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 http://www.stalbertgazette.com/article/20100403/SAG0904/304039974/-1/SAG09/higher-earning-families-part-of-st-alberts-appeals.
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.

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