Thursday, July 11, 2013


I do no usually write about local politics--or politics in general-on this blog. This is a blog about fibre and fibre arts. I am not a political junkie, one of those people who watches council meetings every two weeks. What I am is a citizen who is engaged in the day-to-day life of my community. And I think it is time for me to say something that has been on my mind for a while.

But first, some context into the title of this post. There is a classic episode of The Simpsons in which a conman sells a monorail system to the people of Springfield that turns out to be somewhat less than what it seemed. If you haven't seen it before, or if you really want an earworm, watch Lyle Lanley work his magic:

I share this clip with you because it came up on my Twitter feed the other night as members of the community were watching the Municipal Council meeting, where our council voted to pay $100,000 to something called Nexus North for a membership (local news link). What, exactly, this membership entitles the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo and Fort McMurray to, or what benefits the community will see, is yet to be determined. The presentation by the representatives of this "initiative" was filled with inspirational double-speak and jingoisms. There will be synergies and social growth and  collaborations a-plenty. The names of major corporations were casually tossed about. But what was never once mentioned was an actual action, plan, or tangible outcome.

(You can read more buzzwords and catch-phrases here on council member Russell Thomas's blog. This appears to be the most concrete information about Nexus North that appears anywhere on the internet. In an entertaining side note, a Twitter search for @NexusNorth turns up one result, an apparently defunct, Spanish-language porn site. A Google search of the phrase turns up even less. Surely, such an important initiative should have a web-presence here and now in the Information Age?)

Our mayor cannot tell us what this shadowy group does, or will do for our city. Councillors asked why, if the function of this group is too complex and arcane for the average voter to understand, money should be directed there. The local Twitterati had a field day, starting with the aforementioned monorail, and continuing with references to Ponzi schemes and Nigerian princes. But, in my mind, Nexus North is not the only problem that the current council has. It is merely a symptom.

Here is what I think is wrong with our current mayor and council: They have forgotten where they live.

There has been an enormous effort expended by the current city government and administration to make Fort McMurray a "world-class city". Their lives seem to be consumed by the fact that a couple of opinion writers for The National Post and The Globe and Mail have commented that Fort McMurray is dirty, sleazy, or somehow filled with venal, money-grabbing carpetbaggers profiting from the oil boom.  The solution, according to the current council, is to remake Fort McMurray in Toronto's image. According to them, we need to scrap long-standing institutions and geography to create a new, vibrant city centre. We need to tear down businesses and hotels and homes to build epic architecture that reflects our hip, new image. We need art galleries, and bistros, and multiple cultural and entertainment venues.

Now, I'm not saying that there is anything wrong with art galleries and bistros. What I AM saying is that those already exist. Sure, they are in old industrial buildings, or housed inside other existing institutions such as The Suncor Leisure Centre at Mac Island. But we have them. And they are under-utilized. Art galleries and frozen yogurt is awesome, but affordable housing, an adequate transportation system, and decent snow clearing is what makes a city a community people want to live in.

The current council has hired outside consultants, design firms, and planning initiatives to tell the people of Fort McMurray what the future of their city will be. These plans are then presented as a fait accompli, without community consultation. It seems to me, as an ordinary citizen of this city, that the community I have lived in for 31 years is simply being scrapped for a shiny new model that will impress Toronto journalists. They appear to be saying that the outsiders are right: "Fort McMurray is bad and we have to fix it."

I'm all for change, and for grand vision. What I am not for is throwing money at shadows and grasping at tenuous schemes when the basic infrastructure of our city is crumbling. It is mid-July and I have been driving through the same pot-hole on Thickwood Boulevard since April. Traffic is a nightmare of near legendary proportions in the city as poor planning, disorganization and knee-jerk solutions are patched together and discarded. The local aging-in-place centre is bogged down in a bureaucratic quagmire because the city jumped in with a grand vision and no plan.

I am not an urban planner, or a politician. I am just a human being who wants her home to be a place that she can live. The goal of the Municipal Council's grandiose plans is supposedly to attract educated, white-collar workers to our community, and to make our community a place where the fly-in camp population can move their families to settle. They claim they need a more sophisticated city to make that happen, but I can tell you right now, as an educated, white-collar person, that when I look at a community, I do not assess it by the number of art galleries. I look at transportation and health care and sanitation. I look at whether or not the local government ensures that the infrastructure of the community meets the needs of the community. I look at the people of the community, and how much the local government values the community for what it is.

It is not, in my opinion, the job of our local elected officials to rebuild and remake our city. It is their job to nurture the city we have, warts and all, as it grows, organically, into that "world-class city" that it can be.

In that Simpsons episode monorail did not make Springfield a better place to be. It turned out to be a disaster. A monorail is not going to make Fort McMurray a better place to be. Go build your monorail somewhere else.

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