What the Citizens’ Coalition could be

Guelph example should be used here

In June 2008, over 180 excited citizens formed the Winnipeg Citizens’ Coalition, a progressive political movement that would challenge our pro-business city council headed by Mayor Sam Katz.

At that time, there was a significant debate between those who felt that the Coalition ought to be a civic political party, which would endorse a slate of candidates for city council, and those who felt that it needed to be a loose affiliation of civic activists that would increase voter awareness and participation and work on behalf of the best candidate in each ward.

What seems to happen when a coalition is formed is initial excitement. However, within a year or so of attempting to build a group or coalition, commitment wanes and people begin to lose interest.

For example, this past week only 100 members showed up for the Annual General Meeting of the Winnipeg Citizens’ Coalition.

Even more interesting was the fact that all of the people that had been elected to the original steering committee have now resigned. The only returning member to the new executive was Liam Martin.

The last 18 months have been an exercise in futility, so much so that the Coalition really needs to start all over again. However, this time there is little debate on whether or not the Coalition would be a party or a movement. There is now no question.

The Winnipeg Citizens’ Coalition has begun to understand that identifying candidates early and running a well-funded, focused campaign at least a year before an election is the only way to defeat incumbents. Unfortunately, the Citizens’ Coalition has wasted 18 months and is in no position to create change or even begin to challenge Mayor Katz and his “gang” in the upcoming election – especially since the NDP will be having nominating meetings to support NDP-affiliated candidates.

But to suggest, as Bartley Kives of the Winnipeg Free Press has, that the Coalition could be a lot of “hot air” is missing the point (if, in fact, the Coalition’s main purpose is to increase voter awareness and participation in the political process).

Civic political groups can be quite effective in raising voter awareness and advocating alternatives to the status quo. This was amply demonstrated by Charley Beresford from the Columbia Institute and the Centre for Civic Governance who spoke recently on voters’ awareness and participation.

He presented case studies such as Guelph, Ont., where the Guelph Civic League managed to mobilize a significant increase in voter turnout and elect a whole new Council as a result. They did this by concentrating not on issues (for that can be divisive), but by coming together through shared values.

How do you achieve shared values in a city that is really two separate cities – an inner city filled with poor and working class people and suburbia consisting mainly of middle class, professional people?

It seems that the Winnipeg Citizens’ Coalition has been able to attract more suburban members (50 per cent of the people at this meeting were from suburbia) than any other previous civic coalition. As Beresford said, “...values cut across class and inner-city and suburban lines.”

The way the Guelph Civic League achieved change in civic government was by developing a city-wide opinion poll, holding public meetings, developing candidate records cards and by using celebrities and every form of media to increase voters’ participation significantly, encouraging intelligent voting based on values.

This was an interesting example of how a coalition could organize in Winnipeg. If it was done effectively, it could have a significant impact on the next civic elections.

Nick Ternette is a community and political activist, freelance writer and broadcaster living in McFeetors Hall at the University of Winnipeg.

Published in Volume 64, Number 19 of The Uniter (February 11, 2010)

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