There’s an ancient proverb that goes like this: travel together like water, always flowing in the same direction.
Whoever said that clearly hasn’t been to Saint John, New Brunswick.
Saint John is located on the Bay of Fundy, which is known for having the greatest tides in the world. The Bay of Fundy rises and falls by up to 56 feet roughly every 12 hours. I was fortunate to have a waterfront apartment for this stay, and sure enough, watching the tides come and go has quickly become a part of my daily rhythm. In the southwest end of the city, there is a place called the Reversing Falls where the rapids literally change directions twice a day.
Perhaps a better axiom for this city is: go with the flow.
Saint John is the largest city in New Brunswick, Canada’s only bilingual province. New Brunswick is home to approximately 750,000 people. Interestingly, about a third (250,000) of the population lives without any form of local government. In fact, more than 90% of New Brunswick’s territory does not have local government (see the white areas on the map below), and instead are divided into unincorporated areas called Local Service Districts (LSDs) with all services administered by the province and no forum for local decision making. According to one interviewee, the people living in LSDs pay minimal taxes with services subsidized by the urban areas, so there is little incentive to incorporate. “Changing this would take some serious political will at the provincial level, and frankly there is nothing in it for them.”
New Brunswick’s 107 incorporated municipalities include 8 cities (defined as 10,000+ population), 26 towns, 65 villages, 7 rural communities, and 1 regional municipality. About a quarter of the province’s population live in just 3 cities: Fredericton, the capital; Moncton, which with its neighboring municipalities is the largest metropolitan region; and Saint John, the largest city.
Of course, the big municipal news in New Brunswick is about last week’s elections. On Monday, May 9, all New Brunswick municipalities went to the polls (see a bit more background on this in an earlier blog post). The overall voter turnout across the province was a discouraging 34.5%, although slightly higher in the three largest cities (ranging from 35.7% to 37.9%). The election has ushered in change, as there is now a new mayor in all three of New Brunswick’s largest cities. In Moncton and Saint John, the incumbent mayor had decided not to ‘re-offer’. In Fredericton, a longstanding and well known mayor was unseated.
Under New Brunswick’s Municipal Act,the duties of mayors include providing leadership to council, communicating information and making recommendations to council, and speaking on behalf of council. The Act also explicitly states that the mayor is “subject to the direction and control of council and shall abide by decisions of council.”
Despite this, mayors in New Brunswick seem to face the same challenging expectations I’ve heard about in every province: citizens think the mayor “runs the show”; they vote for candidates who promise to shift the fortunes of the city; they tend to lay blame at the mayor’s feet when things go wrong. In practice, the mayor is just one vote (and here they are not even that, as the mayor only votes in the rare case of a tie). That said, in New Brunswick, like elsewhere, I have also heard some incredible stories about how mayors can exercise enormous influence and power – and I’m quickly learning that it’s not always in the ways we would expect.
There are a few unique features about local government in Saint John. First, it’s old. Saint John is the oldest incorporated city in Canada, dating back a whopping 231 years to 1785. Hints of heritage remain today, even in the fact that Council is referred to as “Common Council” (rather than City Council), a term I am not aware of being used anywhere else in Canada. Saint John is divided into four wards, each represented by two councillors. Common Council includes the mayor, the eight ward councillors, and two councillors elected at large. Common Council appoints a deputy mayor, traditionally the member of Council who received the most votes in the last election. The position of mayor is technically part-time, but described as “easily requiring full time hours.” One person remarked this has meant that the position tends to only be held by people with the personal financial means to commit the time, or retirees who have the time.
One thing I’ve heard a bit more here than elsewhere is about the role the mayor plays in civic boosterism, or building community pride – and although my study is not about evaluating the people who are mayors, it sounds like the past few Saint John mayors have done a good job in this regard. The strong sense of local pride here is evident, and it’s easy to see why. The compact downtown core is full of beautiful old buildings, many of which have been respectfully and creatively converted into modern spaces. Almost every street includes interesting public space, and unique food and retail vendors. I enjoyed an excellent lunch over an interview yesterday, and afterwards the chef dropped by the table and spoke about how much she loved the city, referring to it as ‘Saint Awesome’. I said the term would make a great hashtag. This got a oh-you-must-be-new laugh, and I was quickly informed that it already is a great hashtag. Sure enough, I’m now noticing #SaintAwesome all over the city.
Saint John has taught me about the history of cities and local government in Canada. As the oldest city in our country, the time invested in reading about its formation was well spent, as it created an urban governance template still evident today across Canada. Saint John has also caused me to spend an almost embarrassing amount of time googling how tides work. And perhaps most importantly, it’s made me think about the virtues of going wit the flow.
#SaintAwesome, I’ll be back.
Hey – if you’re reading this in Saint John (or anywhere else, for that matter), please take 5 minutes and answer a few quick questions about the role of mayors. I’m learning through insights of others, and everyone has some to share, so please do! Thank you!
And you thought I was joking about 90%+ of this province having no local government.
Uptown Saint John.
One of many beautiful buildings.
A great example of a heritage conversion project.
Salmon & beet salad at East Coast Bistro. I think it’s illegal to go to a foodie city and not post at least one food pic.
This city loves to celebrate it8s many firsts! Canada’s first free public library (1883).
Now there’s an idea.
My Airbnb apartment was truly spectacular. I arrived to quiet jazz and fresh raspberry turnovers. The balcony has a view of the Saint John River. Every detail was considered, and had my dream combo of a Perrier stocked fridge, luxurious toiletries and fast internet. It’s in an ideal location and the costal Canadiana touches make it a perfect getaway spot. If you’re visiting Saint John, I’d strongly recommend checking out @OnePrincessSJ.
In case you didn’t notice, I really loved my apartment this week, @OnePrincessSJ. DId I mention the raspberry turnovers already?
Watching the Saint John River go with the flow.