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Monthly Blogs

The Importance of Youth Community Service - May 2017 

On April 24th I had the honour of launching, with Mayor Bowman and University of Winnipeg President Trimbee, the new youthunited@ winnipeg  program This is a 2 year pilot project. The city is funding the project, at $200,000 per year, while the University of Winnipeg is administering. It's a summer program involving 20 U of W students, 10 from the suburbs and 10 from the inner city. Each student is placed with an inner city social agency to work four days / week. On the fifth day the students all attend a U of W credit course studying the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Creating an "urban peace corps" has been a long-time dream of mine. I wrote about it in the 1990's and included a version of it in my platform when I ran (unsuccessfully) for Toronto City Council in the 1990's.  The US has had the City Year model started in Boston in 1988 and now found in more than 20 US cities. I have visited City Year Boston, San Antonio and Columbus, and in 2014 I hosted City Year reps in Winnipeg. They emphasized one key thing : do something - but make it fit for your city.

With youthunited we have found a made in Canada model. We are keeping the idealistic vision of young people crossing the tracks and learning about the inner city (and inner city learning about suburban youth). But we are also bringing a discussion of reconciliation with indigenous peoples into the program - certainly a key topic for Winnipeg.

I am proud that I continued to push for this concept for 26 years, and I thank the Mayor and U of W, and I especially thank my wife who told me a few years ago “don’t quit now - you've never been closer". Now - to convince other cities and other governments to follow our lead!

 

Thoughts on Urbanism & Community - April 2017

Recently my colleague Matt Allard (St. Boniface) wrote a piece declaring himself as a proud “urbanist”.   An actual attempt to start intellectual debate at City Hall – kudos to Councillor Allard!  I agree with much of what Councillor Allard said, however it has got me thinking about the challenges of balancing “community” with “infill housing” applications.

As Councilors, we get rebuked almost daily for not doing enough to promote infill housing, loosely defined as housing construction that does not go into greenfield areas, but rather fills in gaps in existing, developed areas.  Articles appear telling us that the city must “build up, not out”, and that to vote against infill applications is to “pander to NIMBY (Not in my backyard) residents’ groups”.  The reality of the situation is, of course, much more complicated.

I first got interested in civic politics when I walked past a re-zoning poster in a park near where I lived in Toronto.  I decided that a very large condo in the park was not a great idea, and that I should go to a public meeting on the matter.  As it turned out, I spent much of the next two years getting involved in a couple of fights to downsize condo applications in Toronto.  Interestingly, the local City Councillor who worked with our group was none other than Jack Layton – before his days in federal politics.   I say interestingly, because in the current climate around Winnipeg City Hall, I think Layton would have been criticized by planners for not being sufficiently “pro-density” and for “caving in” to those community residents who wanted reduced height and density for a condo. 

After five years as a Councillor, I have concluded that it is dangerous to simply worship at the shrine of densification.  Some recent city documents further raised my concerns about this issue.  The subject of infill housing was treated much like sunshine or vitamin C – something inarguably good for you, without complexity, ignoring the enormous community opposition that often comes with infill applications.  Additionally, some of the city documents take the position that infill is always cheaper for civic governments because “it doesn’t require new pipes or new roads”.  The reality is that infill CAN be cheaper, or conversely where there are ancient pipes, or other outdated infrastructure, it CAN be very costly.

We also need to be aware of the environmental balance when engaging in discussions about infill – certainly the drive in from say, Guay Avenue to downtown is shorter than from Sage Creek, and taking the bus from Guay is also far easier.  Points in favour of infill in that regard.  However, the rush to infill can also threaten green space.  Several city officials over the years have told me that the “responsible” thing to do with the Canoe Club lands would be to sell them off for infill housing.  Well, I’m not buying that.   We are looking at re-inventing the golf course (lease expiry April, 2019) into some other use such as park/tennis/soccer etc, but the vast majority of St. Vital residents do not favour losing the green space over to infill housing.

Finally, I fear that if we simply accept that densification is the only “responsible” option we overlook the importance of community and community groups.  I first got involved in city politics through a residents group (Toronto).  We should be pleased when people are passionate about the future of their communities.  This does not mean that I always vote with the “objectors” to any densification proposal.  However, I do think that we have to look past some of the media critics who characterize any resident as “NIMBY” types.  The communitarian movement in the United States has talked about the need to balance the interests of the community with the interests of the “supra community”, or in this case the interests of neighborhoods with the interest of the city as a whole.

And so while Councillor Allard labeled himself an “urbanist”, I might be a bit more cautious.  (This is not meant to criticize my colleague, who has skillfully dealt with several difficult infill applications already).  I will adopt the label “new suburbanist” – reflecting that we while we need to accept some infill in the suburbs; we also need to balance the interests of community.

 

Transit safety - March 2017

I am not a regular rider on Winnipeg Transit.  I have been – both during my time as a university student and as a lawyer at a downtown firm.   I still ride the bus on occasion, and plan to do so more often now that my sons are able to get themselves to school each morning.  But one of the issue I have championed as a Councillor is transit safety.  Tragically, this issue has returned to the forefront with the recent unprovoked, fatal assault on a Winnipeg Transit driver. 

In the wake of the fatal stabbing I reflected on the efforts over the past 5 years.  When I spoke to the media – and I had more media requests on the day of the stabbing than on any other day in my period as Councillor – I said that this was not a case where I could say “I warned you all, and you did nothing”.  Rather, the City has taken some concrete steps in recent years to assist with security.  Tragically, it was not enough to save the driver stabbed on February 14.

In 2012 I began pushing for increased security after meeting with the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), the union which represents the bus drivers.  In early January, 2013 I pushed for inclusion of transit safety measures in the city budget.  Unfortunately, this did not succeed.  However, the discussion around the issue resulted in a study of other cities’ transit security measures in 2013, and this study called for the addition of six more transit security “inspectors”. Having been named to the City’s Executive Policy Committee (EPC) later in 2013 I had a better platform for raising the issue, and in the 2014 budget the city adopted the recommendation to add six inspectors.

 In July, 2014 I fought for a transit security by-law, and as part of that, adding two police cadet positions dedicated to transit safety.   There were many meetings with the three unions involved (ATU representing drivers, WAPSO representing inspectors, and Winnipeg Police Association representing police and cadets).  This was a long fight and required both Council and Police Board approval.  Though the approvals were won, that year no cadets were actually added to the police ranks, so cadets were not devoted to transit.   

Following the 2014 election both Councillors Matt Allard and Cindy Gilroy enthusiastically backed the call for better transit security.  In early 2016 the Police Board approved scheduling both plain clothes and uniformed police on city buses on a random basis.  By all accounts from the ATU, the step of adding police has dramatically help reduce the number of assaults on drivers.   As stated above, despite this progress, there was still the tragic stabbing. 

On February 28 Council’s Infrastructure and Public Works Committee voted for a complete review of Winnipeg Transit’s security measures to see what other jurisdictions do, and what else the City of Winnipeg could be doing.  I don’t know if this study will result in recommendations for more transit police, more City police, or some other measures.  We have in the past debated protective shields (which were at the time opposed by both Transit management and the bus drivers’ union), equipping drivers with pepper spray, or removing drivers from the duty of confirming fare payment.

For a few days after the stabbing, media calls poured in and the social media sites lit up with people expressing their opinions.  All of this died down after a few days.  The challenge will be to remain committed to the issue after the original frenzy of interest has passed.  I remain committed to further working on this project, both for the safety of the drivers and for the passengers.  

Working with faith-based groups in St. Vital - February 2017

Recently, a resident emailed to complain about a small grant I had approved relating to a particular church.  It was a respectful conversation though at the end we agreed to disagree.  As February 1-7 is the UN World Interfaith Harmony Week, it seems an appropriate time to write about the issue of the City Council support for, and word with, faith-based groups.

One of the more difficult balancing acts as a Councillor is deciding on the appropriate relationship with various church or religious groups in St. Vital. While the city should not prefer any religion over another, I also feel that we should not ignore the community-building efforts of various churches in the ward. Most, if not all, of the places of worship in St. Vital play host to several community groups, whether it is Girl Guides at St. Mary Mag, or youth badminton in the gym at the Hindu Temple.

During my time as Councillor I have helped a number of churches, including Faith Lutheran, St. Mary's Rd United, Christ the King (school), New Testament Church of God, Gudawara Nanaksar, and St. Anne’s Road Hindu Temple with grants to repair leaky roofs or other renovation projects.    I have also been able to assist some churches with small grants to help with youth programming (Evangel Chapel/ New Beginnings, Sterling Mennonite), or drop in centres (St. Mary Magdalene).   And, I have been honoured to attend anniversary celebrations, including the 100th anniversary for St Mark's Anglican in 2014, and the 40th anniversary event at the Pioneer (Hazelwood) mosque. 

In some cases, other levels of government have been funding partners, such as the St. Mary Magdalene daycare project which received Federal, Provincial and City support.  The cooperation of different levels of government was particularly evident at the opening of the Salvation Army Barbara Mitchell Resource Centre on Morrow Avenue, one of the lowest income areas in St. Vital ward, where Shelly Glover (then MP) and Nancy Allan (then MLA) played key roles in making the project happen.   While I do not share all of the theological views of the Salvation Army, I have been impressed with the work being done at the Barbara Mitchell Centre.

The multi-faith effort in St. Vital should also be commended, especially the Habitat project from 2016 which I supported with some funding, which included individuals from many St. Vital faiths. Councillor Scott Gillingham and I are both supporters of the “Faith 150” effort, a multi-faith group formed to celebrate all faiths in Canada’s 150 anniversary year.  We hope to see a Faith 150 multi-faith event in Winnipeg later this year.

I agree that individuals with no religion should also be recognized (I am not personally a member of any church or denomination). Once a year, each Councillor gets to open a council meeting with a prayer, and I used my turn in 2014 for a moment of silent reflection to acknowledge this important point. In the past I have variously used a Hindu prayer, a Lutheran hymn, and a reading from the Koran for my turns.

The relation of church and City Council is open to debate, but the efforts of the St. Vital places of worship to help with poverty, immigration and other challenges has been an important learning experience for me as a Councillor.

 

What's new in St. Vital  - January 2017

In this case, what's old is new again. Two years ago I was looking at an old map of St. Vital with Bob Holliday, head of the St Historical Society. I pointed to the street named "de la Giclais" and asked “what is that?" Bob said that modern-day Sterling was once called "de la Giclais" but this changed because it was the end of the bus loop and people found the French too hard to pronounce. "Yeah right" I thought. I asked City Archives staff to look into it - and Bob was right.

In 1958 the RM of St. Vital Council voted to rename the street because residents had petitioned and the name was too hard to pronounce. I checked this out last summer with the late Tom Sidebottom at a seniors building and he told me “we said delajicklay", or even better “de la giggly ass". And so I decided that after almost 60 years I would put things right and restore the French name “de la Giclais" in honour of the French history and French community in St. Vital". The original street name is
believed to be in honour of Marie Joseph Alain Magon de la Giclais, a St. Boniface area businessman with strong ties to the local French
community, and who fought for France in World War I and was awarded the Croix de legion d'honneu

I did NOT want to change the name of Sterling which now has its own history. Luckily, the city is set to open a small pedestrian pathway or "Sentier" in French, at the south end of St. Vital, leading from Twickenham Circle to Frobisher. The pathway is not far from Ecole Christine Lesperance and Centre Scolaire Leo Remillard (two newish all-French schools) so it seemed a good place to restore “de la Giclais" to the St. Vital map.

On January 9 my naming motion passed its first step (thanks to Councillors Allard and Lukes for their support) at Riel Community Committee. If it succeeds at the next committee we will name the trail this spring with appropriate signage explaining this rather odd history.

St. Vital is a great mix of the new and the old, and in this instance Sentier de la Giclais Pathway will be a bit of both!