It was a fascinating exercise in grass roots democracy, made possible by new technology and used during the recent US presidential election. More than a thousand people took part, along with local members of the Legislative Assembly.
And it turns put that local people overwhelmingly want the government to buy the lands, rather than see them sold off to the highest bidder.
Our own MLA, Vicki Conrad, was a part of the meeting, as was Natural Resources Minister Charlie Parker. It was moderated by Lunenburg West MLA Gary Ramey and included Pam Birdsall, MLA for Lunenburg, and Denise Peterson-Rafuse, MLA for Chester-St. Margarets.
The government used automated equipment to dial the households and at 7 pm on Tuesday, all joined the town hall meeting simultaneously. As well as those contacted, others were able to join the conference by calling in.
Participants could ask questions of the politicians involved, jump in to speak on the topic and vote on questions posed by the moderator, allowing the government to have a genuine sense of what ordinary people thought about the issue. Voting was done by hitting a number on the telephone keypad and the results were tallied almost instantly.
Results for the polling were revealing. The moderator asked people if they supported the efforts by the government to keep control of the Bowater Mersey lands, or should the government stand back and let the lands go to the highest bidder. Fully 96 per cent of the participants voted that they supported the government's efforts.
And in another question, people were asked what their priority was for the Bowater lands. Forty-six per cent chose sustainable forestry into the future, 23 per cent chose environmental conservation as their priority, 16% chose access to the lands for camping, hiking and recreation, and 15% picked continuing to be able to hunt and fish on these lands. Only one option was permitted per vote, the moderator said, even though people might think all options were important.
One of the callers noted that all of the options in that question would be encompassed by the establishment of community forests, a concept supported by the government in its natural resources strategy. Community forests would see forest lands managed by communities for multiple uses from logging to recreation, as well as bringing in new kinds of forestry businesses, with a view to ensuring forest sustainability for future generations.
The Minister, Charlie Parker, said they had been having discussions with the Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute, sawmillers and others and that the government was really excited about the possibilities of community forests. He said the government wanted to find ways to establish community forests, which exist in other provinces like BC, Ontario and Quebec.
All of the MLAs weighed in with comments. Vicki Conrad said that most people listening were aware that six months ago, Queens was hard hit by the closure of the Brooklyn mill. She said she thought that most would agree as well that the Bowater lands were extremely valuable and should be a part of our legacy for the future. "I believe," she said, "that if government makes the right decisions those Bowater lands will continue to be one of our most valuable assets."
She also said that there had been a transition team on the ground in Queens County for several months since the closure of the mill, and that it had been hearing consistently that people do see a bright future for the forest industry. She said too that the Liverpool area had one of the deepest ice-free ports along the South Shore, and that the possibilities were endless for uses of the mill site.
The moderator, Gary Ramey, said that many people in his constituency depended on forestry for their livelihood, yet appreciated the environmental and recreational benefits of the forests. Pam Birdsall said that her constituency had many people that worked in the forests and were interested in how the forests would be used in the future. Denise Peterson-Rafuse said she had been working very hard to support the move to buy back the Bowater lands.
The Minister, Charlie Parker, told the conference that the Bowater land was one of Nova Scotia's most valuable assets. "We believe that letting it fall into the hands of an outside company that would ship our timber overseas would really put jobs and our environment at risk." He said his government had been negotiating with Resolute in good faith to keep the resources in Nova Scotia, to keep jobs, and to support the communities here in this area. And in response to a question from Liverpool, he said he and the caller were in agreement that the lands should stay in the hand of Nova Scotians and that we had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to diversify our forest economy.
Political polls have shown the NDP government's popularity dipping recently, but that may well be reversed by the leadership currently being shown by Premier Dexter and his party.
Progress is being made in two areas very close to the hearts of those in southwestern Nova Scotia. Requests for proposals to establish a new ferry link to the US have been made, and if the Bowater lands are purchased by the government, support could increase dramatically.
- Tom Sheppard can be reached at email@example.com