The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

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.


Mayors: Ninja Nenshi

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ANY MAYORALTY CANDIDATE RUNNING ON A platform of change is destined to face strong opposition the moment she or he gets elected. Just ask Naheed Nenshi of Calgary. When he called for a more inclusive city during his election campaign some special interests took notice, but given that there were so many candidates, they fretted little. When Nenshi ultimately triumphed in 2010, those same interests began coming together to curtail what they believed would be harmful to their sector. Given that the majority of them were powerful real estate developers with plenty of influence, the line was drawn for civic battle.

Nenshi could have turned it into a two-party conflict between his office and the developers, but instead he developed a message that he delivered to the entire community:

“We need to make sure that we’re building neighbourhoods that are mixed, where people from different backgrounds, ethnicities, and particularly income levels can live in the same neighbourhoods. Social inclusion can go a long way in reducing inequality.”

The broader view registered with citizens because, whatever their political or economic leanings, Nenshi understood that the people of Calgary coveted altruistic ideals and a practical compassion that characterized that city for decades. In other words, he went for the collective interest over the corporate interests and citizens responded with their support.

Calgarians came to understand themselves a bit better in that process. And Nenshi? Well, he learned something too. A new politician, he was nevertheless learning that the better angels of citizens’ natures could compete with powerful forces, provided they were inspired to live at that level. Developers, too, made their compromises once they perceived the respect with which he was held among the electorate.  Everyone benefitted as a result.

Yet there was one area where the new mayor possessed wisdom beyond what other politicians professed: with politics in decline, cities would eventually become the centre of the political universe. And so he began functioning in ways that would prepare his city for that ultimate reality. It’s one of the reasons he continues to call for cities to practice higher levels of cooperation because of all what they have in common.  And that outlook has turned him into a world figure when it comes to the future of cities.

Technically powerless within the Canadian confederation, cities nevertheless have all the ability to let their creative juices flow. As senior levels of government vacate historic responsibilities, cities are free to invent new ways of being. Yet, because municipal governments lie closest to the people, satisfying local citizens becomes paramount. As something of a community developer, Nenshi knew this going in and proceeded with the detailed undertaking of bringing citizens into the overall process. His opponents could only watch in frustration as he went around them directly to Calgarians. He had become the new civic Ninja, and in the process brought new dynamic to Calgary. This is difficult to do in senior political jurisdictions, where both political and special interest powers are far removed from the average citizen and voter. The rise of cities changes all that.

As business guru, Peter Drucker, puts it: “Rank does not confer privilege or give power. It imposes responsibility.” Unfortunately, senior levels of government have become increasingly characterized by the pursuit of rank and privilege. Naheed Nenshi is a needed reminder that the chief job of being mayor is the responsibility to be the chief representative among equals, and to empower citizens to occupy their own respective posts in the running of vital cities.

Showing Up

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Last Saturday night I gave a speech, in which I endorsed Matt Brown’s candidacy for mayor of London, Ontario.  Later, a number of people asked if they could acquire a copy.  I had spoken spontaneously and had no written record, so I informed them that I would write down what I could recall of the speech and put it in my blog.  Below is the text of that speech.  Following all the research undertaken in recent weeks on the need for mayors with a new outlook on citizenship, I am only too happy to vote for Matt and the respect for the average citizen which I believe he will bring to politics.


I’m at this rally tonight for Matt Brown because I’m tired. For decades my wife, Jane, and I have fought for pro-democracy efforts across the globe and the results have been exciting. When South Sudan voted almost 99% in favour of directing its own path into the future, with 98% of those who were qualified to vote actually doing so, I sensed the democratic movement was finally beginning to connect.

But not here at home, where our voter turnout numbers have been steadily declining. When only 40% of local citizens turn up for a civic election, you sometimes wonder if your efforts are worth it.  Fatigue has set in as a result.

Yet I still dream about what our city can become when its citizens take part in its ownership. I want a city that’s as romantic as our marriage, that thrives with poetry, music, a rich cultural life, and the belief that we celebrate our collective life together because we’ve helped to build it.

I want a city whose potential matches that of my children. I can’t help it; I’m a Dad and I want them close by, in a city where they feel appreciated as they age, that provides meaningful employment, and engaged citizenry, and a politics that matters.

Tonight I came to endorse Matt Brown as the candidate I wish to support for mayor in this coming election. The reason? Because Matt’s vision includes you … and me. It’s not about some dated idea of leadership where the person in charge directs everything. Rather, it’s about the people in this room and out in our neighbourhoods. It’s about those that show up to care for their community. And it’s about Matt’s support for the London Plan. We helped to craft it and we deserve the chance to build it.

The most powerful office in all the land belongs to the individual citizen, not the mayor. Citizens possess the power to choose different political representatives and the legal system respects their full right to do so.

And so this community is ours – each of us can make it into what we dream – as you and Matt have done tonight by just showing up. Tonight I’m looking at you, where the true power lies in this city, and I’m backing the person who has known that from the beginning and is willing to govern with us.

A long time ago, a friend asked Thomas Aquinas, who was about to embark on a sea journey, where the safest place was on a ship. “In the harbour,” he responded with a tinge of joviality. But ships aren’t built for that. Their place is out on the waves, discovering new possibilities, learning new skills, and overcoming the fear of an unknown future. It’s not all about the captain, but his efforts together with the crew. That’s us, and I think it’s time to take London out of the harbour of security and set ways of doing things and into the challenges and opportunities ahead.

One person has repeatedly talked about that kind of shared future – a mayor and citizens together – and I think it’s time to take London out for a test drive with that spirit. It’s not about top-down or bottom-up; it’s about inside-out, together. I am honoured to announce my support for someone who believes in that vision wholeheartedly. Matt Brown will govern from among us. There is no better place for him, for us, or for our community.

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