CBC Investigates

Farmers in the RM of McKillop fear the revenge of the 'lake people' after referendum redraws boundaries

The RM of McKillop is embroiled in yet another controversy after a majority of voters chose to redraw the local boundaries in a way that gives more power to taxpayers who own lakeside resort properties.

Cottagers claim council is attempting to thwart the democratic will of the people

On October 24, taxpayers in the RM of McKillop voted to redraw the 108 year old electoral boundaries which will give more power to people who own lakefront property.

The RM of McKillop is embroiled in yet another controversy after a majority of voters chose to redraw the local boundaries in a way that gives more power to taxpayers who own lakeside resort properties.

Just last month, 73 per cent of people in the RM voted for a new map giving cottagers, most of whom don't live in the RM full-time, the majority on council.

The cottagers expected council to immediately pass the new map and send it to the provincial government for approval. Instead, council has called for a period of additional "consultation" on the new map, despite the fact voters have already approved it. 

I have a fear and a lot of people have a fear that we're going to get retribution.- Brent Johnson, McKillop Taxpayers Network

"It's just been delay, delay, delay," said June LeDrew, who's with the Ratepayers Association of the RM of McKillop, a lobby group primarily representing people along the lake.

On Monday council passed a resolution to send an urgent letter to the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities saying the RM "is being challenged to the point of potentially no longer existing as a rural municipality but rather as an urban municipality." The resolution asks SARM to lobby the provincial government to "keep the Rural Municipality of McKillop rural." 

"The rural people of this RM aren't prepared to go quietly into the night," Murray Wild, the councillor who put forward the resolution, said. 

But councillor Bruce Bondar shot back "the referendum has gone through. The people have spoken. Now you're saying well that's too bad - this is what the council wants. Well the council should want what the people want. And the people want the referendum to go through." 

LeDrew said this is maddening. "Now they're delaying the democratic right of people after they've voted by putting this consultation on."

Soaring taxes, growing fears

McKillop captured province-wide attention this summer when council more than doubled taxes for many ratepayers. People in resort communities bore the brunt of that increase. One woman told CBC her annual property taxes went from $3,759.97 to $7,182.16.

Now it appears political power is shifting to cottagers in the RM and farmers are concerned.

"We have already heard rumblings that the farmed area, the agricultural zoned area is going to take it on the tax side," said Brent Johnson, who heads up the McKillop Taxpayers Network, a lobby group representing farmers and some other full-time RM residents.  "We've sort of gotten blamed for the tax hike that's come out here even though very very few of us had anything to do with it at all and we're worried about a revenge of trying to get that back at us," 

"I have a fear and a lot of people have a fear that we're going to get retribution."

On October 24, a majority of ratepayers in the RM of McKillop voted to approve this map as the new boundaries for the municipality. (Ratepayers Association - RM of McKillop)

Ancient boundaries being redrawn

The existing boundaries, which were drawn in the early 1900s, tilt council heavily in favour of farmers even though they are now in the minority in terms of population.

The majority of the ratepayers in the RM have property in resort communities along the lake.

Currently, more than 50 percent of the ratepayers, mostly cottagers, are in a single division with one councillor representing them. There are other divisions with just a handful of farmers who have their own councillor.

"This is about fair representation by ratepayer population," said LeDrew. "You can't have one councillor with 1,000 people and two councillors who have 70 people each. That's ultimately the issue."

Farmers currently hold the majority in four of the six divisions in the RM, while people in resort communities hold a majority in the other two.

According to the RM of McKillop Ratepayers Association, this is how the current RM divisions are broken down by population. Division four is mostly made up of cottagers. (Ratepayers Association - RM of McKillop)

"You can't have councillors representing 30 percent of the ratepayers having 70 percent of the council seats," said LeDrew.  "It's just not just and fair."

The new boundary divisions approved by referendum gives the majority on council to the lakeshore residents, but the change hasn't yet been approved. 

Consultation causes consternation

According to the municipalities act, if a referendum is approved by majority vote, "the council shall pass the bylaw or resolution at the first meeting following the vote." Then it's supposed to send the results to the Minister of Government Relations for his approval.

But that didn't happen the way LeDrew and the Ratepayers Association wished.

Council decided to allow a month of additional "consultation" on the referendum question. It is allowing people to send in written submissions voicing their opposition or support. This will culminate in a public meeting near the end of November.

LeDrew said voters have already been consulted through a referendum and have voiced their opinion loud and clear.

"It's really for this particular council about self-preservation. They don't want to go and they're going to do their darndest to stay in power governing poorly, incompetently."

Reeve claims the province made council do it

But Reeve Howard Arndt claims council is holding the additional consultation because it was told by the provincial government that he had to.

"The day after the election our administration got a phone call from the ministry that says they want to see further consultation," said Arndt. "When the minister's office, after all the stuff we've been through, comes and tells us that they want it we're going to do it."

Howard Arndt, Reeve of the RM of McKillop, seen here at a protest in the summer, says council is holding additional consultation on the map approved by voters at the direction of the provincial government. (Geoff Leo)

In an email to CBC, the Ministry of Government Relations denied ordering council do more consultation.

"At no point has the Minister or the Ministry issued a directive for the municipality to do additional consultation on the results of the binding referendum," the government said. It also denied having reached out to the RM. Instead, it said, officials from the RM of McKillop initiated the conversation.

The government does concede it recommended a public meeting, but this was "to ensure a maximum number of residents are aware of the impending change" and "what it will mean for them."

The government says after that meeting, council should send the results of the "binding referendum" and any feedback from the community to the ministry for its review.

No one aside from Arndt told CBC the province was demanding more consultation.

When this was pointed out, Arndt replied, "doesn't surprise me one little bit considering the games that have been played by others that just don't like what we do and never will — tell lies, put forward untruths… miss crucial pieces of information, innuendo, lies by omission, it doesn't surprise me one little bit."

Reeve opposes new map

Arndt said he doesn't like the new map and would prefer to maintain the status quo with maybe some slight improvements for the lakefront property owners.

He said it makes no sense to give the majority control in council to people who don't live full time in the RM.

"They really do not have a clear picture of what happens in the municipality. They see urban they don't see the rest of the municipality, the rural part. They don't see the needs of the rest of the municipality," said Arndt.

Furthermore, he argued, they aren't really part of the community like the permanent residents.

We're in an uphill battle. We don't deny it. We have a minister who got a pretty heavy duty lopsided vote.- Brent Johnson - McKillop Taxpayers Network

"Those are the people that live there, raise their kids there, support the different activities that are in the community, are part of the volunteer fire department, are the ones that really are the municipality," Arndt said.

LeDrew said people who pay taxes should have an equal voice.

"If I come to my cottage one day a year I get taxed the same amount as someone who's living here," she pointed out.

Farmers hope the minister is listening

Johnson, with the farmer-run lobby group, acknowledged that trying to do consultation after a binding vote is a bit like closing the barn door after the horse is gone, but said he hopes "the horse still has a rope around its neck."

"We're in an uphill battle. We don't deny it. We have a minister who got a pretty heavy duty lopsided vote."

Last week, Johnson's farmer group held a meeting to strategize. They plan a letter writing campaign to appeal to the minister arguing he has some discretion and isn't obligated to do precisely what the referendum asked.

Some cottagers along Last Mountain Lake in the RM of McKillop are trying to sell after their taxes soared this summer. (Tyler Piblubny/CBC News)

"We want the minister to clearly take a good view of what's going on here. We don't want to just offhandedly accept this map as something that was good for this RM," Johnson said. "It hasn't been consulted on."

He said the Ratepayers Association, representing cottagers, was going around telling people that the way to reverse the huge tax hike was to replace council - and the way to replace council was to vote for the boundary changes.

"Unfortunately a lot of people, emotionally distraught, rightfully so, for their taxes being doubled ridiculously, voted in the way they thought best would help them," he said.

He said that issue made it impossible "to have a good calm discussion about what these boundary changes might mean."

Things "going to get worse" says Reeve

Arndt agreed that the tax hike drove taxpayers to support the referendum and he says that's council's fault.

"It was the tipping point. I'm not going to play a Donald Trump on this one - I'm falling on my sword," he said. "Anybody that was unsure this (tax hike) was the catalyst to make their final decision."

Arndt  said he's not optimistic about what this debate will mean for the future of the RM.

"In general things are ugly in the municipality and they're going to get worse before they get better," the Reeve said.

About the Author

Geoff Leo

Senior Investigative Journalist

Geoff Leo has been a reporter for CBC News in Saskatchewan since 2001. His work as an investigative journalist and documentary producer has earned numerous national and regional awards.