Dear Winnipeg

A Fun Blog About Infrastructure and Municipal Finance

Unqualified Losers

Dear Winnipeg,

Now that the dust has settled on the latest municipal election, it’s time to take a look at the Mayor and Council we elected, and what the next four years in our city might look like.

If you’ve been reading these letters for a while, I’m sure watching our city elect what can most charitably be called a “status quo Council” probably feels like drinking a piping hot mug of poisoned thumbtacks while waiting in the rain for a bus that never comes but you can’t even check the schedule because that morning you dropped your phone in the toilet and now the screen won’t turn on.

Plus there’s spiders somehow.

After all, given the dire financial situation our City is in, it seems obvious that what we desperately need is change, not the status quo.

Well folks, I want to assure you that change is afoot.

Because I don’t know if you noticed, but the conversation happening in this city right now is light-years from where it was, even just 4 years ago.

There is of course Ryan Thorpe’s fantastic pre-election long-read on the core issues facing our city, a must-read that got a lot of visibility even outside Winnipeg.

But I’m just as impressed with the post-election coverage. Consider the 2018 election. On the day after the election, the October 25th, 2018 issue of the Winnipeg Free Press featured only two articles on the election, one recapping the results of the Mayor and Council races, and one recapping the results of the plebiscite on re-opening downtown’s Portage & Main intersection to pedestrians (closed since 1979).

On the day following that is when we got the full coverage, though again, it was basically just a bland reporting of poll results and analysis of campaign strategies, for both candidates and the Portage & Main issue.

From the October 26, 2018 Winnipeg Free Press (page 3):
“People living in or near the downtown were supportive. People in the suburbs were not,” Moore said.

No real talk about policy. Just more trying to explain voter intentions, trotting out the same old tropes of suburban vs urban, and the “preferences” of each.

“When it comes to the Portage and Main plebiscite, what’s […] most discouraging to the urbanist thinkers who believe reopening the iconic intersection would contribute greatly to Winnipeg’s character and promise…”

— Winnipeg Free Press, October 26, 2018, page 6

And this one:

“As is the case with many big cities, Winnipeg City Hall is a battleground where councillors representing older, core neighbourhoods fight with councillors representing newer, more affluent suburbs over infrastructure investments. While the core pursues things such as community redevelopment, affordable housing and renewal and better public transit, the suburbs are looking for new recreational assets and longer, wider roads with more underpasses and overpasses.

At first blush, it seems like a fair fight, but it’s not. Suburban wards have much higher voter turnout. As a result, city council tends to defer to suburban priorities.”

— Winnipeg Free Press, October 26, 2018, page 17

It was all framed as an issue of “beliefs” and “priorities” that could make things better or worse, rather than the hard dollars that were (and are) forcing our hand.

Compare that to the day after the 2022 election. This time, a front page article talking about Mayor-elect Gillingham’s campaign promise to dedicate a tax increase to help pay for the $1-billion+ road expansions of Kenaston Blvd and Chief Peguis Trail said this:

“… his single-minded fixation on the city’s roads budget is old and outdated thinking. Both of his road mega-projects are unqualified losers…”

— Winnipeg Free Press, October 27, 2022

Old and outdated thinking.

Unqualified losers.

Wow.

And an editorial two days later, titled Urban-Sprawl Challenge Awaits New Mayor, had this to say:

“As Winnipeg has borne the burden maintaining the infrastructure in all of these growing communities, the fiscal consequences have finally come home to roost. The city no longer has the tax base to maintain its sprawling infrastructure. The numbers prove it […] So does the eye test.”

— Winnipeg Free Press, October 29, 2022

An editorial, I might add, is the consensus view of the paper’s editorial board.

That’s quite a shift.

So who caused this shift? I’ll tell you this much, it wasn’t City Council.

It was you.

Over the past four years, you’ve been talking about these issues with friends, family and colleagues.

Some of you have been volunteering your time advocating for the things that doing the math has told us will help: streets trees, public transit that works, more and safer active transportation, and encouraging mixed-use infill development. Because, to paraphrase globally-recognized city planner Brent Toderian, when you understand how city finance works — or doesn’t — you have no choice but to become an advocate for those things.

Some of you got active doing actual projects to help in your neighbourhoods.

Some of you wrote short columns, or long columns, and so many op-eds and letters to the editor.

Some of you even ran for office this time around. And even if you didn’t win, just the fact that you were out there talking to people on the campaign trail helped to educate people on the core financial issues our city is facing.

You did this. Neighbours and volunteers with no budget who recognize that no one is coming to save us. And that’s despite being up against well-organized, and well-financed, lobby groups who would love nothing more than a continuation of the status quo.

The Manitoba Heavy Construction Association needs to recognize that their members can just as easily build sidewalks, bike lanes and transit infrastructure.

In the fall of 2019, I was lucky enough to witness the early stages of what would eventually become Trees Please Winnipeg, a grassroots coalition of residents, residents’ associations and other groups.

Their goal was to get the City to allocate more funding to urban trees. One of the first questions they had to decide on was: where would the money come from? Given the size of the roads budget, the fact that even a small slice coming off of it would make a huge difference in the forestry budget, not to mention the much higher ROI that trees had over road spending, that made it the natural place to get the money.

But at the time, even suggesting that there might be higher-returning investments than pouring all of the city’s money into an ever-expanding roads budget was basically heretical. Could the group even be taken seriously if this was their position?

But they persevered.

Fast forward three years, and we are reading in our city’s newspaper of record that fixating on the roads budget is “old and outdated thinking”, and that road expansion projects are “unqualified losers”. Plus, all 11 mayoral candidates and 29 out of 44 council candidates signed Trees Please Winnipeg’s electoral pledge to plant, maintain and protect our urban trees.

That’s progress, baby!

And none of that happened because of the election. It happened because of the stuff between the elections.

Now, I’m not saying that who we elect to Council doesn’t matter. Of course it does. Having a supportive Council makes the work we have to do much easier. But regardless, if we do the work, Council will eventually come along for the ride. Because ultimately, Council is simply a reflection of us. They’ll almost always be the last to get the memo. Only when our neighbourhoods, our communities, our people have already changed will the people on the Council we have reflect that. And that doesn’t necessarily mean replacing anyone on Council. The current Council and Mayor are fully capable of adapting their positions when faced with new information, or a change of public opinion. After all, their jobs depend on it.

And we’re already seeing it.

Councillor Lukes, who has been a vocal proponent of road investment and who was named the new chair of the Public Works committee, recently commented:

“Do we have too many roads in the City of Winnipeg to support over the long term? For sure we do.”

— Recently re-elected Councillor Janice Lukes

Yes, that’s the Councillor for Waverley West, the neighbourhood that is the poster-child (and sometimes-whipping-boy) for the suburban experiment in our city.

As you know, once you recognize we have more infrastructure to support than we can ever dream of paying for, it’s not a far nudge from that point.

There’s even hope for our new Mayor. Remember his promise to institute a tax-increase to help pay for the expansions of Kenaston and Chief Peguis? Well, that wasn’t quite his promise.

To be exact, his promise was actually to institute a tax-increase to help pay for the expansions of Kenaston and Chief Peguis if a sound business case could be made for it in a cost-benefit analysis.

We already know how that ends, because there is no sound business case for those unqualified losers. Well played, Mayor Gillingham!

So I have to say, based on all that, I’m actually hopeful for the future of Winnipeg. In early October, my wife Glenelm Gal said to me: “I can’t wait for this whole election circus to be over, so that we can finally get back to the real stuff.”

She’s so wise.

It’s time to get back to the real stuff because there are still a lot of people in the city who don’t know what we know. It’s time to continue the talk with friends, family and colleagues. Time to get involved, or continue to be involved, with the many organizations that need us. Time to do the work in our neighbourhoods. Time to humbly observe where people in our city are struggling, identify the next smallest thing we can do to help, and do that thing, with or without Council. Then we start again tomorrow.

We don’t need to solve everything at once. We just need to keep going.

And don’t worry. Eventually, Council will catch up.

Smooches,

Elmwood Guy