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Municipal parties aren’t the end of the world….but it won’t make cities better

Updated: Apr 30

“No more crap.” In 2005, Mayor Stephen Mandel made headlines across Canada when he called out Edmonton’s shabby state. The statement generated conversation for weeks following the comment, and galvanized residents to city building. When he announced he wasn’t running for a fourth term in 2013, Mandel said, “There is not a single thing…that could have been accomplished without deeply understanding the path that Edmonton wanted us to pursue from being more of a capital city again, to building a stronger urban foundation to no more crap."

I was in University in 2005, and never fathomed I’d be on city council one day. But 19 years later, I can’t tell you how many times that line has been quoted to me. It never appears in a city policy, motion or strategic plan, but nonetheless the spirit lives on in almost every urban planning, architecture and capital conversation we have as a city. The bluntness of those words continues to be a call to action that we should not let the physical state of our city deteriorate and calls upon our collective desire to build a beautiful city. 

Cities are one of the oldest forms of self-organization — the word citizen, which has come to mean a legal resident of a nation, originates as meaning a legal resident of a city. And back to ancient texts, people’s identities were tied very closely to the cities they originated from, or were closely associated with. 

Forgive me for being a bit romantic about cities — as changes in the Municipal Government Act, and Local Authorities Elections Act are imminently being tabled, it has me thinking about the things we gain — and lose — with those changes.

The most significant change we are anticipating is the introduction of municipal parties. Parties exist at the municipal level across Canada and the world. And given that most of Alberta’s population has arrived from either across Canada or the world, it’s disingenuous to suggest that what has worked almost everywhere else will somehow be catastrophic here. 

British Columbia and Quebec both have systems that encourage parties at the municipal level and they still manage to govern themselves. Both systems I’m sure have flaws, but they still manage to govern a large and heterogeneous population, and their growth reflects that.

But it’s still the wrong move. 

I am always a bit amused when I get an email from someone who starts with “I didn’t vote for you but…can you help me?” In part because we have no way of knowing who votes for us (and thank goodness for that) and in part because regardless of who you voted for, or if you even voted at all, it’s our job to help you. I serve the residents of Ward 5 and now Ward sipiwiyiniwak and the interests of Edmonton without caveat and without exception. 

Increasingly though, I see that people don’t expect to be served by someone if they didn’t vote for them. And, most worryingly, I see that some people don’t want those they politically disagree with to enjoy the same rights. You should be able to peacefully enjoy your home regardless of whether you’re a renter or owner; you should feel safe in your city irrespective of your income; you should have access to amenities no matter your neighbourhood. But even writing what I think is a relatively milquetoast statement, I know there will be people who take great umbrage with some or all of this. 

Partisanship of late (across the western world) has heightened our in-group and out-group biases, and adding parties to the mix of local government risks adding another barrier to residents who are looking for service. An order of government which prides itself on being the most connected to people will become a little more distant at precisely the time when we need people to feel less skeptical and more connected to their government. 

In 1987 when Edmonton was devastated by an F4 tornado, Edmonton Mayor Laurence Decore declared us the “City of Champions”; not because we were in the middle of a legendary Stanley Cup run, nor because of our long and storied sports history, but because our scrappy northern city had rallied around those who were suffering and started to rebuild the communities that were devastated. The phrase “City of Champions” galvanized people and spoke to our collective identity and aspirations that we aren’t the sort of people who let each other down when times are tough. 

(Photo: CBC Edmonton)

Both Mandel and Decore went on to become prominent figures in provincial politics— Decore, as leader of the Alberta Liberal Party and Mandel, as a Progressive Conservative cabinet minister, and later as leader of the Alberta Party. Yet both are best remembered for their tenures as mayor, and for their ability to galvanize the residents of this city, articulate a vision, and help citizens achieve it. 

Pretending local politics doesn’t have its own ideological machinations is disingenuous. I reference these two examples because outside of their specific historic moments, they continue to define the frustrations and aspirations of Edmontonians. And while I have no doubt future mayors will do the same, Edmontonians want and need to feel that they are included in whatever the vision is. Without caveat. Without exception. 

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A recent excerpt from Gen. Rick Hillier: Ideology masking as leadership has killed the Canadian dream! "Enough of the gaslighting, evading, blaming and deluding. Canada needs to be made ours again" Killed by ideology masking as leadership. Slaughtered by economic suicide posing as climate control.

Bled by crushing taxes wasted on scandalous and foolish endeavours. Crushed by debt that compromises long-term fiscal viability.

We need leadership now. Enough of the gaslighting, evading, blaming and deluding. The mission is clear: make this our Edmonton.

Councillors trying to be influencers, by simply forwarding personal ideologies isn't what people have elected or expected of them. Instead work together as a council elected to run our core services in a common sense fiscal a…

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