is a Citizens’ Assembly. A Citizens' Assembly is a body formed from randomly selected ordinary residents - in this case from rural PEI - to deliberate on an issue without the participation of politicians. A Citizens’ Assembly could be implemented in rural regions of PEI with a mandate to engage with the public and all stakeholders, to consider and find common ground on how rural PEI should be governed, and with the authority to make binding decisions. Exactly such a process was used to create the Citizens’ Assembly that crafted the referendum on electoral reform in British Columbia back in 2005 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citizens%27_Assembly_on_Electoral_Reform_(British_Columbia). An almost identical Citizens’ Assembly was struck in Ontario a year later to work on their electoral reform referendum. Such a level of citizen involvement and responsibility would be new on PEI, but given our tradition of voter turnout and Islanders’ legendary engagement in politics, I have little doubt that such an idea will work just fine.

It will accomplish a couple of things which have dogged the issue of rural governance to date – the distrust that many feel over the heavy handed approach of government, and the lack of representation of people from unincorporated areas in the process.

I imagine such a Citizens’ Assembly being mandated, selected, carrying out its work, and making binding recommendations to government over the course of a couple of years – a veritable sprint given that reports dating back many decades have all suggested that reform of rural government on PEI is critically needed.

We might finally have a trusting and open discussion among ourselves, and reach the consensus on rural governance that Ralph Thompson talks of so longingly in his benchmark report of 2009.