CHARLOTTETOWN — The high number of acclaimed candidates in Monday's Prince Edward Island municipal elections — and even vacancies in five towns where nobody ran for mayor — is being seen as a sign of fading interest in local politics.
"A lot has to do with the fact that our interest in politics is based on what we see in terms of parties and leaders, and all that part of politics doesn't apply at the municipal level," said Donald Desserud, a political science professor at the University of Prince Edward Island. "There's no party, there's no leaders, at least in most of Canada, and certainly here in Prince Edward Island."
Results posted on the government website show that in the small communities of Abram-Village, Miminegash, St. Louis, Tignish Shore and Wellington, nobody entered the mayor's race. In total there are 24 council vacancies across the province after election day, a government spokesperson said. Under the Municipal Government Act, the minister of communities can appoint people to fill vacancies if no candidates run.
In St. Louis and Tignish Shore, nobody ran for council, and in another 37 towns — about two thirds of the province's municipalities — all council positions were filled by acclamation.
P.E.I. is not alone, Desserud said in an interview, noting that a drop in the number of people running in local elections seems to be a trend across Canada.
"What you have is a situation where a lot of people just don't quite know what a councillor does," he said. "They don't know whether there's much value in that."
Tim Garrity, P.E.I.'s chief electoral officer, echoed Desserud, saying people may not realize what municipal governments do. "They look after a lot of different things," he said. Municipal councils on the Island are responsible for zoning, public transportation, snow removal and parks and recreation, among other things.
Speaking to CBC's Island Morning program Tuesday, Communities Minister Jamie Fox said more than two years of pandemic restrictions when "you couldn't get involved" and a hostile social media climate have contributed to the disengagement.
"It's not just municipal elections," Fox said. "It's our fire departments. It's our non-profit groups. It's our different community organizations. Volunteering is down. When you look at minor hockey, look at all that context, how do we get people re-engaged in what's going on in their communities and across Prince Edward Island."
Desserud said work done by councillors is not particularly glamorous but it's important, contributing to a vision for the community. But there can be issues maintaining the public's confidence for people who have not been elected to office.
"They have to make decisions and those decisions need to be respected by their constituents," he said. "But if their constituents don't see them as the democratic choice, it's a Catch-22 .... It undermines the confidence public has in the posts, and then of course, makes it even more difficult when they do get people to come forward the next time around. It's a vicious cycle."
There is also a danger that those in power get the impression the public is generally tuned out. "It can work in all sorts of odd ways,” Desserud said. “The basic responsibility that they have to their constituents could be compromised if they start believing that, 'Well, no one really cares what I do here.'"
In the province's larger municipalities, there were battles for the top job. Charlottetown Mayor Philip Brown was re-elected, winning by 1,625 votes. In Summerside, Dan Kutcher unseated incumbent mayor Basil Stewart.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 8, 2022.
By Hina Alam in Fredericton
The Canadian Press