There are times when it seems we’ve become unwitting characters in some modern-day version of a Charles Dickens novel. Except our tale of two cities doesn’t transpire in London and Paris but in a single location — right here in Calgary.
Separation isn’t confined to geography. Sometimes, it has more to do with attitude, experience and outlook, so although we live cheek-by-jowl with one another, we see things through a completely different lens.
Nowhere is that more apparent than the growing chasm separating ordinary Calgarians from those chosen to serve citizens’ interests two years ago — the mayor and 14 councillors representing our city.
What seems so important to these 15 individuals quite often doesn’t resonate with regular citizens. Past polls have shown the outcome of such disconnect, with council repeatedly receiving low approval ratings from Calgarians. If anything, the situation is getting worse.
This would be unsettling even if things were moving along quite nicely in our city. But they’re not: we see rampant violent crime, desperate numbers of homeless people, a transit system rapidly losing our confidence, a dreadful number of opioid deaths among the young and a recent pitched battle between ethnic rivals that overwhelmed police officers, while taxes and fees endlessly increase, despite the city having a rainy-day fund touching $1 billion.
Those are not inconsequential issues. Anyone venturing downtown who hasn’t made the trip for a few years might wonder what Calgary’s turning into. And this comes as hundreds of newcomers arrive each week, numbers guaranteed to add yet more stress to civic services already feeling the strain.
To lay all this at the feet of the current council would be unfair and simplistic. Problems such as drug deaths, homelessness and violent crime are common in many North American cities, with few obvious solutions.
But what is galling to many Calgarians is what little attention the council gives to these serious problems. Certainly, there’s not the enthusiasm that greets discussion on any of their personal hobby horses: recall how only a huge outpouring of anger and scorn stopped a particularly tone-deaf move, first introduced by civic administrators, to ban Canada Day fireworks because it celebrated the country’s colonial history.
Similarly, councillors’ long-running desire to tackle what they see as systemic racism continues apace. Last week, we learned city hall is launching an app for employees so they don’t embarrass anyone by mispronouncing a colleague’s unusual name.
Granted, the app sounds rather nice because it must be galling to constantly correct people who can’t say your name properly or else have to suck it up and say nothing. So others can now listen to your self-recorded message and get it right before addressing you. Fine.
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But what’s revealing is the amount of excitement this generates among the mayor and her colleagues, falling over themselves to cheer this latest move in their fight against racism.
They seem oblivious as to why such a celebratory attitude could irritate some voters. Or, if they do hear any negative feedback, it is easily explained away by deeming such opposition must emanate only from those who are racists at heart.
It isn’t racism at all. It’s frustration about priorities, born of worry about far more serious issues. By all means, bring in some name-recognition app but then move on to the big stuff.
Take for example how shootouts are increasingly occurring in high-traffic, public spaces in broad daylight, as happened last week when a gun battle ended with a police officer hurt and a shooter dead outside a busy northeast shopping mall.
That’s what council should be debating, long and hard.
But there are two Calgarys these days and, unless they can be brought together again, there’s only one future for those seeking re-election in a couple of years.
It won’t be a successful one.
Chris Nelson is a regular Herald columnist.