Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Summer Of Opportunity

Before long, we will be enjoying another Alberta summer. This summer is special, for the scent of wild roses drifting across the breadth of Alberta will herald the approach of local political renewal.
Yes, we are approaching Alberta’s tri-annual municipal elections. On October 18th, we will have the opportunity to re-seed Alberta’s rich soil of grassroots democracy. Can we expect that most Albertans will do their part to bring grassroots democracy to Wild Rose Country?
Only if we also expect Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff to quit federal politics to run off together to Wainwright and open a sushi restaurant. Given our abysmal record of political engagement, we’ll be lucky to get enough candidates in some communities to fill the School Board and Municipal Council seats by acclamation.
That’s a dismal state of affairs. Political representation at the Municipal Council and School Board level is the pinnacle of grass roots governance. Decisions made at those Board tables directly affect people’s daily lives. Their policies shape the community’s future.
Yet too many of us don’t participate in local democratic renewal. We don’t stand for office, actively support someone, or even bother to vote. It’s simpler to studiously avoid the process and the issues shaping our community’s future.
Even when we engage in the process, we use the filter of immediate self-interest as our decision-making guide. “Good old Bill or Mike or Hazel promises to lower taxes and that’s good enough for me. Why should I ask them where they intend to find the bucks to clear the streets and operate the landfill after they’ve cut our taxes? That’s just a minor detail. We always get grants from the province. Somebody else can worry about the future; not me” It’s a familiar refrain across the province.
That attitude raises three interesting questions. Why should our provincial government treat communities choosing not to invest in themselves the same as those that do? Should the province tax Peter, who regularly invests his own money in maintaining his property, to give to Paul, who doesn’t? How can we develop strong, self-reliant communities when our provincial government grants disempower local governments and create a municipal culture of dependency?
The impact of that culture of municipal dependency is what drives the Old Prairie Dog’s First Rule of Municipal Politics: The difficulty in recruiting strong municipal politicians increases in direct proportion to the degree of mess left by their predecessors.
That’s why we are truly approaching the summer of opportunity for many Alberta communities. Now is the time to seek out people with a community vision and the willingness to champion public investment that will provide local governments with the resources required to build active, engaged, and committed communities.
That’s the challenge facing every Albertan who takes the concept of democracy seriously. My challenge to you is this: If not you, then who? Your summer of opportunity awaits.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Lessons From St. Albert

Early this month, a nasty community controversy put the quiet municipality of St. Albert on the national media map. A husband and wife owning a local business wrote a letter to St. Albert’s Municipal Council opposing a proposed Habitat for Humanity project in St. Albert. The letter, reprinted in the St. Albert Gazette, is available online at
The couple objected to the perceived community impact of the Habitat for Humanity proposal. They expressed fears that an upscale, affluent community like St. Albert would suffer increased crime and higher local taxes due to the influx of less affluent people. The authors observed that the children of these poor families would not fit into the earthly paradise that is St. Albert.
The letter upset a lot of folks. According to one of the authors, even his mother found letter’s tone and content offensive. The blogosphere erupted into a predictable firestorm of condemnation of the letter and its’ authors. There were even calls for a boycott of the couple’s business. The writers’ few defenders fell back on the stale old “anti-political correctness” rant.
Yet while the contents of the letter are offensive, the letter itself is commendable on three counts. It raises an issue lurking unacknowledged in affluent Canadian communities from coast to coast- community diversity. Do we want our communities to reflect Canada’s economic and social spectrum, or do we want to live beside folks who look, smell, and live like us? If we are as egalitarian as we profess to be, why are developers across Canada- including St. Albert- marketing upscale new communities with an appeal to “exclusivity and privilege”?
We need housing for the economically disadvantaged, the physically and mentally challenged, and individuals re-integrating into society. Yet such housing inevitably triggers nasty NIMBY eruptions. Though its’ content was malodorous, the St. Albert letter surfaced community diversity as a valid community issue.
The letter to Council also presented the issue in a responsible manner. There was not a backhanded, anonymous, on-line campaign fuelling community anger. Instead, the authors wrote and signed a public letter to the people elected to make decisions on their behalf.
The letter’s authors, when confronted with a firestorm of anger and criticism, had the grace to publicly recant and apologize. In doing so, they showed more maturity than some of their critics.
Community diversity is an issue requiring respectful discussion. The question is: Are economically and socially- segregated communities consistent with our community value structure? That controversial letter to St. Albert Council contains a powerful lesson. One can fundamentally disagree with the letter’s content- and I do- but we can’t duck the issue it raises.