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OPINION: Can One Councillor's Actions Sink an Entire Municipality?

Murray Harbour Sign (Photo Murray Harbour Website)

If one were to unfold a map of Atlantic Canada, Murray Harbour isn't somewhere most people could point out. The small community steeped in a rich history and small-town charm, might just be a tiny dot, easily overlooked by the casual observer.

Yet, in recent months, this small town has found itself at the epicentre of a storm, with Murray Habour Councillor John Robertson serving as an unexpected lightning rod, sparking controversy and casting a shadow over the community's efforts to forge a path forward.

The tempest began with a sign, an ominous proclamation planted on property owned by Councillor Robertson. The words etched on this sign were a troubling declaration: "Truth: Mass Grave Hoax, Reconciliation: Redeem Sir John A's Integrity." What makes this particularly disturbing is the timing — the sign emerged just days after September 30th, designated as National Truth and Reconciliation Day in Canada. This solemn day is dedicated to honouring the survivors and victims of the residential school system, along with their families and communities.

The shockwaves from this sign rippled through the town, inciting outrage from community members, Murray Harbour Mayor Terry White, and Abegweit First Nation Chief Roddy Gould Jr. The calls for Councillor Robertson's resignation were loud and clear.

Now according to local news reports in PEI, Robertson offered a somewhat apologetic note in October, stating, "I'm sorry for people who felt upset or hurt by what was on the sign."

However, apologies alone couldn't mend the deep wounds inflicted by such a divisive statement.

The Municipal Council took decisive action, requesting an apology and the payment of a fine from Councillor Robertson. The council also suspended him for six months, effective November 18th. The situation escalated, prompting the Prince Edward Island Government to intervene, seeking a resolution through a review.

Enter PC Minister of Communities Rob Lantz, who concurred with the Municipal Council's stance. In a press release on December 28th, Lantz declared, "I have notified Councillor John Robertson that he is ordered to comply with the sanctions placed on him by council or resign from his role on council by December 31, 2023." The ultimatum was clear — apologize, pay the fine, or resign.

The dawn of January 1st brought no resolution to this simmering controversy. It wasn't until late on January 3rd that CBC reported an intriguing twist — Robertson had been on vacation when the Minister issued his ultimatum on December 28th. According to CBC's Stephen Brun, Lantz extended an olive branch, giving Robertson additional time to contemplate his decision. Lantz, as reported by CBC, emphasized, "The councillor has the option to continue serving … in Murray Harbour if he wishes, but he's going to need to comply with the sanctions imposed by his fellow councillors."

This brings us to the core question — why delve into this story? Why ponder the impact of one individual on an entire municipality? The query has lingered in my mind over the past few months as this tale has unfolded. Can one person truly sink a municipality with their actions? Municipal councils are often perceived as cohesive teams, working towards shared goals. However, when one member works against that goal, the entire enterprise can become disoriented, lost in a cycle of uncertainty.

Twenty-five years ago, the notion that a councillor could face consequences for actions beyond the council chamber would have been met with skepticism. News wasn't as readily accessible, and social media couldn't amplify every misstep. Yet, times have changed, and municipal politicians must now acknowledge that their actions, both within and outside the council, can have far-reaching consequences.

It's doubtful that the Murray Harbour Council anticipated grappling with such a challenge in 2023. Yet, here we are, at a juncture where municipal leaders must scrutinize every facet of their lives. This isn't an indictment of all municipal councils. Far from it. The majority of municipal leaders, I would argue, are dedicated individuals striving for the betterment of their communities.

However, even the most well-intentioned individuals can falter. Councillor Robertson now stands at a crossroads. Whether he continues to serve the community or not, a decision must be swift. As this story continues to unfold, it casts an increasingly negative light over Murray Harbour. The town surely doesn't want to carry the burdens of 2023 into the dawn of 2024.

In the grander scheme, the lessons from Murray Harbour extend beyond its the shores of eastern PEI. They serve as a reminder to municipal leaders everywhere, urging them to recognize that their actions, misguided and even sometimes noble, can echo through the annals of time, shaping both individual legacies and the destinies of the communities they serve.


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