City Hall Must Remain a Special, Public Place

The threat of violence erodes many of the things we hold dear, and sabotages the openness that exists between our City Council and the public

This happens at a lot of council meetings — Mayor Amarjeet Sohi takes a pause from the proceedings to recognize a group of students who are in the gallery.

He welcomes them to City Hall, and asks them if they are doing their own mock council or student government. He wonders about what topics they’re debating, and what they’ve decided. Sometimes, they’ve voted to build a library in their neighbourhood or have decided the LRT needs to be extended. The mayor tells them to keep his office updated on their debates. Council applauds the kids.

It’s an example of City Hall at its best; that the machinations of government, no matter how inflammatory or mundane, are in public view. The mayor and councillors are accessible.

A couple of weeks ago, when council debated whether or not to declare a housing emergency, the gallery’s seats were packed. There were catcalls. Coun. Aaron Paquette, who was chairing the meeting due to procedural rules, warned the gallery several times about their disruptive behaviour. But he did not adjourn the meeting, understanding that people in pain have a right to be seen, to be heard — and that City Hall is indeed a place for protest, as any house for any democratic institution would and should be.

I have watched many public hearings stretch on for days, because of the sheer numbers of citizens and groups who have registered to speak. Some of the comments are on point, and some make you wonder how councillors could have the patience for such inanity. But the principle is sacred; if you are a member of the public, you have the right to be heard — and it’s as simple as learning the committee meeting schedule and registering your name with a City Hall clerk.

This is the social contract on which just societies are based; that democratic institutions be open and transparent. Citizens who nurture a healthy distrust of government have the right to be heard, and citizens can also voice their support if they feel government is on the side of the greater good.

That openness is under threat. City Hall was evacuated Tuesday, and a suspect was later arrested for allegedly being armed with many incendiary devices. I was watching the livestream of what was a rather unexciting meeting about fire control when the loud bangs abruptly ended proceedings.

City Hall was closed the day after the event, and it remains to be seen when staff will be ready to open the doors to the public again.

When it reopens, will things change? The great thing about City Hall is that it’s a gathering space, a community space. I’ve gone to arts awards and press conferences there. I was supposed to go to an event Wednesday evening at City Hall that celebrated Black-owned restaurants in Edmonton. Sadly, it had to be postponed.

Will City Hall become a place of metal detectors and security checks? Will it become less of a public space? It would be heartbreaking to see it happen. Many councillors hold open houses in their wards so they can connect with the public. Will they be forced to think twice about where and when they happen?

When the social contract is broken, when the healthy distrust of government crosses into violence, the institution itself comes under threat. We saw that with the American insurrection, and, while this is a much smaller example, if a lone suspect walks into City Hall armed and ready to fire, the normal reaction is to ask “why are we so open in the first place?” And it is a normal, human reaction.

In this space, we have often been critical of City government and administration. We are happy to know that no one was physically hurt, but we understand that trauma and mental scars can run deep. We wish you all the best. There are many legitimate ways to register discontent with the City; through emails, speaking at committee meetings, protesting in the square, calling your councillor and, of course, voting. But physical threat is not an answer, because it hurts us all.

City Hall is a special place. And I can’t wait to hear Mayor Sohi welcome the next elementary school group into council chambers, and hear of their ambitious plans to extend the LRT.