A steady hand isn’t enough

HRM Mayor Mike Savage. Photo: Randal Tomada

Last year, I took some relatives from Quebec on a hike through the Blue Mountain Birch Cove Lakes wilderness area.
It was early summer, soon after citizens had sent 1,400 letters to Halifax Regional Council opposing development in the area. My relatives, who hail from Montreal, marvelled at the unspoiled pocket of wilderness within the city’s boundaries.
Talk soon turned to politics and the letter-writing campaign. My brother-in-law wondered why so many people had to write letters to council to convince them to reject the development proposal. I said it was because many people had never visited the place, but that was changing. Even our mayor has gone on a hike here, I told my him.
“Really?” he said.
“Oh, yes,” I told him. “He has even spoken in favour of the park, but in almost four years as mayor, nothing has happened to make the park a reality.”
I could see the wheels turning as he pondered the ramifications of a mayoral visit to these lands. “What is this mayor’s legacy?” my brother-in-law asked of Mike Savage’s first term.
I thought about it for a few seconds, and started with the obvious and refreshing change that he’s provided scandal-free governance.
Then I added, perhaps with a touch of cynicism, that the accomplishment that the mayor seemed the most outspoken about was the “rebranding” initiative that gave us a new logo and rebranded our city from Halifax Regional Municipality. It was the most salient issue on which he took leadership.
That’s not much of a legacy if you ask me, and my brother-in-law wasn’t all that impressed either.
In fairness to Savage, Mayor Kelly did nothing in his last six years as mayor to help the Blue Mountain Birch Cove Lakes, either. It was enshrined as a goal in the 2006 Municipal Planning Strategy, but nobody in municipal government did any heavy lifting. The province donated some land and designated it as a wilderness area, but the real passion and leadership came from the public.
Private citizens, the Ecology Action Centre, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, the Halifax Northwest Trails Association, and the Maskwa Aquatic Club worked to raise the profile and provide some trails to help more people become aware of the area.
Now that Savage has another four-year mandate from the citizens of Halifax, he must do more in his second term than he did in his first. Lil MacPherson, who ran against Savage in October, won 31 per cent of the vote and that is more support than I thought the citizens of Halifax would give her.
That’s a comfortable win for Savage, but it’s not as large a margin of victory as many expected. My perception of how MacPherson would be perceived by Halifax voters was inaccurate. Her green message resonated with some people.
Savage failed to inspire a lot of people. And that’s because of his steady-hand-at-the- tiller approach.
Yes, he is a welcome change from previous mayor who overstayed his welcome and left in clouds of scandal, but a mayor needs to lead. If a mayor is not going to be bold, at least let citizens who are take the initiative. And I don’t mean developers.
Savage has said that he doesn’t see a problem with Council candidates accepting donations from developers. MacPherson took the opposite view and that impressed a lot of voters.
Councillors who have to vote on development applications should not be accepting donations from developers. It’s a clear conflict of interest.
In September 2015, Halifax West Community Council voted to reduce the wetlands buffer in the Bayers Lake park behind Kent. Developers clear-cut that land but at the time, the Savage said that the buffer that was in place would protect the Birch Cove Lakes.
A mere 15 months later, the community council voted to reduce that protection at a developer’s request. Runoff from the industrial park already affects the waters of Susies Lake and it doesn’t need any more stressors or it will end up like nearby Kearney Lake.
Making the Blue Mountain Birch Cove Lakes Regional Park a reality is going to require bold leadership—not just from the mayor, but from councillors. When that happens, let’s hope the land and the lakes are still as unspoiled as they are now.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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