When it comes to the discourse of the city we call home, Winnipeggers are a paradoxical lot. For example, typically disparate social strata-like developers, business owners, activists and ordinary residents alike agree that something must be done about the malaise of our downtown, but most of the city still performs a mass exodus of the area every day at evening rush hour.
We curse the weather in winter for being too cold and we curse the weather in the summer for being too hot.
But there is a troubling aspect of life in Winnipeg that more people should be talking about. With the end of yet another dismal City Council election, it is time to reflect on our lack of democratic engagement.
The problem is that although we complain ad nauseam about the state of our city, few of us actually vote for the people who end up governing it.
How many times have you, or someone you know, complained about the pothole obstacle courses that pockmark our roads? Or about the city’s lack of efficient public transportation? What about lobbing verbal blows about the mayoral shortcomings of our dear Sam Katz?
I know I have heard these and many other grumblings about issues that fall firmly under the jurisdiction of City Hall, but I hear less and less about people actually voting for their city councillors, the very people that make the decisions about these and many other matters that affect us on a daily basis.
The March byelection in the ward of River Heights-Fort Garry was a case in point. Local CJOB radio pundit Geoff Currier was pitted against former Winnipeg One School Division trustee John Orlikow, in about as star-studded a ballot as one can hope for in a city council election.
For weeks, major media in the city followed the battle between the two, though the media coverage conflated the message that the constituents of River Heights-Fort Garry actually gave a damn. When the dust settled and the final votes were tallied, a dismal total of only 22 per cent of eligible voters had participated. Add to this the equally depressing turnout for 2006’s city-wide councillor and mayoral elections – where even the curious Mr. Katz mustered his majority of votes from only 38 per cent of the electorate – and we Winnipeggers have a genuine lack of democratic participation at the municipal level of government.
Now granted there are other ways for citizens to make their voices heard besides voting and many good citizens abstain from voting for very valid reasons. Yes, the ‘get out and vote’ refrain is tiring and fails more often than not to win over the types of people who see politicians only as thieves and hucksters who are only too eager to guzzle the public’s funds.
But the fact of the matter remains that for all the faults we find with this city, we don’t seem to be able to translate our grievances into active citizenship, even when all that is required for us to participate is to check off the name of a candidate on a piece of paper.
The decisions made by our city council matter, and it matters that more and more Winnipeggers bypass their chance to participate in choosing who will represent their interests at City Hall. While we eagerly go to the trouble of publicly haggling the changes this city needs, we should also get over the disconnection between what we want Winnipeg to be and who we put in charge of it.
Andrew Tod is a University of Winnipeg student.
Published in Volume 63, Number 26 of The Uniter (April 2, 2009)