Jam PAC-ed Politics

This past weekend, the Alberta Party held their AGM in Red Deer. There had been rumors for awhile about members of other provincial political parties planning to join their ranks but this was the first time they officially came out of the woodwork. This included some former Alberta Liberal party members, most notably former leadership hopeful Kerry Cundal who was elected to the Alberta Party board of directors. But of course the real story is the influx of former ‘progressive’ Conservatives showing up.

I had heard whisperings since the summer time of the ‘benevolent takeover’ of the Alberta Party by former members of the PC Party who didn’t want to stay under the leadership of Jason Kenney. Congregating under the Alberta Together banner, it’s a culmination of a ton of PC money that will undoubtedly bring clout and power to the conversation. The money and influence began to show its strength in the recent municipal election with, for the first noticeable time, political action committee backing of candidates in Edmonton and dictating the tone of civil discourse.

Historically, municipal elections have been ward based, with supporters rallying around a single candidate. In this election, Alberta Together, the former PC member-funded political action committee or PAC, is directly linked to at least 10 campaigns in Edmonton alone. They provided quiet public endorsements, volunteers, and, likely donors. I have heard rumors of promises of donations of at least $50,000 for the ‘chosen’ City Council candidates. We won’t know the true impact of this funding influence until all of the financial disclosures are made public in March 2018 but for now, let’s start drawing the connections….

The easiest way to show the connections is to track a few individuals. Ward 1 is where Katherine O’Neill, Alberta Together’s Executive Director and former PC President, resides. She was a strong advocate for Andrew Knack on social media. In Ward 3, Dave Loken was the choice with support from Katherine and Stephen Mandel, former mayor and known instigator of Alberta Together. In Ward 4, support was thrown behind Justin Draper, with Katherine volunteering on his campaign. In Ward 7 and 9, along with the Mayoral race, there was less open support however at least two gatherings took place that included choice Alberta Together candidates, as shown here, including Kris Andreychuk, Tim Cartmell, and Don Iveson. For Ward 10, it should come as no surprise that their choice was Michael Walters, former candidate for the Alberta Party and PC supporter.

The support in the recent election did not end with candidates for City Council either. There were public endorsements, volunteer hours, and donations for Edmonton Public School Board candidates in at least three Wards: A, D, and H.

What we might be witnessing is simply a number of super engaged citizens who had the personal time and resources to dedicate to multiple races. But when these individuals are so closely tied to a former and emerging political party, the involvement starts to look less like motivated individuals and more like an organized partisan movement.

It was in Ward 5 where most of the Alberta Together support was given to candidate Sarah Hamilton. The ‘progressive’ PC machine was behind her in full force, utilizing endorsements from Stephen Mandel and Michael Oshry, known supporters of Alberta Together. Once her financial disclosures are released, I’m sure this backing will become even more evident. For now, it proves that there is at least toxic crossover and interference in municipal campaigns.

I was shocked at how influential this was in Edmonton’s municipal election. I had naively always thought that hard work and strong policies would warrant positive results. As I mentioned in my first blog post-election, this is not the case. I now believe that you must have at least two-out-of-three key attributes to have a good shot at winning – political party backing being one of those.

The question voters need to consider is:

Do you think it is fair that political parties or party-funded PACs fundraise to support municipal candidates?

Recently, there was a late night discussion about the role of PACs in the recent municipal election. The Legislative Committee talked about pulling ‘dark money’ out of Alberta politics after seeing its impact on October’s results and thinking forward to the 2019 Provincial Election. Reports say that a bill will be introduced soon to address this in Alberta.

Whatever the future holds for election funding, I know that this loophole in the legislation is taking democratic power away from voters in our city and province. Until the hole can be fixed, the electorate should at least be aware that partisan money has more of an impact on election results than their ballot does.

Finally, if I could speak for a moment directly to Alberta Party members, you might want to consider where your new influx of cash and people are coming from. This money and membership comes with very tightly controlled strings. PACs and the funds from Alberta Together go against many of your own principles of transparency, social responsibility, and democracy. It’s not the average centrist Albertan supporter but rather the generation of tax breaks for the wealthy and public service cuts with no balanced approach in sight that is paving the road to your party’s future. But as we know, money talks.


The claim is on you, the sights are on me

So what do you do that’s guaranteed

Hey little girl, you broke the laws

You hustle, you deal, you steal from us all”

(A.Young / B.Johnson / M.Young)

The Reconciliation Scorecard

Its Métis Week in Edmonton, celebrated annually by the Métis Nation of Alberta during the week of November 16: the day Louis Riel was executed. The City of Edmonton has a Memorandum of Shared Recognition and Cooperation with the MNA and each year as part of this relationship, they fly the Métis Flag at City Hall. The question I have been asking myself this week, and for a while frankly, is this what reconciliation has come to in our city? A hour-long ceremonial gesture once a year?

More than a decade ago, as a resident of the city and a member of the then-existing Edmonton Urban Aboriginal Affairs Committee, I supported the City of Edmonton in the creation of the Edmonton Urban Aboriginal Accord. This document and process was supposed to be the dawn of a new era of municipalities working with Indigenous Peoples. The initiative was based on four guiding principles:

  • Relationships – enhance and promote positive perceptions and attitudes between Aboriginal communities and the City of Edmonton
  • Agreements – explore and create agreements that enrich community life
  • Celebrations – share the gifts of our relationship
  • Renewal – renew and strengthen this relationship agreement

The City of Edmonton has actively committed to this accord in many ways over the past 12 years through the creation of the Indigenous Relations Office and MOUs with the Métis Nation of Alberta, the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations, and, most recently, with our neighbours Enoch Cree Nation. The question for me is how have these agreements filtered their way into City of Edmonton policy and practice.

Since signing this agreement, the Indigenous Relations Office has moved around within the City of Edmonton corporate structure. What once was a part of the City Manager’s Office, with influence over all city operations, now sits below a branch in a single department. This agreement is not only a commitment to the Indigenous peoples of our city, it’s a promise to do better. In order to do better for the long term, you have to commit to systemic policy changes and not just wave a flag once a year. For me, the hardest part of this work and the component of the accord that has seen no action is the principal of Renewal.

A lot has changed in the realm of Indigenous relations in the past decade, most notably is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. It has been nearly two years since the TRC completed its mandate and released its final 10-volume report and almost 4 years since its seventh and final National Event right here in our city. When the TRC was in Edmonton, Mayor Don Iveson proclaimed a Year of Reconciliation with the promise of three key initiatives:

  1. Educate all the city’s 11,000 staff on the history and impact of residential schools
  2. Get more Aboriginal youth involved in civic programs, fill gaps in city programming and allow youth to explore careers in the public service
  3. Create a public space in the city for Indigenous ceremonies and cultural programs

Since that time, the former City Council also made a commitment to commemorate the TRC event in our city and earmarked $200,000 from Council Contingency funds to this. The four initiatives ended up all being part of the TRC’s Calls to Action, released in June 2015. It looked liked Edmonton was once again at the forefront of this work in our country.  But has any of this Year of Reconciliation stuff happened in our city? Is there any accountability for elected officials to do what they say they are going to do? The short answers are: some and no.

Here’s a quick progress report:

  • The City of Edmonton has implemented a training program for employees to learn more about Indigenous Peoples, residential school, and historical trauma. The training is not mandatory and only a portion of employees are chosen to participate.
  • The City has recreation programs for Indigenous youth, like the Nîkâniw Indigenous Youth Leadership Program and Flying Eagle, but these are not new and I have no idea if there has been increased participation.
  • The City has been working with the community for years to allow ceremonial space within city limits and ceremonies have been taking place for more than a decade. There has been progress to further remediate a site in the river valley but this work was taking place long before the Year of Reconciliation, as stated on the City of Edmonton website.
  • Preliminary consultation was completed on what type of commemoration the community would like to see to honour the TRC event in Edmonton. The City Council term has now ended and there has been no further mention of this work.

Ultimately, I think the biggest change that has come since Edmonton became the first major municipality in Canada to sign an agreement with the Indigenous community is the buzzword of reconciliation – it’s all of a sudden the cool thing to do or at least say you’re doing.

Recently, there has been a lot of talk around the name of Edmonton’s professional football team. For years there have been concerns over their derogatory name, especially with more organized campaigns in the US for sport team name changes. More than a year ago, at the Banff Forum, I had the opportunity to meet Natan Obed, President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, who renewed the call for a team name change two years ago. We talked about the work I was doing around Indian hospitals and he brought up the Edmonton football team. I suggested that he talk to Mayor Iveson who was also at the conference and offered to introduce them. The two men had a private meeting and the mayor mentioned to me after that he was sympathetic to the cause but there was nothing he could do. Really? Yes, the team is a privately owned sports franchise but they train, practice, and play in a City of Edmonton owned facility. If the City wanted to step up, they have a lot of leverage to push the conversation.

As was pointed out through the work of the TRC, only ~5% of Canada’s population is Indigenous. If the societal changes necessary for reconciliation are even going to be possible, the other 95% of people have to be responsible for making it happen.

Edmontonians, these questions are for you:

  • Do you want reconciliation?
  • Are you committed to long term, sustained change to make it possible?
  • Are you going to hold your elected officials accountable to make it happen?

Let’s continue with the annual events and ceremonial photo ops but don’t allow the cause of reconciliation to stop there. If we are going to eliminate poverty, end homelessness, decrease social isolation, and truly reconcile our shared past, this cannot easily be wrapped up in a four year term. It takes accountability, long term planning, and sustained public pressure. Let’s make it possible together.

Who’s really ready to play ball?

The Web We Weave

Since I decided to use a blog as a tool for me to process the recent election, I had a plan in place on how I was going to unpack the advantage systems that I see existing for some candidates over others. It was going to start here, build on this, expand on that, which would lead to this and keep going until I got to the colonial systems in which we’re all entwined. After spending the day at the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls Inquiry Public Hearings in Edmonton, it now seems ignorant to not want to start the conversation there.

I have done a lot of reading on privilege and acknowledge that I too have privilege over some in our society and in our city. My adult life has been, and will continue to be, a journey to recognize this privilege and find ways to include others who do not have the same advantages to operate in the systems that we have created. Even getting to a place where I can acknowledge these systems and powers that are in place has been a journey. I know that there are still many people oblivious and those who are willfully ignorant or even downright deny the existence of privilege. Getting that group of people to become aware is often a daily struggle for me.

There are thousands upon thousands of articles and blogs written about white privilege. Google can fill you in if you’re not sure what it is I am referring to. I’m not sure where this analogy started or who said it first but many people say asking white people to explain privilege is like asking a fish to explain what it’s like to live in water. If your reality is simply understood to be that way, it’s hard to acknowledge that it’s even there if you have never known anything different. I agree with this analogy as a starting point but then my mind goes to a vision of what happens when you take a fish out of water – frantically flapping around and, ultimately, death. I can understand how the fear of losing everything you know can trigger a defensive response. I don’t want people who have benefited from privilege to think about the loss of it as similar to the loss of water for a fish.

For me, I think of systemic white privilege as a web over society. It’s the finely woven strands that keep us all in order and govern how we connect with each other. There are places in the web that are flexible and malleable that allow for movement with the elements. There are also parts that are much more rigid and thickly layered, intended to restrict movement. There are places where the web has torn and been repaired but also places where the tears have grown and expanded to allow for gaps. This web over all of us is the system of white privilege. Our web is based on colonial constructs of what is right and wrong and who should be able to move freely and who should be restricted. By its nature, the web does its best to reward conformity so as not to disrupt its structural integrity. Sometimes it can be hard to see the web is even there until you hit a snag.

Being white does not necessarily award you the ability to move freely within the web but conformity to the expected norms and hierarchy does. Those who aspire to and model privilege also begin to be able to move more easily. On the flip side, those who don’t model the same conformity or those who start furthest away from the expected ideal get caught up in additional restraints that others do not have to deal with. This is privilege to me.

If you’re not following my analogy of the web, that’s okay. Sometimes things are perfectly clear to me but others don’t see it the way that I do. One thing is certain, the systems of white privilege are there whether we see them or not.

Consider these questions:
  • Growing up, did you see people like you in lead characters on TV sitcoms?
  • Thinking back on the all the bosses you’ve had in your life, how many were white males?
  • Can you go into a chain restaurant and order your favourite meal that your mom used to make?

These are all signs of white privilege. These are also factors that are out of your direct control but create societal expectations of what the norm should be which directly influence our decision making perhaps without us even realizing it.

Bringing this lens to our government structures and, more specifically, to our electoral process, I’d like everyone to think about the conformity that is encouraged and expected. For generations in this place now known as Canada, our colonial government was made up only of white, affluent males. They were charged with setting up the rules by which we are all expected to play. They are also who we associate with being the decision makers in our society at a foundational level. Yes, this has begun to evolve over time and diversity is now more present than ever in all orders of government. However, it is still easier for those who emulate these qualities and have the innate support of these long-standing systems. And it is still harder for those who do not.

Take a moment to reflect on that.

 

At the core, this is is what I would like more people to be aware of. Know that these sometimes barely visible norms are there, encouraging us to think and act in a particular way while discouraging others to act at all. I still have a lot to process from the last year and a half and even more to process from today’s MMIW hearings.

In honour of those who have struggled to break free from the confines of the web and those who passed on trying, I acknowledge you. Your experiences may be different than mine but we are also alike in so many ways. I will continue to acknowledge the systemic white web of privilege and the role that I play in both conforming to the expected patterns and creating the intentional tears. I will use the space that I have because of my own privilege in this world to shine a light on the systems that keep us all in line. And I will continue to question why others are afraid to see the truth to deepen my understanding of the challenge I am up against.


For my Auntie Irene and the other missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

An Open Letter to My Councillor

Congratulations on your recent win to become my representative on Edmonton City Council. The ballots cast through the election gave you a strong mandate of over a third of votes in Ward 5, beating out eight other worthy opponents.

Over the past six months, our paths crossed as we both made efforts to connect with Ward 5 residents in the race to City Hall. I have impressions of who you are and what they stand for but I don’t think I actually know you. I am looking forward to the opportunity to watch you in action over the next four years and connect with you more in our community.

Before I get to know you, I wanted to be honest about  some of the assumptions I have based on what I witnessed through our in-person interactions and the communications you chose to share publicly. I hope that by openly sharing my perspective, you can correct me in the coming days, weeks, months, and years of your term through your public service.

Assumption #1: Your political ties govern your decisions and actions

Your strong connections to the former PC Party and to the emerging Alberta Together Party are undeniable. Both of those come with a set of values, policies, and expectation of conformity. As a resident of Ward 5, I am concerned that these existing policy platforms will guide your decisions more than the wants and needs of residents and, ultimately, the best interests of our city.

Assumption #2: You are at the mercy of your wealthy financial backers

You come from affluence and your campaign was funded by the wealthy elite, some of which are also linked to the political parties mentioned above. Large donations often come with expectations that could heavily influence your decisions. I worry that the opinions of development industry and a handful of rich people you are connected with will matter more than the lived experiences and perspectives of Ward 5 residents.

Assumption #3: Your privilege will keep you blind to the realities most face

You exude affluent privilege. The way you understand and experience the world is candy-coated and disconnected from the day-to-day realities of others who are not like you. Based on what I know, I’m guessing you have never struggled to make ends meet or face tough decisions to cover the basic necessities of life. You live a sheltered life, free from worry and doors open easily in many ways for you. On a fundamental level, this lived experience would disconnect you from the realities that most of your constituents face yet you are charged with making decisions on their behalf.

Assumption #4: You lack the knowledge to do your job well

The way that I heard you respond to questions at forums and how you expressed yourself on social media conveyed to me a surface level understanding of civic issues and decision making. Many of your campaign promises are unachievable and immeasurable. Your use of buzzwords and a vague vision left me without a clear understanding of what you actually stand for. I am concerned that there will be no concrete way to grade your performance for the next four years if there is not a clear understanding of what you promised to do.

Assumption #5: Your approach to decision making does not include space for differing perspectives

Throughout your campaign, I followed your social media closely. I noticed that any time someone challenged you or asked a tough question, you simply deleted their comments instead of engaging in a dialogue and understanding their point of view. This is hugely concerning for me. 65% of voters did not choose you this election and you need to represent their views as well. Even more importantly, only 12% of eligible voters in Ward 5 voted for you and the other 40,000+ people still need you to represent them in your decisions at City Hall.

I hope that these five assumptions I have about you are incorrect and I want you to prove me wrong. To do this, I want to see you represent all the residents of Ward 5 in an equitable way. I want to see you reach out to those who have different perspectives and opinions than yours and find ways to represent them as well.

Over the next four years, you will be asked many tough questions.  Many of those questions will come from me and my supporters. When challenged, I hope you take a stand – online, in Council Chambers, and, most importantly, in the community. I hope that you succeed in representing the residents of Ward 5 and being the strong advocate we need at City Hall.

Best of luck for the four years to come.

Your fellow Ward 5 resident, Miranda