The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Our City

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TODAY WE HEAD TO THE POLLS IN OUR CITY to select a new mayor, councillors, and school board trustees. Some will have no idea who to vote for until the last minute; others have been ready for months. Politics can bring out the best and worst, sometimes both, in our city, and elections can draw a community together for another four years or rip it apart for a painful period of time.

But in the end, regardless of the quality of the candidates or the strengths and weaknesses of their platforms, the person who holds the ultimate power today is the voter – all of us. For the briefest moment in time we will be secluded, pencil in hand, and in that isolation will lie the future of our city. In the end, we aren’t voting for a candidate but the kind of community we desire to have. It rests with us and we have some serious questions to ask ourselves before we mark our ballot.

  • Am I willing to change the course of my future by making the needed changes in myself to move from isolation to community?
  • Am I willing to stop seeing my city as a kind of crossword to be solved but a community to be built?
  • Am I willing to keep hoping even if the political outcome I’m voting for doesn’t prevail?
  • Am I voting for a new way of governing that includes me?
  • Does my vote represent the best in me or merely the most self-serving?
  • Does it reflect my problems or my solutions?
  • Does it reflect my reasoned understanding or my tribal opinion?
  • Is my choice for the future or for the past?
  • Do I understand that by holding the power to vote I am stronger than the person who receives that vote?

Whatever the results at the end of the day, our vote should mean much more than our choice to have someone else to take care of the city. It isn’t their place to rule but ours to build. Our vote shouldn’t spell the end of our participation in the political process but a clear signal of our recommitment to make politics meaningful again through the participation of thousands of others just like us.

It is time for democracy to step out from its own dark shadow into the light of shared responsibility – citizens with one another, and with their elected representatives.

But all that depends on a small mark on a piece of paper. In other words, history is moved in private, in the solitude of an individual’s preference for how her or his community will be fashioned for the future. And history could also fall into decline if enough citizens refuse to spend that moment alone. Democracy depends almost exclusively on the simple matter of showing up – to vote, and then to engage and build together.

Today will be about the human spirit and its ability to reimagine how it will work with others to building a better place for us all, despite our many differences. We must select politicians who can become people again and not just extensions of some political agenda. And it will be about us, continuing to show up again and again until we get this shared responsibility thing right.  No election is perfect, but it should nevertheless be a step in the right direction, an avowal of faith that we live in a democracy and that we will never be satisfied with poor performance – in our representatives or in ourselves.

Author Herman Melville once said; “It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.”  That’s what today is about.  Tired of the same-old, same-old, we strike out in a new direction, where voter and those successfully elected opt to share the challenge of leading and invigorating a community.  And it all starts with a pencil, a piece of paper, a private place, and, above all, a citizen.

Mayors: The Dream Catchers

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THIS BRINGS TO A CONCLUSION THESE POSTS on the importance of mayors around the world. There is a such a diversity among them, but it’s clear that the ones we have focused on have some clear things in common, namely a desire to make cities more central in the political universe, and the distinct belief that in order to achieve success they must share the power with the citizens of their respective communities.

And we as voters have learned something as well: to put aside our past belief that one political individual, or even a grouping of them, are capable of providing the kind of collective and meaningful life we are seeking. The claims of some political aspirants that they will clean up a city or even run it like a business are surely empty, as recent history would suggest over and over again. You might as well say that you think you’re smarter than everyone else, or that you run your family like a corporation. Time to put such pretenses to bed.

A city council is supposed to derive its powers from the consensus of the governed, and it’s supposed to exist to serve them. That has always been the historic model, even if in recent years we have gotten away from it. But now it’s more. We have reached the place where a council must, in part at least, derive its policy and expertise from the governed as well – a significant change from past eras.

Unlike business, government has to serve everyone. Any public trust it might enjoy comes at the behest of the people. Yet it’s no longer enough to rest on such laurels. The failure of the political order has introduced a new element into democracy – an engaged citizenry – that has filled up the spaces vacated by government and won’t take kindly to being tossed aside following the next election. They not only wish to stay; they want to share power in a way that is equitable. This is the new democracy and any person running for mayor who ignores this reality doesn’t deserve to win anyway. Governments abandoned much of the ethical, environmental, fiscal, and quality of life issues and citizens won’t forget that. They have come forward to help; should you toss them aside, you might as well toss you city as well.

And here’s another truth that successive mayors have learned: culture is more important than vision. It is the way of life, the expectations the people feel toward one another, that form the building blocks of a better future. Vision is one thing. But the culture a mayor builds creates inroads into creativity, prosperity, and human relations that no one woman or man can hope to replicate.

Put more simply: the best mayors are a community’s dream catchers. From our First Nations culture we learn that these remarkable symbols form a way in which a community not only protects itself, but enhances its dreams. Yes, they were suspended above the beds of children to keep out the negative forces, but their ultimate purpose was to let through the good dreams and permit them to slide down the feathers to those sleeping.

The most successful mayors are those who not only protect their communities through legislation, law and enforcement; they also build them according to the capacity of their citizens. The vision of the one is simply incapable of outperforming the dreams of the many. And there will come that time when a community dedicated to its shared future will wake up one day to discover that its reality is greater than its dreams.

But all that will take leadership. It will take mayors who use their offices to unlock the potential of their citizens. It was so many years ago now that Eleanor Roosevelt observed: “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” That us, and we’ll need good mayors to get us there. They will link us to other cities, other dreamers and builders, and they will demonstrate by their very acts that a dream shared is better than a vision monopolized.  In that sense, I trust these posts have been of assistance.

Mayors: Don’t Be Shy


I SERVED WITH MIKE SAVAGE IN THE HOUSE OF COMMONS for five years and he was one of the few really respected among all parties. He had an eastern coast sense of humour that was just naturally contagious, was a strong speaker, and somehow took the cold edge out of the House by getting people to temporarily suspend the divisive partisanship long enough to just be human.

These are the traits that have turned him into one of Canada’s most successful mayors and city builders. When Ken Kesey observed that, “You don’t lead by pointing and telling people some to place to go. You lead by going to that place and making a case,” he could easily have been describing the popular mayor of Halifax.

When he ran for mayor two years ago he challenged Halifax to reach higher and for municipal politics to be more ambitious. The city had been through its difficulties, but it wouldn’t move forward if it merely accepted the status quo. And then he did something unusual: he took positive steps in things that weren’t historically part of a city’s mandate. In issues like health, housing, immigration, disability, and the arts, he challenged Halifax to stop shying away from them because they were perceived to belong to other levels of government.

It was a message that resonated and Savage won the election. No sooner did he win that he practiced those very traits that made him an effective Member of Parliament. In all of these areas mentioned above, he established working relationships with all parties, including the province, and ended up with unanimous support from his sixteen councillors in an ambitious plan to move the city from dysfunctional to more ambitious.

As a new mayor, he held the “Mayors Conversation On A Healthy City – heavily attended with people from multiple sectors spending a day to determine how to make Halifax Canada’s healthiest city by 2020. That’s what mayors can do. And is wasn’t just about nice language. The group identified short, mid, and long-term priorities, from which the City Council passed three immediate priorities on active transportation, food, and people with disabilities.

And this is just the thing about good mayors: when they hit the ground running, they find they have company – people willing to take on the leadership of various aspects of city life who aren’t necessarily politicians. The best mayors understand that good policy is most effective when it is shared in its formulation.

London, Ontario is about to get to know Mike Savage better, since he will be in the city for an important conference in March. He will no doubt sit down with our new mayor and find ways to help one another – something rarely seen in senior levels of government anymore.

A city isn’t merely about politics or power. It can be a living place where a mayor grows up with his or her people and matures in concert with their abilities. If we want better cities, then we require mayors integrated with their people, who could never over-estimate the ability of their citizens. They learn to stop worrying about the future and start creating it.



Mayors: Poor Choices


IT’S ALL TOO COMMON FOR CITIES ENDURING DIFFICULT TIMES to resist getting serious about poverty. They place their emphasis on economics, jobs, education, or trade – those aspects that appear more like an investment than a drag on the community like, say, social programs.

But mayors are getting smarter, though it has taken them decades to get around to it. They are comprehending that even a robust economic recovery can be derailed by all those human resources that were left out – unemployed, underemployed, those suffering in mental illness, students, or the homeless. Mayors are paying attention to considerable research showing that the drag on any local economy from sustained poverty could ultimately derail any meaningful recovery or more prosperous future.

As a result, we are now hearing of more robust initiatives from the mayoralty level than we have seen in decades.

  • Last month, the mayors of North Carolina’s largest cities met for a summit on the alarming growth of poverty in the region. In fact, they have organized a series of high-level summits to get their collective head around the problem and deliver results. The hope is to meet quarterly and move from city to city. The session will begin with a meeting with faith leaders from the various cities because of their extensive work in assisting the poor.
  • Mayor Naheed Nenshi of Calgary has called together the city’s best minds, along with those living through real experiences of poverty, to come up with “one big idea” to pull the municipality together in order to eliminate poverty and homelessness.  “The system could be working better,” he says.  “While it’s true that much of this is in the responsibility of the federal and provincial governments, somebody has to take leadership and my office will take on that responsibility.” The challenges will be huge, but he has set two years as the time frame for coming forward with solutions.
  • A few months ago, at the annual U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the “Cities of Opportunity Task Force,” that will bring together mayors from across America to leverage the power of municipal governments to advance a national strategy, led by cities, to fight poverty and create equity. “Poverty is a threat to our fundamental values and an obstacle to the nation’s growth, but it is being lived out in cities and we will be the problem solvers and centers of innovation to find solutions. As mayors, we are on the front lines; it is our responsibility.”
  • This year the city of Edmonton started its own mayor’s task force for similar reasons. It’s comprised of leaders from various sectors. As Edmonton Mayor Don Ivison puts it: “Shifting poverty from charity delivery to practical solutions is what we are fighting for, and we are excited about it.” Ivison had made this a commitment during his election campaign and is as good as his word. Leadership is coming from various levels, but it is his ability to bring the entire community together that has infused the effort with a new sense of hope and commitment.

You can see where this is heading – mayors are stepping up, not with mild or aspirational talk, but with commitment and hard work towards tackling poverty itself. This shouldn’t be of any surprise, because the deepest issues for people struggling on the margins are being lived out hundreds of thousands of times each day in our cities. This will not be solved if mayors don’t seize the opportunity and demonstrate to senior levels of government the human resources that lie in their own respective communities.

As that guru of cities development, Richard Florida, put it recently: “Poverty remains an endemic part of our life, shaping everything from our politics to our health and happiness. Overcoming it requires nothing less than a new set of institutions and a wholly new social compact.”

He might as well have added one thing more – a wholly different breed of mayors to lead the charge. Poverty is not merely a blight on our cities; it is a deep and chronic failure of human imagination and willpower.

Mayors: From Ceremony to Change

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IF THIS WERE 1918, 1935, OR EVEN 1960, the fact that we would be having a discussion about the importance of mayors would seem somewhat irrelevant. Even big city mayors in places like New York, Chicago, Toronto, or Montreal, though they acted tough, were easily overpowered by higher levels of government.

Those were the days when societal problems were huge – massive immigration, poverty, corruption, gangs, over crowding – and it was perceived that the big challenges required big governments. That wasn’t an incorrect assessment, as sweeping changes and resources were introduced from senior levels of government that gave the sense that society could overcome anything. There were railroads, an expanding network of airports, revamped harbours, social programs, corporate legislation, and even putting people into outer space. Cities benefitted from such initiatives because, well, cities were increasingly becoming the places where not only the most people lived, but which had the raw talent necessary to complete the great tasks.

Yet in all that great rush to progress, mayors merely cut the ceremonial ribbons and welcomed the political bigwigs who proceeded to make their vast announcements. The infrastructure projects were so huge (think the Hoover Dam or the St. Lawrence Seaway) that society benefitted from such an infusion of cash into public services for decades.

Until, that is, the senior levels of government lost their influence and began permitting the infrastructure to deteriorate year after year. Roads, bridges, railway lines, harbour bottoms, remote airstrips, social and education programs, post offices, government services – all these, following years of cutbacks, now stand on a precarious footing. Times had changed and the wealth generated by larger corporations was increasingly being located in other parts of the world than Canada. Now the grand visions that built nations are rarely housed in senior levels of government, and the citizenry has become more pessimistic and jaded as a result.

Things are now changing, and not so subtly. In the U.S., 75% of all Gross Domestic Product (GDP) now comes from municipalities. That provides cities with more leverage power. But there’s more. While higher political levels become increasingly paralyzed by partisanship and a commensurate loss of voter interest, local levels of politics are witnessing increasing activities of citizen engagement. The forsaking of domestic interests by senior powers in government has opened the door for opportunity at local levels that mayors can leverage into dynamic communities.

It’s not as though we aren’t witnessing this phenomena in real time. Not only are senior levels of politics fading (they could come back, but only with vision and courage), cities themselves are rapidly on their way to become the incubators of the democracy of tomorrow.

Despite the fact that federal governments still talk about things like climate change, immigrant settlement, infrastructure, trade, and social equity, it’s really cities that are combining their efforts to actually do something about such issues. And that’s because they can, even if in a more limited form. And they can do so because citizens themselves are connecting more with their local governments than any other level of politics or bureaucracy. This frequently provides mayors with cachet, provided they discover the ability to connect with the citizenry in more intimate and dynamic fashions.

In all matters of public life, cities are finding new areas of purpose and enlightenment, as citizens themselves move forward into positions of leadership and responsibility. Cities are the new breeding grounds for innovation and ideas – a resource mayors must tap into if they hope to grab second terms or succeed in pulling their municipalities out of decades of neglect. Mayors like that are shaking up the political firmament and they often build the very constituency that backs their efforts.

Politicians from senior levels still have to compete locally for votes, regardless of whether they operate in some distant parliament. For citizens and their political representatives to demand better is less of a risk now, since they are getting ever-smaller slices of the pie anyway.

As President Obama’s chief strategy advisor put it recently, “I think people desperately want leaders who will make cities work, and they will take them in whatever shapes, sizes and colours they come in.” And again we note the same truth in these words that we have been alluding to for months: it is most often citizens that want the leaders and not leaders so much valuing citizens that is the key democratic story of our times. And it just so happens that most citizens live in our cities.


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