Posts Tagged ‘Community, Neighbours, and Local Government’

Can you feel inspiration coming on?

April 20, 2010

We can expect to see the Report of the Inspiring Education Steering Committee shortly.  The Report will provide an answer to many questions.  The nature of the answer will fuel worthwhile public debate.


The Alberta Cabinet directed the Steering Committee to accept five characteristics as core values — opportunity; fairness; citizenship; diversity; and excellence.  But Cabinet didn’t limit the Steering Committee to these five characteristics, and Cabinet didn’t elaborate about where these characteristics should show up — in the educated citizen or in the education system, or in the community, or someplace else, or everywhere.

I would like to see the Steering Committee to put forward other characteristics, some of which, frankly, I think are more to the point of core values than those put forward by Cabinet.  I am also hopeful that the Steering Committee will be clear in saying that these core characteristics should be embodied in our young citizens as they graduate from high school,  and embodied in our communities. It is pointless to talk about core characteristics (values) for the education system, or for the school, or for the pupil, if those core values (characteristics) don’t permeate the community in which the school system functions.

My list of important characteristics for citizens and community would include an abiding commitment to:

• the innate worth and moral autonomy of each individual (students and adults must be respected);

• democratic self-government, locally & provincially;

• community;

• justice;

• sustainability; and,

• flexibility (adaptability).

Content may be less important than competence.  Competence is less important than character.

One of the themes that concerned me during the public presentation stage of the Inspiring Education initiative was the apparent emphasis on education as an economic activity.  One can call a person an entrepreneur and emphasize the economic impact of education, or one can call a person a citizen and emphasize the “wholeness” of education.

Another one of the themes that concerned me during the public presentation stage of the Inspiring Education initiative was the apparent emphasis on individualization.  “Less school, more learner”.  There are many things wrong with school as we know it to-day:  it can use a shake-up.  At the same time, “school” represents community, at a time when our interdependence is more and more evident and important to long-term success.  More than one participant in this initiative quoted or paraphrased the adage:  “it takes a whole village to raise a child.”  More than one Edmontonian has recently said that “the school is the centre of the community”.

Interestingly, at the same time that some messages have been emphasizing individualization over community, other messages have been emphasizing “the big community” over “the small communities”.

All Albertans live simultaneously in a number of communities — like concentric circles that surround us and fall further and further away from where we stand.  It is for citizens to decide which decisions will be made and implemented in each community.  I hope the Inspiring Education Report will not presume to speak for Albertans on this issue, since governance was a very small part of the citizens’ input to the process.

Community: Provincial AND Local — Provincial OR Local

April 16, 2010

The provincial government, as required by provincial law, has initiated another redistribution of provincial constituencies.  The interim report has been published and the debate is renewed about urban and rural representation.  The urban argument calls for representation by population, and the rural argument calls for electoral compensation for the impositions of  geography.

Perhaps the underlying issue is more simply described and resolved.

If democracy is about self-government by the citizens of a community, then the questions arises — what is the community within which we want self-government?  And, perhaps, we should re-examine — and re-affirm —  the answer our forefathers came to in years gone by.  Perhaps we want to govern ourselves — simultaneously — in a number of communities.  Perhaps we want to make some decisions in our municipality or school division — our local community — while making some other decisions in our provincial community, while making some other decisions in our federal community.  Perhaps we want citizens to make the decision about what is decided locally or provincially.  It seems to me that most Albertans believe this is the model of self-government they live inside.  They are unaware that, over the past 15 – 20 years, the provincial government has unilaterally changed the model and changed the rules.

More and more often, more and more provincial government representatives, both M.L.A.s and staff, are saying that the only government in the province is the provincial government.  Municipal councils  and school boards are said to be not government, but  involved with governance.  Increasingly, the provincial government limits local access to resources, and transfers public resources as though they are a gift from the provincial government, in envelopes, with conditions attached, and the expectation that locally elected representatives will be accountable, after the fact, to the provincial government rather than to the local electorate.  As this model gains acceptance, the provincial government increasingly makes the political decisions that are emblematic of government, and leaves procedural and technical matters to municipal councils and school boards.  Local initiatives, local priorities, and local mandates are being discouraged and suppressed by limiting local access to appropriate resources.  Local long term planning is being constrained by the imposition of provincial decisions about infrastructure.

Perhaps this is what Albertans want.  Perhaps the Village of Carmanguay, the Town of Stettler, the City of Edmonton, and the M.D. of Sturgeon are all irrelevant remnants of the past.  Perhaps we only live in one community of 3.5 million people — the Province of Alberta.  Perhaps we should share all our political decisions, all the time, with 3.5 million people.

I would feel more comfortable if all of us were aware of the issues, talking about the implications of them, and involved in making the relevant decisions.  I have the uneasy feeling that local community and local government are being suffocated by people who may not know what they are doing as they do it.  Or, people involved with the provincial government see local government as competition.  Or, perhaps they see local government as completely irrelevant to the challenges we face now and in the future.

All Albertans should be part of the discussion and part of the decision-making process about the future of local communities and the future of local self-government.

For example, would the argument about provincial constituency boundaries (and urban or rural influence) be as heated if Albertan’s — both urban and rural — felt confident that important decisions are made locally and would always be made locally?  Would influence in the Legislative Assembly be as important if Albertans felt that local government had adequate resources to accept local mandates, initiate innovative programs locally, and be accountable to the local electorate?

But, perhaps in both urban and rural communities people are arguing so vociferously over seats in the Legislative Assembly because they are already aware that the province is unilaterally centralizing decision-making, centralizing control of resources, and shifting accountability away from the electorate to the provincial government, unilaterally diminishing local communities.

I passed a billboard just outside Claresholm.  The message was:  “Less Ottawa, more Alberta.”  What I would really like to see is “less capital, more community”.

Democracy — Challenges for Alberta

February 21, 2010

On the matter of democracy, Alberta faces some exciting challenges.  There is a wider and increasing awareness that our democratic practices are very imperfect, and need to be improved.  There is an increasing expectation that democracy needs to function better than it does.  There is frustration with the current political culture in Alberta, and a willingness — even a determination — to change the political culture and practices.

All of this seems to reflect a growing realization that democracy in Alberta — and elsewhere — is an unfinished revolution.

We need to attend to three essentials.

The First Essential

We need to absorb the truth that democracy is self-government.  Democracy is a system of self-government in which everyone, first of all, has the right and the responsibility to participate in making the rules about self-government, and the rules protect the minority.  Sovereignty originates with the people, who grant it to the government.  Democratic governments are not a party to the social contract; they are the product of the social contract.  Leaders and representatives are servant leaders:  they are not paramount leaders.

It would be wise to consider limiting the power of parties, and party leaders.  It would be wise to consider giving the electorate more frequent opportunities to be directly involved in decisions, and a better means of controlling rogue representatives.  It would be wise to consider different forms of voting.

The Second Essential

We must reject the politics of fear and adopt the politics of hope.  We need to reject the politics of confrontation and intimidation, and adopt the politics of collaboration.  We need to reject consumer politics and adopt the politics of participation.

It would be wise to consider how to make government more transparent.

The Third Essential

We must decide what we mean by community, and whether our decision-making community varies depending upon the political decision to be made.

I remember seeing a large billboard near Claresholm.  It read:  “Less Ottawa; more Alberta.”  A confusing message.  Does the sponsor mean “less Ottawa; more Edmonton”, or “less Ottawa; more local decision-making — in Claresholm, or in Calgary”?

It would be wise to consider how much decision-making should be made in the Legislative Assembly of Alberta and in provincial government departments, and how much should be made in the local community, by municipal councils and school boards.  It would be wise to consider revenue sharing, so that local government has the resources to effect the decisions made locally.

As a new member of the Board of Directors of the Alberta Party, I look forward to the Big Listen.

Government and community, self-government and self-determination

December 1, 2009

Discussion is picking up on the topic of new framework legislation for education in Alberta.

The first question is not about education:  it is about community.

For more than 125 years Albertans have lived in levels of community — the neighbourhood or village or town; the city or county or M.D.; the province; the country.  In the province, we have governed ourselves — we have practiced self-government — simultaneously in the local community and in the provincial community.  For many many years I knew this as the “respectful partnership” that existed between the government of the provincial community and the government of the local community.

The purpose of these two levels of community, the purpose of this respectful partnership is not to make work for elected politicians.  The purpose is to allow citizens to make some important decisions among a smaller population and across a smaller geographic area, while making other important decisions among a larger population and across a larger geographic area.

In a democracy, “government” is shorthand for “self-government“, and self-government means “self-determination“.  The community that can make some decisions for itself, even if the decisions lead to mistakes, and use its resources to act on its decisions, is self-determining, that is, self-governing.

The term “respectful partnership” (between the provincial government and the local government) has fallen into disuse, because the working relationship is no longer a partnership:  it is the relationship of supplicant to provider.  (Some observers would also say that the relationship is no longer respectful.)  Across all Ministries, the provincial government is centralizing more and more decision-making.  Every such movement reduces the number and significance of the locally made decisions.  In addition, the provincial government is more and more in control of the purse-strings.  So, the local community has to go to the provincial government to ask for permission and resources to do what people themselves — in the local community — want to do.  Locally, there is less self-determination and less self-government.  As this happens, the local community itself is weakened.

From the perspective of the provincial government, none of this is “anti-community”, or undermining self-government and self-determination.  From the perspective of the provincial government, the provincial community — all 3.6 million of us — is the only community that counts.  It is not as though they favour large communities, and have a bias against small communities.  The mayor and Council of Calgary feel just as shackled as the mayor and Council of Claresholm.

And, indeed, the provincial government may be right that local communities should no longer be self-governing and self-determining.  Perhaps with developments in transportation and communications technology we are all one community for all purposes.  Perhaps we can be self-determining and self-governing exclusively through the voices and votes of 83 men and women in the Legislative Assembly of Alberta.  Perhaps there are no local priorities in Provost that differ in any significant way from the priorities of Peace River.  Perhaps there are no conventions that are more central to life in Coaldale than in Calgary.   Perhaps the people of Edson have exactly the same vision of the future of community — and how to achieve the vision –as do the people of Edmonton.

Personally, I still hold — and strongly — that many decisions should be made in the local community, by the people who live in it.  There are some decisions about which I want to be in community with my neighbours, the people I share immediate space with.  There are some decisions about which I want to be in community with all Albertans.  (There are some decisions about which I want to be in community with all Canadians.)

There is another reason why I believe it is important to favour substantial self-determination and self-government for local communities.  In times of rapid change, turmoil, and uncertain outcomes, the best decision-making model is a decentralized one.  Some decisions may be badly made or implemented.  Some will be well-made and implemented.  The more independent decision-making in play, the more likely it is that decisions appropriate to the circumstances will succeed and thrive.  Bascially, in times of rapid change, turmoil, and uncertain outcomes, one only wants decision-making to be highly centralized if one is 100% certain that 100% of the decisions will be 100% correct 100% of the time.  No provincial government has that track record.  You can decide how close the Government of Alberta comes to approximating that record.  (Think of health care, Bill #44, etc.)

In any case, we the people have the opportunity to consider this issue again, in the context of new framework legislation for education in the province.  Do we want the government of Alberta to acknowledge, in legislation, that local communities must continue to be self-governing, or should we start to think of school boards as representing a local public which is simply one stakeholder group among many?  Do we want local communities to continue practicing self-determination, or do we want all local communities in the province to be equal supplicants to the provincial government? When the elected representatives of local communities make decisions, should they be accountable to the local electorate, or should they be accountable to the provincial government?

All of these issues, and more, are up in the air right now.  In the year ahead, the way we deal with local self-government for schools will determine the future of local communities generally and across the province.  This will determine the future of municipal government and it will determine the future of economic and social well-being for all of us, for years to come.

Is Alberta a community of many communities, or is it one single community of 3.6 million people?  Are all political decisions to be made in the Legislative Assembly of Alberta, or are there political decisions that should be made in smaller communities?  Would we be wise to have all political decisions made in the Legislative Assembly, or should some decision-making be decentralized?

Now is the time for citizens to think about self-determination, self-government, and community.  Now is the time to talk among ourselves, listen to our neighbours, inform ourselves, form a conviction, and talk to our elected representatives — school trustees and M.L.A.s