Nfld. & Labrador·Weekend Briefing

A short life for a tall fence, and an opportunity to play spot-the-politician

A fence meant to shield the Signal Hill Tattoo from noise turned into a hot but brief political racket, writes John Gushue.

A fence meant to shield the Tattoo from noise turned into a political racket

Crews quickly started dismantling a fence on Signal Hill on Thursday morning. (CBC)

Oh, Signal Hill fence, we hardly knew ye.

It went up quietly, it came down this week … but not before becoming one of those water cooler yarns that seem to thrive most in summer.

To recap: Parks Canada put up a wooden fence near the interpretation centre — to be precise, it's near a field where Signal Hill Tattoo re-enacts military moves. (The field has also been used for theatre troupes, including performances last summer of The Tempest.) The purpose: to aid visitor safety, and to improve the experience of visitors who see such performances.

When people got a load of a tall fence obstructing the view toward the city, there was, shall we say, a freakout.

Well, maybe that's strong. But loads of people, notably Rick Mercer, didn't like it.

And that was before we found out that the fence cost about $65,000 to design and put in place — no doubt, then, that this was a federal government project, and not what a private citizen would put in their budget. (But wait, there's more: that figure does not include the taxpayer dollars that will be used for dismantling the fence.) 

Another key voice against the fence: St. John's East MP Nick Whalen, who proved his connections when Environment Minister Catherine McKenna (she's responsible for Parks Canada) issued a statement that the fence was coming down.

And on Thursday morning, well before most of us were reaching for breakfast bowls, crews were dismantling the wooden planks.

Our not-long, definitely-not-national crisis was over.

Bring on the snickering

And then there was more snickering. On Thursday, I had two separate conversations about the politics of it all. In one, a conspiracy theory was floated that had the feds putting up a fence in order to prove the government's responsiveness and listening skills, by then quickly pulling it down.

In the second, a friend of mine suggested this was less a fence than a trial balloon, to test the public taste for some other things Parks Canada may have in mind for Signal Hill.

That may sound a bit much, but many people will no doubt recall that time in early 1996 when Parks Canada put forward a much more contentious idea: a personal user fee to get on Signal Hill.

A wooden fence obstructed views on Signal Hill, but not for very long. (CBC)

Forget a trial balloon — that was a lead balloon of the first order. The thought of a user-pay system for Signal Hill sparked an outrage. City councillors were furious; the late Dorothy Wyatt had a petition circulating in no time. No end of opposition came out of the woodwork. If there were ordinary residents who spoke out in favour of the idea, I can't remember them.

Personally, in this week's case, I think Parks Canada managers just wanted to put up a noise break for the Tattoo.

That said, I will acknowledge that some politicians came out of this one looking pretty fine

Where are your local MPs?

Summertime is a peculiar season for politicians. Legislatures are usually out of session, so attention turns to other things. In the colder months, the meet-and-greet part of politics is called the rubber chicken circuit. It's summer, it's the barbecue circuit.

Not sure how much barbecue sauce ever actually touches MPs' fingers, but you'll see them working the summer festivals, parades, concerts, community get-togethers.… If a crowd of voters is going to assemble, bet on a politician being there.

St. John's East MP Nick Whalen was quick to call for the dismantling of a new wooden fence on Signal Hill. (CBC)

This year, though, there are actual stakes. A federal election is now less than 100 days away, and while voters may not necessarily have their minds on who they'll vote for, be certain that the politicians are completely focused on it.

In the newsroom, we've noticed Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O'Regan popping up all over the place (including a news conference that didn't seem to have anything to do with his portfolio). This month, west coast MP Gudie Hutchings visited outports on the south coast, while Avalon MP Ken McDonald was flipping pancakes at the Kelligrews Soiree.

For Whalen, being "flabbergasted" by an ugly fence might well be a thing that voters in St. John's East take with them to the ballot box in October. Whalen scored an upset in 2015 by ousting New Democratic incumbent Jack Harris with a slim margin of just 646 votes. There's a rematch looming: Harris is nominated and already working to win back the riding he  held for seven years.

Last time, Whalen was lifted by a surge that brought the Liberals back to power across the country. Who knows what might transpire nationally in the weeks ahead.

Locally, maybe the 48-hour fuss over a wooden fence will waft away like a summer breeze. 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador 

About the Author

John Gushue

CBC News

John Gushue is the digital senior producer with CBC News in St. John's.

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