Monday, September 28, 2009

If I Were Running For Council

Kudos to future councilor Louis Rompre on the official announcement of his candidacy to represent Ward 6. It’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it. Up until recently, in the absence of any official or unofficial volunteers to replace Lynne Berthiaume, I’d considered it myself. Over a decade a resident of Wakefield, a former community organizer/developer, a writer, a poet, and a fool, I considered myself more than qualified for the job. Plus, in my new incarnation as budding urban planner, I was downright enthusiastic about the opportunity.

In fact, I’d imagined a clever campaign slogan for my walk-in (uncontested/acclaimed) candidacy—“Vote Horak: Better Than No-one!” I’d had fanciful visions of clever campaign tricks like slogan-stitched doggie sweaters and old sneakers hanging from trees with “Vote Horak” stenciled on the bottoms. But after a (top secret) official meeting with the Ward 6 incumbent, I realized that I was being swept away by funky artistic fantasies instead of casting a steady eye toward the real issues, and the real job at hand.

And there are real issues to be dealt with. And so, dear voters, here is my unofficial platform:

1. We need an Economic Development Plan that is based on us.

First of all, it is incontestable that we need an economic development plan, and I hope Councilor-candidate Rompre will see fit to promote that. The PPU makes only passing commentary on the subject and in fact should itself be drawn along the lines of economic planning, not in isolation from it. Additionally, our PPU, god bless it, articulates our economic base as primarily touristic and nature-recreational, which is mostly accurate. But we need an economic plan that recognizes and invests in the artistic and creative riches that makes our community worth visiting. After all, we are as much a part of the natural landscape as we are inspired by it, and the funkiness that we embody (I think this is the “spirit of Wakefield” to which Councilor-candidate Rompre refers) could also be seen as the untapped rescource of our “Social Capital”, to be developed and promoted. We have a tremendous opportunity to promote tourism around who we actually are and what we actually have to offer that is unique and different, beyond a train ride and a donut from the bakery.

As well, our Economic Development Plan must strongly articulate, in word and policy, the intent to support and encourage our already strong and growing local enterprises that provide essential goods and services and keep our dollars flowing locally, especially in the 100 mile food-shed.

2. Affordability and Gentrification

Wakefield, particularly the village ward, has changed for the better and for the worse, depending on what side of the dollar you sit on. For local businesses, increase in population, tourism, and an increase in general village activity has been a blessing that has aided the slow growth of a vibrant village core. Businesses may still struggle, but they no longer face inevitable shutdown after 5 or 6 months of the ‘wrong’ season.

But living on the other side of the coin has definitely gotten harder. Ask any youth, local worker (restaurant/cafĂ©/storefront staff), single mom, artist, musician, farmer, or other person who works for an approximate minimum wage and they will tell you that affordable housing in or near the village has become nearly impossible to find. New funky Wakefielders who aren’t sporting professional salaries, as well as some more longstanding low income characters-around-town, are suffering. Disproportional increases in rent are forcing these people elsewhere—to Masham, Rupert, Alcove, Farrellton and Lascelles. Not that there’s anything wrong with living on the edge, but the cost of gas adds up, and community is less accessible.

For the truly local, buying food here costs 20-30% more at both grocery stores, making dumpster diving a lot less recreational than it used to be. Ironically, many of these particular Wakefielders contribute great riches in social capital and volunteer energy, but still struggle to meet their basic needs. Some longer-term working class residents are lucky, and own their own homes. But if you didn’t put your deposit down on your little village house, or cabin, or trailer before the boom, you can forget about it now.

So, you see, affordable housing is not only lacking for seniors. Municipal administrators, representatives, and community leaders need to take a comprehensive look at this. Now, not later, is the time to examine policy options, and come up with some creative solutions, or Wakefield will continue to become a place for the cash-rich, to the exclusion of the rest of us, despite our artistic, labor, entrepreneurial, and civic contributions.

3. East Meets West meets North meets South: Unity and Diversity

One of my favorite quotes by a PPU committee member reflects on the diversity of our community in a somewhat sardonic way. “Wakefield,” he says, “is not the kind of place you can really put your arms around.” Indeed, divisiveness is as much the norm here as diversity, and I’ve never once experienced an all-encompassing group hug here in the village, (although hugging is a popular past time). Our challenge is to turn all that difference into asset as opposed to obstacle.

While Mayor Bussiere has come to better understand and relate to the ‘other’ side of the municipality, the perception and reality of ‘parts’ still exists, culturally, linguistically, politically, and economically. The question is, how can we use this to our advantage? One thing is for sure, East and West will meet at the council roundtable and those differences and divisions will still play a role.

Proudly I can say, Wakefield may be a real opportunity for surmounting some of the francais-anglais divide, with strong leaders like River Echo Language School presenting opportunities for language exchange and education, as well as a generally side-by-side semi-integrated population. But the effort to learn and understand each other across a gulf of 250 years of standoff has to involve concerted efforts and congenial gestures on both sides. I, for one, observe the whole situation from a semi-outsiders’ perspective (being neither of French nor English Canadian descent) as do many other Wakefielders who, strung together, pretty much cover all regions of the globe. I have had many local days where I had the opportunity to speak all 5 languages I know and a few that I didn’t. I believe this, our diversity in a wider sense, may be a part of the solution. Events like the Harvest Festival forge a new bridge out of the richness of Aboriginal tradition into a future of multi-culti, earth-lovin’ fun. If unity, or at least peaceful coexistence, is a real possibility, I would expect a glimpse of it here, in a landscape that does hold its arms around all of us.

And so, dear readers, I am not actually running for Council. I am far too insecure to go up against the likes of a Rompre, and besides, I don’t really want the job. But I hope that public participation in our political process will be funky, fun, and growing rather than groaning, screeching, and lurching to a halt. Here’s my hat in the ring. Now its your turn.