There’s a reason they call it ‘The Gentle Island’.
Prince Edward Island is Canada’s smallest province, representing just 1% of our nation’s land. But make no mistake: it’s a special 1%. Only here will you find bright red soil roads, softly rolling hills, and a backdrop of sparkling blue water as far as the eye can see. There is no place on the Island more than 16km from the ocean. The coastline is punctuated with lighthouses, sandy beaches and rocky shores, almost like it’s posing for a postcard. It feels serene, peaceful and calm. Even the island itself is shaped kind of like a smile.
Charlottetown, PEI’s capital city, is also all charm. The city takes great pride in being the birthplace of Confederation, expressed through historical monuments sprinkled through its quaint urban core. The city punches well above its weight in excellent restaurants, hip coffee houses and cultural amenities. The streets are peaceful, and cars consistently stop to let pedestrians cross the road. I experimented with this, stepping just off the sidewalk to see if it would slow traffic. It did. The influence of courtesy on traffic flow is a foreign phenomena to Ontarians like me.
But when you scratch beneath the idyllic Anne-of-Green-Gables-ish veneer, what you find is an evolving Canadian city facing very real political challenges.
Charlottetown seems to suffer simultaneously serious cases of Big City and Small Town syndromes. Within PEI, Charlottetown is the big dog: it’s the provincial capital, and with 34,000 people (and 65,000 in the ‘metro’ area) it’s the largest city in the province by a long shot. Charlottetown benefits from a strong presence of all levels of government, with federal buildings literally across the street from the provincial legislature and down the block from City Hall. All 140,000 islanders rely on Charlottetown to an extent, as home to most of PEI’s primary institutions and amenities. I heard a lot about capital city dynamics during my interview this week, particularly with respect to what is consistently referred to as ‘tax fairness’. Charlottetown residents pay approximately $5 million more each year in property taxes than what is spent in the city; the rest is collected by the province and spend elsewhere (and the trend lines on this are concerning – see page 5 of the City’s most recent budget document). Interviewees expressed feelings of resentment and frustration on this issue, mixed with a healthy dose of duty and responsibility (“as the capital city, we do have to look out for the whole Island”).
While Charlottetown is The Big City in PEI, it also fancies itself a small town, with all the good and bad that comes with it. Everyone I interviewed mentioned the closeness, familiarity and tightly networked nature of a smaller city (“everyone knows each other; heck, we’re probably even related”). Charlottetown’s smaller size also shapes it’s politics, including providing unparalleled access to political leaders (“I can talk to the mayor whenever I want. I can talk to him when he’s cutting his lawn”) and a more personalized policy making process (“when our Council makes a decision, they actually know all of the people affected”). Interviewees also spoke about how progress can be slow and cumbersome in a smaller community, particularly one that is so closely connected to the past and with a political culture sometimes adverse to taking risks.
Of course, size does matter. During the last municipal election, just three candidates ran for mayor (to put this in context, 67 people ran for mayor in the last Toronto election). The successful candidate, an incumbent mayor, won with fewer than 8,000 votes (again, to show the contrast, the current mayor of Toronto received nearly 400,000 votes ). The mayor of Charlottetown is a part time position, and the current mayor holds down another job. When searching for contact information for the mayor, I was surprised to find his home phone number listed on the City of Charlottetown’s website.
In PEI’s legislation, mayors are considered the “chief executive officers of council”. Charlottetown’s mayor presides over a 10 member, ward-based council, and has unilateral discretion to appoint a deputy mayor, all committee chairs, and committee members. Although no one here here seemed to think this was unusual, it’s a lever of power that few Canadian mayors hold.
In the words of one interviewee, “local government here is ripe for reform.” Charlottetown is one of 73 municipalities in PEI (a number called ‘crazy’ by some). The province’s Municipalities Act sets out the structure and responsibilities of municipalities on the island. The two cities, Charlottetown and Summerside, each have separate legislation and are described as the only ‘full service’ municipalities on PEI, meaning they administer services such as roads and winter maintenance provided elsewhere on the Island by the province. Even in Charlottetown and Summerside, though, the list of services provided by the municipality is more modest than in other Canadian cities as they don’t provide any social services, run their own libraries, administer elections, or even collect their own taxes. Without control over their own revenues, it makes it difficult for the municipality to meet current demands let alone address some of the higher order economic and social challenges faced by Canadian cities. Charlottetown Council approved a deficit in their 2016 budget, despite this being prohibited in provincial legislation (in the words of one interviewee, “it makes the point”).
As a visitor, Charlottetown and Prince Edward Island offer much appeal. As a researcher, this case also has a lot to offer, as it highlights the challenges faced by smaller cities across Canada: increasing demands and growing complexity, mismatched with rigid structures and constrained resources. Charlottetown, like all Canadian cities, faces social and economic struggles, and requires governance and leadership structures equipped to address them.
Serious as this may sound, it’s far from gloomy on this smile-shaped island. I should have disclosed that I’m not unbiased in how I feel about PEI, as most of my maternal family lives on the Island, and we visited annually when I was growing up. My affection for this province is longstanding, and after Ontario, it’s the province in Canada where I feel most at home. Even after 30 years of visiting, I’m still captivated by the Island’s charm – and I suspect I always will be. Every time a car slows to let me walk across the road, it reminds me of why I love this gentle island.
Charlottetown City Hall
One of my interviewees invited me into her home, greeted me (a stranger) with a hug, made me a coffee, and shared a binder with 160 years of information about Charlottetown mayors with me. The quintessential Charlottetown treatment.
If you like lobster, and you haven’t been to PEI … please go to aircanada.ca immediately.
A PEI sunset. As I said, this place feels postcard-ready all the time.
Okay so this one is cheating a bit. I took this photo last year. But it captures how epically beautiful PEI’s beaches are during the (late) summer. These poor souls would be crazy to be on the beach in early May!
Receiver Coffee + reading the PEI Municipalities Act. This PhD student is in Maritime heaven.
Crossing the Confederation Bridge, saying goodbye to PEI … until we meet again.