It’s Time For Edmonton to Act Like a Capital City

After the election dust settles, our city is left with a choice: To do the best it can for its citizens, or draw political lines in the sand

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Another provincial election, the same result. Edmonton is left to wonder, where do we fit in?

I’ve seen mayors cry and yell in council chambers, give angry speeches at Chamber of Commerce lunches and scheme mercilessly — all to get the provincial government to pay attention.

It’s rarely worked, if ever. I long for the Mandel/Stelmach days.

The problem with provincial-municipal relationships has been widely debated. Aside from all the handwringing, there is a clear truth that can’t be overlooked. Constitutionally, municipalities exist at the pleasure of the province. There is a huge power imbalance. However, this is not what I want to discuss here. What I want to discuss is how this imbalance is particularly bad for Edmonton and how we need to think differently as soon as possible.

This recent election is the latest splash of cold water in our face. It’s time to wake up.

The issue that needs to be addressed is our lack of focus on being a Capital City.

Currently we are too focused on politics as a way out of our poor standing within the provincial discourse. Even if the New Democrats had won, it would have only partially soothed our chronic pain. They win every seat in Edmonton, too easily, and immediately their focus shifts to Calgary and holding and expanding their seats there.

Where the UCP needs to hold Calgary to maintain a majority, the NDP needs to grow in Calgary — so everything, politically, is about Calgary. Rural Alberta and other mid-sized cities are reliably conservative so long as the United Conservative Party doesn’t fail at the “united” part.

So, politically speaking, Calgary is always the ballgame — because the voters there are less predictable.

While many may take great pride in Edmonton being the “liberal” or “orange” island in a conservative ocean, this simple dichotomy doesn’t serve us very well. The binary identity of being liberal and therefore less conservative creates an isolation that has made us just as unsteady as it’s made us proud.

I have asked the question in the past, how can Edmonton organize itself to be of use to whatever government is in charge?. How can economic success in Edmonton contribute in a real way to the important narratives each of these parties need to promote in Calgary?

Another more important question is how can Edmonton weave a new and modern relationship with rural Alberta, particularly around culture and economic development?

What do we have in common with rural Alberta, particularly northern Alberta? Where do we rely on each other? How can we grow and manifest together? How are our “next” economies relevant and supportive of the other?

What is a city without the points of reference created by the rural communities who provide us with so many of their young people, the greatest natural asset any of us have?

These questions are less transactional and there is more opportunity here for us to act like a true Capital City.

We can look at being the provincial capital as being like a team captain. We need to care more about everyone else’s success. As a community we need to think more in the provincial interest and work to understand what it will take for the many communities outside of Edmonton to be successful, too.

There is an example that comes to mind. Remember when a previous government proposed that rodeo become Alberta’s official sport? The mockery from many “progressives” in our city was rampant. But if we think about it for a moment, we realize that rodeo and its relationship to agriculture are cultural centrepieces in almost every Alberta community. Ostensibly, it was a meaningful proposal. City Council should have written a letter to the Minister of Culture in support of it.

Except we were too busy writing letters about things we were mad at and other things that we wanted for ourselves. In the end, we rarely get any of it.

So, what do we do now? There are three notions floating around. One, mused by the premier, that a council of failed UCP candidates can advise her. Another is that city council should advise her. And third, we elected 20 New Democrat MLAs, so they should be the voice for Edmonton.

Truthfully. All three of these groups will get some standing, but collectively it is not enough — and it’s not the point.

Our business community, not-for-profit, arts and civil society organizations have a great opportunity to shape Edmonton’s pitch to the provincial government. They could ferment a unique and crisp story about what Edmonton truly has to offer the rest of the province. They could — if they came together like they never have before — do this work.

They could consider collectively and name specifically what it takes to truly be a Capital City.

And, they could lead us in acting accordingly.

(Michael Walters is a former Edmonton city councillor and is currently a partner at Berlin Communications.)