High school dropouts and university graduates with dual degrees mingle at city hall

Winnipeg city councillors bring a variety of educational backgrounds to the decision-making table

Ayame Ulrich

As post-secondary educations become increasingly prominent in today’s society, there still remains a mix of educational backgrounds at Winnipeg’s city hall – ranging from those without a high school diploma to those who hold university degrees.

St. Norbert city councillor Justin Swandel outranks every university-educated councillor as deputy mayor, with the exception of mayor Sam Katz. 

He dropped out of school in Grade 12 in the 1970s to work full-time for a railway.

As a councillor, Swandel moved up the corporate ladder through gaining hands-on experience since he was first elected in 2005. But, he had to put in a lot of effort when it came to learning city finances.

“I had to go do private tutoring for net present value analysis,” he noted.

Swandel feels it has paid off, as he says he knows more about the city’s computerized accounting system than most other councillors.

“You can do … self-learning,” the deputy mayor stressed.

Swandel doesn’t discount a post-secondary education but feels the more specialized the knowledge, the more useful.

“You can get a doctorate in medicine which has no application to city council,” he said. “It’s really specific knowledge that’s valuable.”

For 18-year Daniel McIntyre councillor Harvey Smith, education is paramount.

“Education is the most important thing a councillor can have,” Smith stressed.

No stranger to university himself, Smith graduated from the University of British Columbia with a BA in English and economics, earned an education certificate from Simon Fraser University, and has taken many courses from other institutions.

Smith claims an English education helped him cut through word games within the political arena.

“I listen very closely to words,” he said.

In addition to his scholastic background, Smith values practical experience.

“I’ll listen to a caretaker because everyone has experiences that are worth knowing about,” he said.

According to Marek Debicki, a University of Manitoba politics professor, the blend of hands-on and theoretical education can help civic leaders in making informed decisions for their constituents.

“In some ways, city council deals with complex policy issues,” he said.

Debicki provided crime as an example. A more educated councillor would more likely know of its relationship to unemployment and pursue policies that address the roots of crime.   

But according to Debicki, there’s a catch.

“The educated tend to have a relatively high-income, middle-class view of the world,” he said.

Debicki noted that sections of the population may not understand the plights and problems of some minority groups like immigrants, Aboriginals and the poor.
Ideally, Debicki said, council would be made up of a variety of cultural, educational and ethnic backgrounds to ensure the majority of views are represented.

Published in Volume 65, Number 5 of The Uniter (September 30, 2010)

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