When good people leave it MEANS things are bad by Tim Querengesser

When someone with youth, ideas and passion throws up their hands and leaves an influential planning position at the City of Edmonton, the City as well as all of us who care about shifting the status quo here must all take a good look at ourselves. We are all responsible and poorer as a result. And we all need to do better.

Most people don't follow the inner minutiae of planning in Edmonton to quite the level that I do, so I’m assuming, dear reader, that you have no clue what I'm referencing here. The Coles notes are this: a rock-star of an urban planner recently returned from Toronto to their hometown, Edmonton, and was working — hard — to build a better city. They were living their vision of a better Edmonton, too, by biking, walking and busing to work, and pushing for better streets and more vibrant neighbourhoods. 

While this might seem like a common thing to do for an urban planner with the City of Edmonton, given all the urban-shift rhetoric that our leaders and city campaigns share with us (one city worker told me at a parking event, recently, that when it comes to streets, “pedestrians are now seen as the most important users,” which made me quietly chuckle), my anecdotal experience tells me it’s not, and that, instead, many in our planning department still seem content to car-commute from bedroom communities outside our city boundaries, yet nonetheless make decisions about which users our city’s streets should prioritize.

 Photo: Flickr//IQRemix

Photo: Flickr//IQRemix

As you might have guessed by the title of this blog, said rock-star planner who we lured back to work in Edmonton has now decided to leave their planning position here and take a job with, let’s say, a more welcoming environment in another city. We are far poorer a city with their loss. But that’s entirely clear, isn't it. What’s probably less clear, though, is that we all need to look at ourselves when things like this happen.

Those who push things within our city administration right now face an unsatisfying existence and that needs to change. From within, they face resistance if they work to push projects that deviate from the status quo — which, in my own words, is still to prioritize moving vehicles and worry about the rest of it all after that’s baked into the built environment.

And yet, on the flip side, these champions for change face way too much flack from outside their office as well. Communities pushing for better things — bike lanes, walkability, complete streets, LRT, density, you name it — figure out that one planner is on their “team” and unusually engaged. And then, sadly, these communities, with good intentions, no doubt, can tend to flood that person with pent up complaints, criticism, frustration. 

What’s the incentive, then, to break out of the disengaged norm as a city planner when you face a tough crowd from both inside and outside? There isn’t one. And sometimes people get so frustrated by that that they leave.

The deeper issue here, then, is that there are many communities in Edmonton who want to see change, and want action rather than more discussion, talk, study, consultation. But those who work at our city, and who listen to and act on these signals are, in my view, currently being set up to fail. They are blocked from within by a city still primarily focused on avoiding risk. And they are then criticized from without for not accomplishing more things more quickly because, well, they work for an organization that sees change as risk, not opportunity.

Those who are working to act and build on the promises we see in strategic documents or hear in election campaigns are our city’s rock stars. If we want to get where these shimmering promises tell us that we’re heading, though, we need to all give these rock stars a lot more support. And then, maybe, more of them will stay.

Now that another one's leaving, it's time to reflect on how we change this situation.  



A Country Built on a Lie by Tim Querengesser

 Mountain of buffalo skulls, western North America, 1870. Wikipedia Commons.

Mountain of buffalo skulls, western North America, 1870. Wikipedia Commons.

On Friday, as news trickled across Twitter that a jury of people who look like Gerald Stanley had acquitted him, I found myself uttering the lies programmed into me as a white Canadian. “Broken country,” I wrote in a bitter Facebook post. Many other liberal-minded white folk like me said similar things.

The truth is tougher. I wrote what I did to soothe my feelings of complicity. Canada is not broken. A jury has found that Stanley, the Saskatchewan farmer charged with second degree murder in the bullet-to-the-back-of-the-head death of a 22-year-old Indigenous man — who I won’t name out of respect for Nehiyaw taboos about naming the dead — is innocent, even of manslaughter. The incident is sad but, somehow, acceptable. Our settler-colonial state is strong. The only thing broken is my naïve belief that this was no longer the case.

Two Canadas have made themselves clear in the differing angry reactions to the Stanley verdict. People like me, liberal-minded settlers whose ancestors came from elsewhere but built lives here, have spilled their disbelief and are indeed shaken to the core. But Indigenous people have carried the weight of their own unique Canada. Sure, they had dared to hope — #justiceforcolten — but their angry, tired reactions also show a deep lack of trust in our justice system to produce actual justice. Regardless of legal arguments about “hang-fire” or whether a pistol was believed to be empty, a lack of belief in a justice system is a cancer for a nation.   

It’s little surprise this disbelief exists. Canada was built by setters to enable the prosperity of settlers. Few of us consider that this means an ongoing attack on Indigenous peoples and lands. Fewer of us question the lies we’re taught that allow us to swallow this pill — that these lands were more or less empty upon our arrival (wrong), that the few Indigenous peoples here were struggling (incorrect), that the treaties we signed were beneficial contracts to confiscate land in exchange for reserves and supports (laughable).

More recently, as truths about the depravity of our actions have blossomed into mainstream consciousness, this lie has shifted to become insidious and cynical. We are told today that Canada is genuinely attempting to reconcile its genocidal policies of the past. That was then but this is now. And then we see the past is the present in a courtroom in Saskatchewan.

Indeed, today, if Wikipedia can be trusted as a barometre for the banal and the normal, the entry for Biggar, Saskatchewan — the small farming town close to where Stanley returned home Friday night, and where the young man died — tells you all you need to know about the true state of reconciliation. There is no mention of Biggar as sitting within Treaty 6. There is no entry on the Red Pheasant First Nation. Instead there is erasure, a different form of a bullet to the head. Biggar’s story on Wikipedia begins in 1909, when the railroad arrived (see picture). Before that, nothing.

 Biggar, Saskatchewan. Wikimedia Commons.

Biggar, Saskatchewan. Wikimedia Commons.

The way Saskatchewan and much of Canada was settled is why this story is told in this way. The Dominion Lands Act of 1872 offered 160 acres of land in western Canada for nothing more than a $10 administration fee for any outsider who promised to farm it. Europeans, desperate to escape poverty but ignorant of where the prairies were, let alone if they were as “empty” as the Canadian government had said, slowly began to occupy the land. But once there, like all colonizers, they faced an existential dilemma: concede you are a trespasser and leave or dig in and erase the other group’s power to write the place’s history.

Make them the trespasser. Fear them.

Canadian law says it is illegal to kill to defend one’s property, and defending property is a trope in full swing about the Stanley trial on comments sections and social media. The defence never argued this, but regardless of the emptiness of this claim, the truth in Canada is that defense of property obtained through questionable processes, like colonial occupation, has meant 200-plus years of looking the other way at certain deaths. The man who died in August 2016 dared to exist in a space he had been removed from. Should it really surprise white settlers like myself that it was his actions and character that was put on trial in Saskatchewan?

In a country where a courtroom can still find a settler who held a pistol that fired a bullet into the back of an Indigenous man’s head innocent of any and all charges, there is not justice. Instead there is the system, working as it always has, sustaining the original lie of a country. It’s as plain as day.