Social media, pandemic hangover contributed to election apathy, says minister of communities

Communities Minister Jamie Fox says lack of engagement at the community level is being felt everywhere, not just politics. (CBC - image credit)
Communities Minister Jamie Fox says lack of engagement at the community level is being felt everywhere, not just politics. (CBC - image credit)

Seventy-five per cent of smaller communities in P.E.I. did not require elections Monday because there were not enough people running for office — a level of apathy Minister of Communities Jamie Fox attributes in part to social media and the effects of two years of pandemic restrictions.

Of 52 smaller communities, 39 did not require elections, including seven that still have vacant positions and two that have asked to be dissolved.

When asked by Island Morning's Laura Chapin what kind of stories he heard from people backing away, Fox said he'd heard about negativity on social media as well as the drain of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"For two-and-a-half years you couldn't get involved," he said. "It's hard to get back into things, hard to get back into that routine."

'It's not just municipal elections'

Fox said there may be other reasons for disengagement and he wants to talk to people who chose not to run and those who put their names forward and then changed their mind. He's also interested in what the difference in interest was between men and women.

He said the lack of engagement is noticeable across multiple facets of community life.

"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."

Fox said education is key and he'll continue to work with Federation of Prince Edward Island Municipalities, as well as holding regional meetings with communities.

24 vacancies across the province

In 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.

Fox said the province will have immediate conversations with those communities to see who might be interested in vacant mayor's chairs. He said it could be an elected councillor but not necessarily.

Any empty councillor slots — like the two in Abram-Village — will also be filled "as best as possible," Fox said.

Don Desserud, a political science professor at the University of Prince Edward Island, said many people's interest in politics is based on what they see in terms of parties and leaders.

"All that part of politics doesn't apply at the municipal level," he told The Canadian Press. "There's no party, there's no leaders, at least in most of Canada, and certainly here in Prince Edward Island."

P.E.I. is not alone, he said, 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."

Wayne Thibodeau/CBC
Wayne Thibodeau/CBC

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.

"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."'