Yesterday I arrived in what is one of North America’s oldest settlements in Canada’s youngest province: St. John’s, Newfoundland & Labrador.
From the moment The Rock became visible in the airplane window, the beauty of this place has had me catching my breath. It’s rugged, earthy, majestic. A few moments after landing, an older man asked me if it was my first time here. I said it was. In a thick accent with a kind tone, he welcomed me, said he could tell I was a “Mainlander”, and told me this was a place where I could let my guard down and learn to relax. I was a bit taken aback. Seemed a bold thing to say to a stranger, but I’m starting to think he was right.
St. John’s feels strikingly similar to San Francisco: hilly terrain, brightly painted houses, breezy ocean air, a tourism-meets-industrial seaport, and a decidedly hipster vibe. No one seems to be in a rush, and most everyone has a smile on their face. I was told several times before this trip that Newfoundland has “the nicest people in Canada” (which is saying something, in a country often defined by how nice we are). Already I can see how it has earned this reputation.
Newfoundland & Labrador is home to just over half a million people. It has 271 municipalities, including three cities: Corner Brook (with a population of approximately 20k), Mount Pearl (25k), and the capital St. John’s (105k). Cities are treated uniquely in this province. Newfoundland municipalities are subject to the Municipalities Act, except for the three cities which each have their own legislation. City mayors are also unique in that they are directly elected, a contrast to the provincial tradition of mayors being elected from within council (although often as the councillor receiving the highest number of votes).
Interestingly, one of the areas where cities have been treated differently is in how the role of the mayor is described in legislation – and in particular, the mayor of St. John’s, who holds (seemingly) considerably more power than do his mayoral colleagues across the province.
The City of St. John’s Act includes a special clause regarding the status of the mayor as “the official head of the city”, and states that the duties of the mayor include [paraphrased]:
• To execute the laws for the government of the city;
• To prosecute and punish all negligence, carelessness and positive violation of duty;
• To inspect the conduct of officers in the government of the city; and
• To communicate information and make recommendations to council.
Now, some of these items are fairly unusual in Canada, particularly the bits about executing laws and inspecting the conduct of officers. This language is not included in Newfoundland’s Municipalities Act, either. Perhaps even more notably, the Municipalities Act specifically states that “the mayor is subject to the control and direction of the town council”, language which is not included in the City of St. John’s Act.
The Mayor of St. John’s presides over an 11-member council, including a deputy mayor, 5 ward councillors and 4 councillors elected at large. It meets (almost) every week. The City of St. John’s website identifies 7 standing committees, 11 working and advisory groups, and 28 external bodies affiliated with council. This complex structure makes the role of the mayor even more interesting, as we can examine the ways in which the formal authority of the mayor may or may not extend beyond the municipality.
There is only so much that can be learned about the role and power of the mayor from looking at what’s on paper. I’m looking forward to learning much more through conversation, observation and interviews. I’m probably sounding like a broken record now, but I believe that we have seriously underestimated – and sometimes misunderstood – the importance of mayors in Canada, and their influence on our cities. I’m eager to learn how this varies across the country throughout this journey.
It’s a treat to study something by actually being here: watching, looking, listening. I’m thankful for this opportunity. The end product will surely be richer for it. And if the experience happens to include some great meals, good hikes, beautiful sunrises and other tourist luxuries … well, so be it.
If you’re in St. John’s (or anywhere in Newfoundland ) reading this, please connect with me. Take a minute and share your thoughts. Drop me an email. I appreciate everyone who has reached out already, and I’m looking forward to connecting with many more during my visit to your beautiful city.
Dinner at Raymond’s, courtesy of a very generous friend. One of the best meals of my life. Highly recommended.
The essentials for a Canadian morning hike. The view from the top of Signal Hill is spectacular.
Delighted to see local goods in most stores along Water street.
A supreme Supreme Court.
Taking the kind stranger’s advice, and relaxing by the water.