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Racism is real and it is rampant in Winnipeg. Maclean’s magazine rightly and thankfully drew national attention last fall to the city’s dirty little secret. Mayor Bowman took the uncharacteristic step of acknowledging it. However, the mayor’s latest attempt to confront this pernicious and pervasive plague — by way of a national summit in September — is ill conceived and unlikely to amount to much.

The stream of glamour shots that populate the mayor’s Twitter feed is reason enough to be skeptical. While he has been frequently absent from serious debates on matters for which he had promised to take a lead (for example, active transportation, downtown parking, suburban sprawl), he seems never to miss a chance to pose for the camera. Ten months into his first year and he continues to mistake announcements for accomplishments. His national summit on racism is no different.

Consider this unfortunate irony: those who might benefit the most from attending this conference are least likely to attend it. Will, for example, those police officers who released Tina Fontaine into the darkness that fateful night last year be attending the summit? What about those nurses who went about their work while Brian Sinclair sat dying then dead in the waiting room of the Health Sciences Centre ER? Who among those anonymous Internet trolls that so frequently post racist bile to the pages of the CBC’s website will be there?

Similarly, consider another: despite admonishments from both Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin and Justice Murray Sinclair that Canada attempted to commit cultural genocide against Aboriginal peoples, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which refuses to acknowledge or even use the term genocide in its exhibit on Canada’s Indigenous peoples, is playing host to the summit.

Finally, there is the matter of the admissions fee: at $50, this summit is already discriminating against those who — for reasons that include racism — cannot afford to buy a ticket. Already social service agencies are ponying up the cash to send some of the city’s brightest and best activists and advocates; wrongly, their attendance is now an act of charity. How insulting.

Indeed, earlier this year, again to much fanfare, Mayor Bowman announced the creation of an Indigenous Advisory Circle to provide the City of Winnipeg with important and invaluable advice on matters related to healing the racist schism that for too long has divided the city. They will be holding their inaugural meeting concurrent to the mayor’s conference, which surely makes the holding of the conference itself somewhat premature. That is, unless the objective is a glorious public relations stunt, in which case the mayor is definitely on to something.

What if, say, the Advisory Circle determines holding such a summit is unhelpful; that the City would be better off spending whatever money they have earmarked for it on enhanced training for front-line social and service workers. That would be embarrassing, especially after all that effort into the planning and hosting of such a flashy summit.

All too often Winnipeggers celebrate the effort instead of the outcome. Chalk it up to the city’s small-town sense of self and resulting inferiority complex. No doubt, then, the response to those who criticize the mayor’s summit will be the same: at least he is doing something.

Of course, the alternative to the mayor’s summit is not to do nothing; there are so many things, large and small, the city and the City can do to combat racism. Many, unfortunately, do not generate glowing headlines or offer the mayor a chance to take selfies. No, the work of combating racism, both societal and institutional, is tough, unglamorous slogging — and it does not start with a summit, but with a serious commitment to that hard work.

Winnipeg’s racism problem is twofold: it is both societal and institutional. Mayor Bowman’s forthcoming summit will do little to solve either. Another missed opportunity by a mayor wholly out of his depth and utterly consumed with optics instead of results.

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Originally published on Spectator Tribune.

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Cycling advocates are sadly misguided celebrating Mayor Bowman’s “leadership” on the active transportation file. A few supportive tweets are a far cry from what it and other important files deserve from Winnipeg’s supposedly urbanist mayor.

During last fall’s municipal election, many of the City’s mayoral candidates went to great lengths to establish their urbanist credentials. Winnipeggers, tired of Sam Katz’ visionless agenda of increased suburban sprawl and more shopping power centers, lapped up the candidates’ focus on downtown renewal, progressive urbanism and active transportation.

Bowman, while seen by many as the centre-right candidate, won by a sizeable margin. He took the reins at City Hall with a clear mandate for change, guided by a substantial policy manifesto published during his campaign. His platform, among other things, promised an end to the scourge of surface parking lots blighting the downtown landscape and robust active and rapid transportation plans; a renewed focus on smart city planning and sound decision making informed by evidence and experts. Exciting stuff for all those who wanted a real city instead of a provincial poseur.

“The lack of direction from city hall over the years has produced a downtown with too many surface parking lots that create safety concerns, and too little development that brings actual people to live in the area.”

–Mayoral candidate Brian Bowman, 2014.

What a difference eight months make. While there has been no shortage of teary-eyed press conferences or glamour shots of the Mayor posted to his social media feeds, there’s been little in the way of substantive policy coming from his office. Or leadership on his promised urbanist agenda. On the contrary, at turns it has been business-as-usual; others, the opposite of leadership, capitulation.

Instead of an end to downtown surface parking lots, there’s been a glut of ad-hoc exceptions maintaining the status quo. A replacement surface lot for the Calvary Temple, which required the demolition of three buildings on Notre Dame; an exception to the City’s order for Young’s Supermarket to remove its surface lot on Elgin Avenue; an extension of the fifty-car surface lot at the northwest corner of Upper Fort Garry Park; approval of a massive surface lot adjacent to Sport Manitoba’s new complex in the East Exchange. In the case of Young’s Supermarket and Sport Manitoba, Council ignored the City’s own planning staff. So much for sound decision making and smart city planning.

On each of these files Bowman was either absent or in favour of more surface parking, not less. This is not leadership — and it is most certainly not what candidate Bowman promised last fall.

More galling than his about-face on surface parking has been his abysmal efforts to rally support for the passage of the City’s twenty-year active transportation strategy. Sure, he has tweeted about it and decried the use of public funds by Council’s Cyclophobic-5 to pay for shallow, misleading radio advertisements. However, he has done little to leverage the political capital he amassed with his decisive victory or the levers afforded the mayor’s office to speed the passage of this important initiative

When pushed by pugnacious Transcona councillor Russ Wyatt to reexamine the rigour with which City staff consulted on the aforementioned strategy, he punted the document to his newly created Office of Public Engagement. That group concluded, after a month-long review, that the City had, in fact, engaged in world-leading standards for public consultation on the file — something Mayor Bowman could have argued when Wyatt first balked. When fellow Executive Policy Committee member, Councillor Jeff Browaty, used taxpayers’ money to help fund those misinforming radio ads, Bowman simply expressed his disappointment but refused to strip Browaty of his post. That kind of muted response only fuels the likes of Wyatt and his anti-bike blokes; politicians without principle, motivated by crass populism and stinking of rank hypocrisy.

Where is Mayor Bowman’s editorial in the Winnipeg Free Press? Where is his public relations offensive in advance of Wednesday’s Council meeting? Most importantly, why does he continue to rely upon inexperienced political operatives to guide his back-room efforts to build alliances and secure easy passage of term-defining proposals? He’s being outmaneuvered and his agenda hijacked.

Platitudes only get you so far in politics. And as any seasoned campaigner will tell you, there’s a difference between campaigning and governing. For how much longer must Winnipeggers wait for Brian Bowman to learn these lessons?

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Originally published on Spectator Tribune.

 

“For nearly a decade I have advocated for small business because I believe they are the backbone of the Winnipeg economy,” said Brian Bowman during the municipal election. “Anything that I can do to turn Winnipeg into one of the most inviting communities in Canada to start or run a small business is good for all of Winnipeg.”

To that end, Bowman promised to increase the small business tax credit, reduce the business tax rate and hold an annual small-business summit. Unfortunately, at the time he said nothing about a thousand-dollar patio license.

So it was no doubt a surprise to the city’s many restaurants, bar and coffee shop operators when the Mayor — champion of small business that he purports to be — tabled the 2015 budget. In it, buried midway through page 56 of the SECOND VOLUME of the budget was a $1160 patio license fee, which in conjunction with other new and increased fees are supposed to generate $45.3 million in revenue (4.6 per cent of the estimated $994.1 million). No doubt every dollar counts when you’ve pledged to complete every leg of the city’s bus rapid transit project by 2030. But still.

What is especially problematic about this seemingly innocuous fee is its regressive nature. The fee would appear to be flat: no matter the size of the patio, type of service available on it or amount of money it generates, every business wishing to install one must fork over $1160. In what way does such a licensing scheme help small businesses? If anything, like all forms of regressive taxation, it unfairly penalizes those at the lower end of the income-generating spectrum.

No doubt $1160 is chump change to the multi-million dollar national restaurant chains that dominate suburban shopping mall parking lots (the views are stunning!) or those with expansive patios with plenty of income-generating seats. How though does such a pricing scheme help the truly small businesses — the independent coffee shops and cafes wishing to install a table or two — that have chosen to operate in denser, urban areas where the only space available for patios is the sidewalk in front of their shops? It doesn’t.

Don’t forget: businesses wishing to operate a patio already pay one-time application fees plus additional monthly fees when their patios are in operation. The proposed patio license contained within Bowman’s 2015 budget is an additional fee on top of those existing charges—and it is not yet clear whether or not this additional fee is an annual one.

More galling still, Bowman also pledged during his campaign to “stand up for downtown Winnipeg.” Among other feel-good promises, the Mayor said at the time that he would develop a seasonal pedestrian mall in the Exchange District. Presumably the intent of such a move, as with Ottawa’s Sparks or Montreal’s Prince Arthur, was to create a bustling strip of sidewalk cafes and patios. All of which would now be required to purchase a patio license. No wonder Bowman promised to stand up: there won’t be anywhere for him to sit down.

To his credit (?), Bowman’s first budget does indeed reduce the business tax rate — by a tenth of a percentage point, from 5.7 to 5.6 per cent. And he did increase the small business tax credit to the promised $30,000. But the patio license fee, if passed, undermines those meager efforts. It’s also plainly hypocritical.

Yes, the City is in dire financial straits. Like all major metropolitan areas in this country, Winnipeg is struggling to support itself through the antiquated means the Province has legislated it can do so. Property taxes, frontage levies, fees and licenses are regressive, stop-gap measures that will never adequately fund the rising costs of sustaining our expanding and aging urban communities. Nevertheless, doubling down on these measures instead of holding the Province to account; looking for more progressive, means-tested solutions; sparking a meaningful conversation about the powers afforded to our municipalities would surely do more to create that friendly environment for small businesses than the tinkering we see in Bowman’s 2015 budget.

Sure, such pie-in-the-sky stuff does little to balance today’s budget. Talk is cheap after all. Which is why, at the very least, such a patio license fee, if it must be levied at all, ought to be tied to something that in some way corresponds with the value of operating that patio. It may still be a fee, true, but at least it would be a fairer one — and one that just might help those genuinely small businesses Brian Bowman has apparently been going on about for over a decade.

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Originally published on Spectator Tribune.

Dog park master plan. Only a bureaucrat would string together those words in earnest, which is precisely what one did when recently asked by Councillor Brian Mayes (St. Vital) about the feasibility of Mayor Brian Bowman’s campaign pledge to create just such a park within Winnipeg’s inner city.

Brad Sacher, director of Public Works, cautioned councillors at a recent meeting of the Downtown Development Committee that the City could not designate an off-leash dog park situated downtown without first having a dog park master plan in place. “I recognize the importance of locating a dog park downtown,” said Sacher. “But obviously it’s a very complex issue.” So complex, apparently, it requires additional funding to undertake a yearlong study to determine whether or not to even proceed with creating one.

Not that Winnipeg is without dog parks. On the contrary, the City of Winnipeg currently lists 11 off-leash parks. Each and every one of those parks was designated or created without a master plan in place. Of course, it is one thing to designate wide swaths of pre-existing parkland in the City’s suburbs as areas where it is acceptable to unleash dogs, but it is another to do so within the confines of the denser, more urban downtown area, in which parkland is typically smaller and abuts already-built residential and commercial developments.

Nevertheless, the question remains: what about a downtown dog park is so complicated it requires the City to spend at least a year studying the idea, let alone actually designating one? Sure, there are the issues of distances from curbs and heights of fences. The noise. The poop. And of course the children! Still, it should be noted the Great War was fought and won in four years, and it took America less than a decade to put Neil Armstrong on the moon.

Winnipeg, we have a problem.

Some context: to those who might dismiss dog parks as a boutique policy issue only applicable to a minority of residents, think again. A 2013 survey by Ipsos found 57 per cent of Canadians own a pet, and nearly a third of households own a dog. Moreover, it is not as if dogs are some new trend like, say, bicycles or rapid transit, the popularity of which seem to have taken our city planners by surprise; dogs have been at the side of humans, living as companions, partners and friends, since, well, before we were humans. Indeed, humans’ near-symbiotic relationship with dogs is so ancient, many evolutionary biologists now believe that relationship has become a part of dogs’ DNA. In short, the dogs aren’t going anywhere, so cities ought to adapt and accommodate.

While it ought to go without saying, despite already having eleven off-leash parks the reason there remains a need for a twelfth one situated in downtown Winnipeg has everything to do with serving people less able to take their dogs to the suburbs to run off-leash and with making the downtown a more attractive place for people to live (with their dogs) car-free.

As if the reluctance of City bureaucrats to take seriously this need were problem enough, the speed with which they are proposing to address it is especially problematic. Simply put, governments—of the municipal sort in particular, which are so directly connected to the people they serve because of the nature of the services they provide—ought to be able to respond more nimbly and adapt more quickly to challenges and needs as they arise. It is simply unacceptable something as, frankly, inconsequential as a dog park would require so much time, effort and money. Just get it done, already.

Arms flapping, shrieks of horror, legal opinions overwhelming departmental inboxes.

Yes, to a certain extent the risk aversion that has become endemic of bureaucracies is necessary: the work of government is often complex, the stakes that much higher than any sort of private sector equivalent, the metrics used to measure success much less tangible than, say, mere profit margins. Due diligence is important. So too is establishing sensible principles to guide developments and projects. But dog parks? Come on. Besides, it is not as if the City of Winnipeg has a sterling record when it comes to following procedures and adhering to guidelines when planning and development are concerned. (See: fire halls, police stations, transit corridors.)

Even more worrying, however, than the City bureaucracy’s reluctance to acknowledge the need for a dog park downtown and the leisurely pace at which they intend to respond to it is the fact creating such an off-leash park was a part of Mayor Bowman’s campaign platform. Given all the other issues swirling about City Hall, including the abrupt and unusual suspension of the City’s acting CAO, there would seem to be some evidence, albeit anecdotal, of a power struggle waging between the bureaucracy and the council. This has to stop. Council must reassert its control (ahem, perhaps by meeting more than once a month) and the City’s public administration must be less obstinate and resentful of that control.

The public service after all, be it federal provincial or municipal, by its nature takes its marching orders from the public through our elected representatives. They work for us. And our dogs.

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Originally published on Spectator Tribune.

Our secret is finally out. The entire country now knows what most of us have known for years: Winnipeg is a very racist place indeed. Overt, structural, personal, systemic: Winnipeg offers a racism of every sort.

But are we the most racist city in Canada? Are we number one, or just in the top ten? DOES IT MATTER?

Maclean’s writer and former Winnipegger Nancy Macdonald has done Winnipeg a great favour in airing our dirty secret to the rest of Canada. With her recent article she has painted a damning picture of our city for the rest of the country to digest. Like turning on the light in the basement where vile acts of abuse no one in the family wanted to talk about took place. This is where it happened. Horrible things. Shameful things. In our own home.

But now the whole neighbourhood knows about us. No more hiding. No more lies. Just relief. Then acceptance. It happened. It is happening. And it has to stop.

Thanks to Macdonald’s piece and, importantly, the refreshingly honest response from Mayor Brian Bowman, no longer must we endure “debates” at dinner parties with otherwise intelligent acquaintances who assure us their objections to Aboriginal peoples are rooted in fact; that they aren’t racist because it’s different with Aboriginals.

Last summer in the days after Gord Steeves’s wife’s intemperate and ignorant social media screed against “drunk Native guys” was exposed, room was given to those who shared her views. Drive-time radio shows actually invited listeners to weigh in on the matter, asking them whether or not they agreed with Ms. Steeves’s sentiment. As if somehow the matter was up for debate; as if somehow it was acceptable to draw ignorant, hateful conclusions about an entire people based on one woman’s alleged experiences traversing the city’s skywalks. Were it about any other group of people, say “gays, Jews or blacks,” as Macdonald noted in her article, surely there would be no debate: it would be rightly classified as bigoted stereotyping. Except it was about Aboriginals.

Shrug of the shoulders, knowing nod of the head, quick exchange of glances. I mean, we all know it’s true, right?

Except it isn’t. It never was. And now, thankfully, the entire country knows what we have been up to; how we have willingly turned a blind eye to the racism that has until now been given air time, column space, and bandwidth in this great city, in this friendliest of provinces.

There has been much debate since Maclean’s published Macdonald’s article about the veracity and the fairness of her piece. Some, like Bowman, have chosen to acknowledge the uncomfortable truths contained within the article; others, like PC Leader Brian Pallister, have foolishly dismissed them outright. Many have taken issue with the magazine’s cover and headline. A few have dismissed the article because Maclean’s magazine is published out of Toronto, thereby apparently rendering them unfit to criticize our western Canadian city. Such gripes sidestep the bigger issue: what to do about those tragic cases where systemic racism clearly contributed to the deaths of human beings, and where it continues to prevent individuals from getting a job, an apartment, even childcare.

Sadly, the provincial government refuses to review the findings of those toothless inquiries that failed to lay blame for the deaths of Brian Sinclair and Phoenix Sinclair. And the Winnipeg Police Service has yet to account for the actions of those officers who picked up Tina Fontaine, already listed as missing, then released her back into the darkness of the streets hours before she would be murdered. As heartening as it was to see so many important faces at that hastily organized press conference at city hall last week promising action going forward, we also owe justice to those who have already suffered from such vile discrimination, sometimes with their lives.

While there is no single measure or step we can take to eradicate this racist plague, we cannot rely on awareness or education alone to do so. No doubt accepting racism exists is an important first step — and kudos to those civic leaders who have done so. We also have to hold those individuals and institutions to account who have allowed themselves to be corrupted by it.

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Originally published on Spectator Tribune.

So much for Bowmentum. Less than a month after the municipal election in which Brian Bowman was swept into the mayor’s chair with a remarkable mandate, it would appear City Hall has resumed its firmly suburbanist agenda with the initial approval of yet another sprawling residential subdivision. On November 18, the Lord Selkirk—West Kildonan Community Committee approved a plan by Landmark Planning & Design to develop a sizeable parcel of land between Leila Avenue and a future extension of the Chief Peguis Trail known as Precinct E.

Does newly elected, allegedly urbanist mayor Brian Bowman have the temerity to put the brakes on this development? Or will one of the first major acts of his administration be the rubber-stamping of this proposed 1,800-home blight?

Blight, what blight? After all, the proposed subdivision is an “infill development” that will feature lakes, parks, walking trails, multi-family development! Buzzwords that trigger an almost Pavlovian response from the City. Alleged amenities that made Waverley West too good to pass up. The same kinds of things that do nothing to increase density or car-free liveability, but do wonders for developers’ home-building brochures.

Granted, Precinct E, which has yet to receive a coma-inducing name like Sage Creek, is only a fraction of the size of Waverley West. (Whereas that development will ultimately accommodate over 40,000 residents, Precinct E will only house approximately 5,400.) However, Waverley West is nowhere near capacity, which makes the approval of yet another subdivision elsewhere in the city even more puzzling. While the good ship Waverley West has sailed, Precinct E remains dry-docked. Surely it makes more sense to halt any further suburban development until that monstrosity at the city’s southwest axis is completed?

During the campaign, Bowman made a number of ambitious commitments that would suggest he is against the expansion of Winnipeg’s sub-urban and ex-urban communities. He made the revitalization and redevelopment of Winnipeg’s downtown a top priority. He spoke passionately about the importance of public transit and sustainability. He even railed against the antiquated and regressive property tax (which has too often fuelled the city’s reckless suburban expansion), promising instead to negotiate a new revenue-generating arrangement with the Province. Putting the kibosh on the Precinct E proposal would seem like a no-brainer for Winnipeg’s new mayor.

While nowhere near as expensive as Waverley West has been for the city, Precinct E will no doubt cost the city a lot of money, immediately and in perpetuity. Roads, sewers, water lines, street lights, bus shelters, sidewalks; snow-clearing, transit connections, libraries and community centers; police, fire and paramedic coverage. So much money.

Despite that old chestnut from the developers and the construction industry, property tax revenues from said developments will never make up for the capital and maintenance costs the city will ultimately incur. A 2013 report from Ottawa-based think-tank Sustainable Prosperity into the true costs of suburban sprawl found, for example:

  • Across just seventeen of the more than forty new developments underway or planned in Edmonton, net costs have been projected to exceed revenues by nearly $4 billion over sixty years.
  • The City of London, Ontario found that over a fifty-year period sprawling growth would entail capital costs $2.7 billion higher, and operating costs about $1.7 billion higher, than for a compact growth scenario.

In both of those cases and countless others across the country, municipalities continue to miss or ignore the many hidden costs associated with suburban sprawl. Winnipeggers will be paying a hefty price for existing suburban misadventures, Waverley West especially, for decades to come. Why throw good money after bad?

Save for lining the pockets of those individuals and companies that collectively own the lands that comprise Precinct E, there is absolutely no reason for pursuing this suburban development. And so again, will newly-elected Mayor Bowman use his considerable “Bowmentum” to stop this proposal (and others like it), and instead walk the talk of his mayoral campaign?

After all, Bowman could redirect the infrastructure money required to service the subdivision towards his multi-billion-dollar campaign commitment to complete every leg of the city’s rapid transit master plan. Or does the city have money for both? Not likely. Even if it did, the questions remain: why another suburb to further hollow-out the city’s core; to detract from much-needed re-investment in existing, inner-city neighbourhoods?

Simply put, Winnipeg can no longer afford to expand outwards. Already one of the lowest density municipalities in Canada, Winnipeg is woefully and dangerously unsustainable. This must change, and soon. Climate change due to human-induced global warming is already wreaking havoc on the city’s already crippled infrastructure; the city’s ageing population less and less likely to shoulder the costs of the city’s upkeep in the years ahead; the Province’s dire financial situation casting an even darker cloud over the already gloomy fiscal horizon.

Sure, halting Precinct E will do little to solve Winnipeg’s larger, long-term problems, but doing so would serve as a welcome signal that change is coming. And change must come. Is Mayor Bowman the one to bring it?


Sustainable Prosperity’s full report—Suburban Sprawl: Hidden Costs, Identifying Innovations—is available through their website.

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Originally published on Spectator Tribune.