I spent the afternoon of December 1st hiking through the first big snow fall of the year. It was a wonderful day to explore the city’s streets, shops, department stores, parking lots and art galleries. During my day I visited five neighbourhoods, City Centre Square, Heritage, Cathedral, Downtown and the Warehouse District.
I discovered shoes that invoked the style of the 80s, sailing adventure and childhood colouring books at coda on Albert Street. The shoes looked old, genuinely new, youthful and familiar like walking back into my kindergarden classroom.
Westons bakery looked like the chilly child of Andalusia and Chicago, and that baby smelt soooo good.
I walked treacherous side walks, where informal paths already hardened into the snow; going here, then there. Ice covered driveways made my boots drift towards the street. Stranger pedestrians made me feel uneasy and delighted, in a case by case basis as we crossed paths. Just off the sidewalks, shop clerks were helpful with camera lenses, comic books hospital catering and stamping letters with wax.
Patrick Close’s forest place in Brittany provided the backgrounder to my day: mystery, shelter, beauty, lore, human structures and natural forces.
I felt sorry for lonely furniture: the old boys gathered, sporting new fluffy snow topped hats, and stood guard behind the salvation army thrift store’s barbed wire fence. Visions of their past employment, in warm living rooms hoisting up the television from a fiery shag carpet or collecting drinks at a party, swirled in my head.
I even found images capturing Saskatchewan residents’ love of sport and the olympian efforts they make to enjoy it, especially when conditions are tough.
I talked my way into adventure by attending a public lecture: Local Government and Democracy: State of the Nation (I realize now I must be more diligent mentioning these events beforehand) hosted by the Johnson-Shoyama School of Public Policy. The discussion featured Dr. Andrew Sancton, Dr. Joe Garcea (live in video from Saskatoon), Mr. Bob Linner and Ms. Sherry Magnuson. The presentations from Dr. Sancton (Western) and Dr. Garcea (Uof S) provided the framework for municipal governance, the roles it plays across the country and in Saskatchewan in particular. Mr. Linner and Ms. Magnuson related their experiences from working in municipal administration in Regina and Kindersley respectively.
There was some interesting discussion on an issue I’ve brough up before here, political participation, especially during elections, and public debate. There was some discussion on why turnouts are low which Dr. Garcea summarized as being related to the competitiveness of mayoral contests and the presence of highly controversial issues, including plebiscites and referenda. Indeed referenda were given as a solution to increasing turnout by posing issues that better engage ( or was it enrage…) the public.
Mr. Linner continued on voter turnout stating lower voting levels are attributed to municipalities shirking their levers of power by seeking provincial or federal government funding. This process of seeking finances above more autonomy to raise their own revenue, with new taxation powers for example, confuses the public’s understanding of municipal government’s role and thus its relevance.
When it came to public participation in elections Mr. Linner was less convinced the percentage mattered. In his experience, people respond directly to their satisfaction with services provided and people will organize only if some service is lacking. A low turnout suggests, in this conception, a content electorate, so content with their government in fact, that elections go unnoticed.
Ms. Magnuson, Chief Administrative Officer of Kindersley, emphasized education and capacity building in order to provide services at the large town level. A wonderful example she shared was her experience helping to create a youth council in her community. Made up of grade 8, 9, and 10s, the youth councilors hold a monthly public meeting, participate on committees and manage a small budget.
In question period, I asked the panel (I’m paraphrasing here) if they were aware of studies that address the effectiveness of public forums/debates, and generally how relevent, the presenters felt, that type of discourse was in an election.
Well, apparently it’s not that important. Dr. Sancton began by saying academically, the value or role played by public debate was not well-studied. He felt, however, that public debate was a ritual for the media: where few voters actually make their decisions based on a candidates debate performance and more focus is put on, for example, that all the candidates attended rather than on what they said. Dr. Garcea continued that train of thought describing debates as ‘more fire than light’. He also questioned who attends these events and if the people who do attend really represent the majority view of citizens. Later, Dr. Garcea said in his experience, policies or projects without consultation processes often go unnoticed and once rolled out are more accepted by the public than the results or programs produced with public consultation.
For me this clearly illustrated the idea that administration can be hampered by consultation, despite their fine words to the contrary, when the end results may have caused but a stir from the slumbering masses without the headache.
Ms. Magnuson added that in Kindersley they’ve gone towards social networking to get their message out and create public discourse.
There was not enough time for me to address these above ideas at the meeting. But, although slightly discouraged, I found an alley in Dan Perrons who chatted with me after the meeting. Mr. Perrons felt strongly that voter turnout and participation was important to democracy and wasn’t a meter of service provision as Mr. Linner stated nor simply a political football for the media. Public input is key in sharing ideas and working with governments as they look to create new policy.
Public debates make candidates accountable in ways no one-on-one conversation can. It gives other candidates a chance to challenge statements and gives voice to citizens to do the same. Ideas are exchanged in multiple directions, chewed up by diverse subjective agents, and reintroduced. Neighbours gather together, in a space, which is not always a regular occurence in some neighbourhoods, and see each other.
Ms. Magnuson mentions social networking, but for me that’s just another tool to send the same information that’s on the city website or in the news paper. It can be an important way of spreading the basic candidate information and election dates, poll locations and registration facts, but does it create a discourse between candidate and constituent? For me, that’s a clear no.
I’ll finish by saying my overview doesn’t come close to covering all the topics discussed or points made. There is likely a great deal of subtlety or nuance that escaped me in the presenters arguments. Which is why this sort of discourse, a public forum, is hard to report objectively, its much better experienced in person.
Thanks for barring with my wacky walky-talky day