We the North: Erin Rutherford

Does City Hall lean to the south? Ward Arirniq councillor says it's time for her constituents to be heard

Erin Rutherford won one of the tightest Edmonton municipal election races of them all, defeating incumbent Bev Esslinger in Ward Anirniq by 4,728 votes to 4,455.

What did Rutherford hear from residents in the northwestern ward, most of it located north of 111th Avenue?

“In this ward, people are feeling like their concerns are falling on deaf ears,” Rutherford says. “They weren’t seeing the investments, they weren’t seeing a strong voice or a strong champion [for the area]. The voters saw in me someone who has a strong voice, but is kind and compassionate and could look at all sides.
“I definitely heard at the doors about the major investments being made in the south and not in the north.”

So, maybe we could crown Rutherford “Queen of the North?” Or is Game of Thrones just too played out, now? But, Rutherford’s advocacy for the northern reaches of Edmonton came to the fore in February. City administrators had presented a plan to further extend the LRT south, which would have kept the northward expansion from the planned Blatchford neighbourhood to Castle Downs in the “we’ll get to it down the road” category. Rutherford was vocal in her advocacy to prioritize the northern route — and Mayor Amarjeet Sohi and council agreed.

“The LRT is a great example,” says Rurtherford of the north/south schism. “The northwest Metro line and LRT was supposed to be prioritzed over the south line, but then things got prioritized to the south.”

But LRT is expensive. No matter if it’s prioritized or not, it’s going to take hundreds of millions of dollars to make any expansion happen — north, south or central. East or west. Money will have to come from the feds and the province. We’ve heard it many times before; cities are extremely limited in how they can collect money. And, Rutherford is concerned that the LRT is only one item on a long list of capital projects that need to get done in order for City services to keep up with the growing population.

“I think it’s something we’re going to have to navigate in a way that no other councils have ever had to deal with.”

She says it is important “not to raise the tax burden too significantly” but, at the same time, a lot needs to get done. And. we’re going to walk into a post-COVID cash crunch, as well. And, while the perfect storm has a lot to do with the pandemic, Rutherford isn’t afraid to point her finger at the councillors who came before her and her colleagues.

“I see a way through it. I think this council is positioned well, because I do think we have a council that can have rich and thoughtful discussions. The things that we have on our wish list of capital projects, many of which that I would argue are essential, is huge. But we don’t have those kinds of capital dollars over the next four years to do all of those things. So, how do we have those rich conversations to prioritize what we are going to do?

“We’re dealing with that as a council right now — years of [previous councils] not investing in capital. So we’re in this space, where people are saying ‘what the hell is with snow removal?’ And we have trucks that have to drive 60 minutes in one direction to go to and from the yard, because we don’t have yards that are within 20 minutes, which is the ideal situation. And there is nothing we can do until that capital is built, to fix that situation. What we’re dealing with is lack of investment from previous councils in critical areas.”

Ah, snow removal. The bane of all councillors. In 2021-22, with the bizarre cycle of quick melts and even quicker deep freezes, complaints about removals take up a lot of a councillor’s time. But, the truth is, no matter the year, snow complaints take up a lot of time — and effort. And it doesn’t matter if there’s a five-foot wall of ice in front of your property that would keep even white walkers away (there we go with the Game of Thrones again), or if we’ve just had our first flurries in weeks. When the snow-removal complaints started to stream in, Rutherford said she spoke to veteran councillor Andrew Knack — asking if the number of complaints council was receiving was unusually high. He told her simply that there’s a lot of complaints every year.

“That’s problematic just in of itself,” says Rutherford. “But it’s unfortunate this year that it was elevated with the new council and the decision to go to bare pavement, which I own. But I think the problem existed before that, anyway. We have so many snow-clearing issues to fix, to make it work for everybody.

“I am hugely concerned with the accessibility piece of all of that. I have seen bus stops with huge barriers to getting any kind of mobility aid to them. There is a lot of work there that needs to be done, for sure.”

The Ambleside service yard, located off Ellerslie Road in the south of Edmonton, is under construction. This will be another base for maintenance vehicles, and should help improve the time it takes for crews to clean roads in that area. But Rutherford warns that it’s but one small step that needs to be done. Plus, if bus service is to improve as the city grows, there will be needs to address those infrastructure needs as well. Not just the number of buses, but the garages in which to house and service them.

“And capital is not a quick fix.”

And, COVID-19 continues to be an issue. A divisive one.

“We need to be looking at COVID-19 and how we keep people safe and address the problems of a virus that is still killing people daily,” says Rutherford. “We also have to address some of the social pushback we’re getting.”

Rutherford has personally seen what the divisions on COVID can do to a community. She says she’s personally been targeted by those we’d called anti-vaccine or anti-maskers.

“Nothing has really surprised me, until recent weeks, with some of the language and the threats coming into my office. I never expected to be scared to walk my dog at night as a city councillor. I knew I was prepared to have a thick skin. I was prepared for criticisms. But I never expected the threat to safety and security that I’ve experienced as an elected official. It’s a surprise, and one I am still trying to figure out — how to keep my family safe and still be courageous in that space as an elected official.”