‘We’re going to get through this’

With a light at the end of the COVID tunnel, Mayor Mike Savage and Councillor Lisa Blackburn hold hope for a brighter year to come


t’s week before Christmas and Halifax Mayor Mike Savage is feeling blue.

Frequently seeing Argyle Street empty makes him sad. “I get my energy from people,” he says. “I find it difficult in the Christmas season, in particular, not to be able to walk around, talk to people, give a hug or shake hands… That’s what I find takes a toll on me. But I want to get back to the job of mayor that I know, which is partly being in the office, but just as importantly being out with people.”

2020 started well enough. Along with Council, Savage was finalizing many projects, including the environmental and transit plans. Mainly, they continued their focus on sustainable ways that Halifax’s economy could grow, celebrating another consecutive year of record tourism numbers.

“We’ve had record growth in population, the city, record investment in the protection of green spaces, and we were continuing our focus on diversity and inclusion,” Savage adds.

That all screeched to halt on March 13, as COVID-19 pandemic precautions took over the city. Most thought things would get back to some normal by autumn. The mayor, staff, and HRM Council were thrown into a host of new public safety and economic challenges that came as many businesses closed or cut back operations.

“As a mayor, you are concerned about the well-being and their welfare to survive, but it translates from a city point of view,” Savage explains. “The challenge we had with transit was the fact we couldn’t shut transit down because it was an essential service declared by public health. We had to keep it running, but we had to be concerned about our operators’ safety and assuming the impact to the bottom line. People were staying home and not using it was one impact on programs that were no longer going to be able to be held.”

The decisions weighed heavily on the Mayor as Council took the CAO’s advice to layoff 1,400 seasonal and part-time employees because recreation programs could not happen with restrictions in place. Additionally, HRM had to adapt quickly to changes concerning park openings and closings.

Mayor Mike Savage

“I was in awe of how they were able to adjust…that was the department and business unit that took the biggest hit as far as layoffs were concerned,” District 14 councillor Lisa Blackburn recalls. “They were asked to do just an absolutely Herculean effort with minimal staff. We were given something like 23 minutes’ notice when the province finally reopened the parks. They had to leap into action; they had 900 park assets, had to open, and given 23 minutes to figure out how they were going to do it. That was all so inspiring.”

During the spring, the community was reeling from the April mass shooting and the helicopter crash in Greece that claimed six Canadian Force members, including local Sub-Lieutenant Abbigail Cowbrough. Next came the Snowbirds’ plane crash in British Columbia took the life of Nova Scotian Jenn Casey.

“I felt very fragile as a Nova Scotian, and I don’t know if the word is depressed or not, but I think we all felt that,” Savage says. “It affected everybody here, and I knew a little bit some of the other folks that were killed. These things hit us all personally. It’s been a very difficult year for all of us. I feel very blessed and fortunate to have an amazing family. I work with amazing people on a daily basis, but I sure as heck look forward to the day when whatever the new normal is [arrives]; I say bring it on.”

Savage and Blackburn both saw silver linings in 2020, though. Savage praised the community’s generosity, showed resilience by helping those in need—notably the United Way Compassion Fund, the community kitchen set up at the Canteen Restaurant in Dartmouth, and HRM’s mobile market who adjusted so they could become a delivery agent for goods and services.

Blackburn was particularly impressed with how Halifax Public Libraries reinvented its offerings.

“The work they have been able to do, not once, but they had to do it, twice because they’re shut down again,” she adds. “They’ve taught me the importance of community outreach and the different forms that outreach can take.”

For much of the year, Blackburn was serving a one-year term as deputy mayor.

“I got a crash course in crisis communications and management,” she says. “As deputy mayor, I was on those phone calls starting that second week of March; every day started with two hours, sometimes three-hour conference calls with the mayor and the CAO and all of the heads of all the executive directors of our business units. That went on for weeks, so that was an incredible opportunity to see emergency management up close and in person. What I got was an absolutely valuable experience that will stay with me for the rest of my career.”

Councillor Lisa Blackburn

One of the critical issues that took centre stage aside from the pandemic was the growth of the of Black Lives Matter and Indigenous-rights movements. HRM police finally ended street checks after years of concern about racial profiling.

HRM cancelled plans to lease an armoured vehicle for police. Blackburn serves on the Board of Police Commissioners and says the group is working with El Jones to put together a plan to foster structural change for policing.

Moreover, HRM is taking steps to hire more Black, Indigenous, disabled, and francophone people to reflect the workforce properly. HRM also removed the downtown statue of Halifax’s racist founder Edward Cornwallis and is working with the Mi’kmaw Friendship Centre to help establish its new location on municipally-owned land.

“We can look this year to symbolic things we did and some real things that get at the fact that we have systemic and institutional racism in our city,” Savage says. “It has governed where people have lived, the schools that they’ve gone to, the job opportunities that they’ve had, and we have to acknowledge that. We recognize that it’s based on respect, understanding, and that we have an imperfect past that we can’t ignore there either.”

Savage easily won another term in the October 2020 municipal election. One of his goals for the next four years is to keep pushing for permanent residents to have the ability to vote in municipal elections, something he proposed five years ago. Ultimately, the decision rests with the provincial government. He appeared before the Law Amendments committee last year, imploring them to allow it.

“As a city and a province that has seen great growth in recent years largely driven by new Canadians, we should allow [this change],” he adds. “These are not just people who on a whim end up in Halifax by mistake. These are people who went through the process to become permanent residents, and it takes a long time to get citizenship in some cases. These are people who own businesses, have kids in school, are part of the community, coach our kids in soccer, and church members here. They would be very serious electors and about that responsibility. Before I leave as mayor, that’s definitely something I want to see happen.”

Campaigning for their jobs in the middle of a pandemic was another new challenge for Blackburn and Savage. “It was very different; political campaigns are about people, and beyond that, they are about meeting with people at the door, in the community, at schools, at church halls, at festivals, and there wasn’t very much of that,” Savage says. “For those that take delight in getting their energy from people, it was very challenging to have that as the backdrop.”

Blackburn thought back to her radio days when she would go to the Metro Centre with signs and make her station’s logos and call letters were visible. She ordered a big vinyl banner, recruited volunteers, and placed themselves at major intersections during the morning and afternoon rush hours.

“My philosophy was, ‘OK well, if I can’t go to your door, I’ll get you when you are driving to and from work just to let you know I’m out here running,'” she says. “You have to do it in such a way that you can use social media, but I didn’t feel right with just doing that… I learned some new marketing techniques.”

The October election gave Council gender parity for the first time in the city’s history, plus Iona Stoddard became the first Black woman Councillor.

Before the election, Blackburn and Councillor Lorilei Nicoll took part in a forum to encourage more women to participate in politics.

“I was floored; I thought a couple of more women would be elected but never imagined that we would be sitting on gender parity council,” Blackburn says. “It’s vital. Women think differently. We process information differently. We make decisions differently. The decisions we make are going to be different from those of our male-dominated councils. I think it’s incredibly exciting, and that’s the whole reason why I’ve always said two terms, and I step aside because I think it’s far too important to have different life experiences around that table.”

Savage hopes 2020 has made citizens value each other, and their city, more.

“A year like this makes us all appreciate how exciting mundane can be,” he adds. “We have not only survived COVID better than most, but it’s beautiful here, and we’re a comparatively wealthy nation. We have many things we should remember that came about not necessarily as individual efforts, but collectively. If there’s a lesson from COVID, it’s the solutions are all of us working together even if it means we have to apart.”

Despite the arrival of a COVID vaccine, uncertainty looms over 2021. Blackburn worries about the ongoing economic effects of the pandemic.

“It’s going to be a long time before we’re able to… attend functions and meet,” she says. “Temper your expectations for 2021. It’s looking better—the sun is coming out—but we’re not quite there yet, so don’t give up. We like to think we’ve got your back, here to help take care of you and make sure everybody stays safe. 2021 will be a year of reflection: a lot of us will sit back and realize what we have done and what we have accomplished in the last 12 months and realize our potential again. Everyone hang on a little bit longer.”

Savage hopes for a gradual return to economic growth, pointing to 12 companies that set up shop in Halifax during the pandemic. He appreciates the “amazing” efforts of Dr. Robert Strang, the provincial government, and health-care workers.

“I want it to be a city that grows but in a sustainable way from the environment point of view, in a socially just way from the diversity and inclusive lens,” Savage says. “In the first six months of the year, as the vaccine rolls out and people feel free to smile again, you will see continued growth in Halifax. I look forward to a city that continues to embrace its past, recognize where we are today, and look forward to tomorrow. To those hurting, whether it’s a business or an individual, we’re going to get through this… There are better days ahead for everybody.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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