CBRM Council fiasco is not Ottawa’s fault

“Shame on CMHC!” exclaimed Coun. Cyril MacDonald, referring to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

Tom Urbaniak, Cape Breton Post, March 14, 2023

“Shame on CMHC!” exclaimed Coun. Cyril MacDonald, referring to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

He blamed CMHC for last week’s council fiasco — for bringing local politicians to the brink of sending back $5 million for “rapid housing” because council could not propose a plan for the money by March 15.

“We didn’t apply for the funding. It was provided to us,” protested another councillor, Eldon MacDonald, noting the “short time frame.”

The $5 million was granted to the CBRM to be invested quickly to support new housing for homeless and vulnerable residents. There was no requirement for municipal matching funds.

An animated Coun. Gordon MacDonald agreed with his two colleagues: “The province, the CMHC — the whole lot of them — need to do better!” He charged that MPs Mike Kelloway (Cape Breton-Canso) and Jaime Battiste (Sydney-Victoria) didn’t confer with the CBRM when pursuing the funding for our region.

Too rapid?

Mayor Amanda McDougall-Merrill explained that the CBRM almost had to send back the money because the timelines for “rapid housing” were too rapid.

“This is a very difficult process to have – I want to use the word ‘endured,’” said the mayor. “I know other municipalities across the country have applied for this funding because they were prepared and well-staffed. They had the community organizations prepared. We only found out about this money late into November.”

But community organizations in the CBRM and their partners were — and are — willing to do all the work. Their projects will create jobs and enhance the municipal tax base with new developments.

The criteria are not outrageous when we are talking about a housing crisis and saving lives. If anything, we actually need more money for more units to house more people.

So, last week, two longstanding CBRM problems came into dramatic public view, with potentially tragic human consequences: a deep crisis of local leadership and an overall lack of urgency or motivation.

On file after file, things simply don’t move at City Hall – even, it seems, on life-or-death matters. There’s a fear of taking responsibility for anything.

Learned helplessness

The CBRM doesn’t drive change. It seldom mobilizes partners or the community.

Some social scientists have borrowed a term from psychology to describe this condition. That term is “learned helplessness.”

More than a year ago — on Feb. 8, 2022 — CBRM council (on a motion by Gordon MacDonald, seconded by Cyril MacDonald) asked staff to prepare an issue paper on “how the municipality can support affordable housing.” Unless I missed something, that paper hasn’t appeared.

I don’t absolve Cape Breton University, where I work. On housing, CBU should have done more, sooner.

But this paragraph in CBU’s latest public update is interesting: “We first met with the CBRM in 2022 to stress the urgency of this initiative [Tartan Downs development]. We have had several meetings since then, and our task force again met with the CBRM mayor and council on Feb. 1 of this year.

“We have since followed up in writing, and on Feb. 15 received the following reply: ‘Council are planning a workshop on affordable housing to discuss the options on what role CBRM will play in affordable housing. Following the workshop staff will bring an issue paper to Council with recommendations … ‘”

A pattern

It’s not just housing.

Council’s Charter Ad Hoc Committee has met just once since the last election — on Feb. 24, 2022. Its mandate is to propose what additional powers and revenue streams CBRM needs in order to unblock community revitalization. The only substantive motion at that meeting was to approve the minutes from the previous meeting — held on Sept. 20, 2018.

That’s right, 2018.

The Recreation Master Plan was prepared by consultants in 2017. There’s been virtually no progress on any recommendations, not even on broken parks that are public-safety hazards.

Central library? Still no plan.

Securing infrastructure funding for all kinds of projects? There have been countless missed opportunities over the years.

It’s usually neither a yes nor a no. Things just linger and then evaporate.

One of the early pledges of the current council — elected in October 2020 — was to approve an overall strategic plan for the municipality.

Council even held a private retreat on that at Ben Eoin.

But it’s March 2023, and council has still not adopted a strategic plan.

Friends, we can do so much better.