File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS Boats are seen in Trout River, the southernmost community in Gros Morne National Park in western Newfoundland. Politics is a different kind of blood sport in the tiny western Newfoundland town of Trout River. Ten of 24 candidates running for council in Tuesday’s municipal elections have the same last name — Crocker. Five more are named Brake, and several others are related to either or both of those families through blood or marriage.

Politics a family affair in Newfoundland town

TROUT RIVER, N.L. — Politics is a different kind of blood sport in the tiny western Newfoundland town of Trout River.

Ten of 24 candidates running for council in Tuesday’s municipal elections have the same last name — Crocker. Five more are named Brake, and several others are related to either or both of those families through blood or marriage.

The top seven contenders will form a new council, and will nominate a mayor and deputy mayor from among them.

“We’re talking about surnames that carry the major part of the population,” said incumbent mayor Gloria Barnes, who’s up for re-election in the pretty seaside community of about 600 people.

“So it wouldn’t be uncommon for those names to show up on a ballot.”

Nor is it unusual for council members to have close or distant family ties, she added. Barnes served alongside her sister-in-law, Viola Parsons, who was deputy mayor and is running again. Parsons’s uncle served as a councillor and is also on the ballot, and her sister is the town clerk.

Trout River bills itself as a place carved from land and sea, “at the end of the road” on Route 431, almost 100 kilometres from Deer Lake. It’s surrounded by Gros Morne National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site famous for its hiking trails, fjords and geological features.

George Crocker and his family settled the original hamlet in 1812. Today, many of his descendants still live in the picturesque enclave where knitted socks and mitts hang for sale on clothes lines in summer.

The beach boardwalk made headlines three years ago after a dead blue whale washed up. National headlines briefly speculated on whether internal gases inside the stinking carcass would trigger a blubbery explosion. They didn’t.

Horace Crocker returned to his home community when he retired and became a Trout River councillor after winning a byelection in 2015. He’s running again and hopes to see some fresh blood at town hall.

Having so many people with tight family ties means there are “definitely challenges,” he said in an interview.

“Sometimes you put a proposal on the table … and if it’s refused by one family member, it’s a possibility that the other family members may go along with the first.

“We only have three councillors on council with no relatives,” he added. “It’s hard sometimes to put a motion forward and get it through.”

Crocker stressed there are rules requiring councillors to declare conflicts of interest and remove themselves from related business.

“I’ve had family members put in permits and I’ve asked to be excused while they were discussed.”

Above all, though, councillors must put Trout River first, Crocker said.

“Council has got to be open-minded and not afraid to make a decision regardless if it’s your family or not.”

Stephen Tomblin, who teaches political science at Memorial University of Newfoundland, said it’s common in smaller communities around the province for the same families to dominate.

Bullying and nasty politics can result, muting public debate and compromising good policy, he said in an interview.

“Things become more personal because they are personal,” he said. “Democracy works best when we have arguments and counter-arguments, when we can bring different interests together, have debate and come up with a kind of shared perspective.”

Doris Sheppard and her husband, Tom, have each served on previous councils and are both running again. They opened a popular bed and breakfast in Trout River eight years ago and want to promote tourism and improve water treatment services, she said in an interview.

Sheppard laughed and said there won’t be hard feelings if just one of them wins.

“We do everything as a team,” she said. “I care enough about this town to want to help promote it and to have a representation and a voice for the people who want to see some progress.”

Still, Sheppard said she’s not sure of their chances.

“It’s hard to say because we have no other relatives in town.”

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