Rev. Brian J. Kiely October 8, 2017 Unitarian Church of Edmonton
On October 16th we have the right and responsibility to go to the polls to elect a mayor, city council and school boards. Historically these are the lowest turnout elections of the three levels of government we get to choose. And in years like this when there are few real battles shaping up the turnout gets worse, as low as 25%. The vast majority seem to think that if any elections matter, it’s the federal and provincial ones. Civic elections are kind of like sideshows, junior high school in the political pecking order.
I want to suggest that this is getting it backwards. Democracy is fundamentally about the way people make decisions together for the greatest good. As our children’s version of the Unitarian Universalist Principle puts it, every one should have a say in things that matter to them.
Casting one vote of 17.5 million in a federal election is not much of a say. Perhaps we should be looking at key decisions being made at more manageable levels than in nation states. The noted Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams wrote about the value of Voluntary Associations back in the 1960’s and 70’s. In forming his views he drew on his passion for our liberal church approach.
Says biographer Van Erich Fox,
Adams’s conception of the meaning and importance of voluntary associations grew directly from his understanding of authentically free spirit in the free church. He described the free church as a body of believers freely joined in a covenant of loyalty to the holy spirit of love, intentionally inclusive of dissent, governed by its own members and fiercely independent from government control… He interpreted participation in voluntary associations, whatever the character of the government, as the chief means by which beneficial social change has been effected throughout history, and as key to the meaning of human history.
Remember, he was writing in the United States during the era when Black churches were spearheading the civil rights movement and where liberal churches were adding in a powerful voice against the Viet Nam war. His main point was that grass roots democracy was where real change could take place, small group to small group.
Edmonton, with it’s community leagues, has a positive history where these local voluntary associations have a strong voice in development issues in their neighbourhoods, speed limits, park and leisure program development etc. Council listens to community leagues. It is fundamental democracy.
Increasingly, we are seeing a shift of meaningful political activity to the municipal level. This is where change takes place. This is where things get done, as well will see. It’s not exactly Adam’s vision, but it is closer than the federal/provincial/municipal hierarchy we are used to seeing. That model is a product of earlier times in Canadian history.
150 years ago, when the British North America Act became law recognizing Canada as an independent nation, fewer that 10% of the entire population lived in the 10 largest cities. And ‘cities’ might have been an exaggeration. Ottawa, the seat of the new government only had 26,000 people and the three smallest ‘cities’ would only be recognized as towns today.
In contrast to that 10% of dazzling urbanites fully 1/3 of enumerated workers laboured in the fields and fisheries. And of course they would have had their families with them. The vast majority lived in a rural setting. The point is that the the needs of cities didn’t matter all that much in the grand political scheme of things. Our country was NOT set up either to serve the needs municipalities or to recognize any power they might have.
So given our federal/provincial/municipal pyramid of power, it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t always like that. In ancient days there were city-states that dominated the political sphere.
Parag Khan, a University of Singapore academic and author of Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization reminds us that in the time before nation states, virtually all power was vested in the cities.
“It is an ancient phenomena. The cities of ancient Mesopotamia had trade agreements and decided on religion, currency etc. This goes back 4000 years.”
We do not speak so much about ancient Greece as we speak of Athens and Sparta. And the western world was dramatically shaped by Rome, a city that became an empire.
The beginning of the rise of nation states as we now know them is debated by historians but the earliest date would be in the late 15th century during the Renaissance, though a more popular date would be about 1650 with the Treaty of Westphalia.
Now the only important point to take from this historical sidetrack is that the idea of a federal government holding most of the critical powers is a modern concept. For most of human history, reaching back several thousand years, cities (often built around the great castles) were the major organizing focus of populations. They provided protection, avenues for commerce, a locus for services and behind high walls, security from marauding bands and armies.
David Miller, in our reading, argues that we are now experiencing a second rise of municipal power. .
Even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged that in June at the 12th Metropolitan World Congress in Montreal. He noted that unlike 1867, today 80% of the Canadian population lives in cities. He also acknowledged that the existing federal system does not fully recognize that reality. “Cities and large cities are delivering 60 percent of services with only 10 percent of tax revenues.”
Think about that. Cities deliver 60% of the public services we use to make our daily lives better: infrastructure, food delivery, medical services, education, housing and social housing, transportation, first responders, arts and culture. Sure, some of these are co-funded and managed by other levels of government, but the services could not be delivered without city involvement.
There was an interesting example of the cities flexing their collective global muscles surrounding this World Congress. It opened two weeks after the US President’s bold announcement he was pulling the US out of the Paris climate accord. He said, “I was elected to represent Pittsburgh, not Paris.”
But Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto tweeted back instantly, “Fact: Hillary Clinton received 80% of the vote in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh stands with the world and will follow the Paris agreement.” And this was followed by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo tweeting, “Paris and Pittsburgh do stand together for the Paris agreement.”
Within days 200 US mayors had stood up with Mr. Peduto and protested the president’s decision. The push back was furious and powerful.
Now as much as I do enjoy seeing the US President being hoisted on his own petard, the tweet war reveals a more important fact: City leaders around the world have realized that they have power to make real and meaningful day to day change, much more so than federal governments. Why? Because they are closer to the people and held to account by the people. They rub shoulders with their electors every day, the interactions are far more direct. This is one reason why city leaders are talking with each other and bypassing federal governments in the process.
Anne Hidalgo, who is also the current Chair of C40 the climate change body David Miller once chaired, said that “urban diplomacy” is needed because cities are on the frontline of global events.
“Cities need nation states but we can also be active on the international level,” she said. “Cities are on the front line of globalisation, where we see all the effects, from refugees to climate change. We don’t say that we are a counter power to national governments but we can still be a vocal power.”
Professor Parag Khana who compares ancient and modern city states has coined the term ‘diplomacity’. By this he means both the ways cities reach out to each other and form ties and share policy initiatives on common causes. But he also refers to how cities have to negotiate their way to meaningful power within their nations.
“The key issue is how much autonomy a city will have to pursue its own agenda. Also their capacity to get and spend the money they need to do what they have to do.
“The action on climate change in cities is global. More than 50% of the world’s population live in cities. The demographic concentration and the economic resources have changed the balance of power… Countries of even 100 or 200 million people with a mega city (Manila or Jakarta), their fate depends on what happens in that one city. The progress in that city often depends on the mayor. Sustainable urbanization is probably the single most global priority in the 21st century…Mayors are the ones on the front line. …Mayors just know better than anyone else how to run that ancient political unit that is the city.”
Khana’s comments are supported by former Toronto Mayor David Miller.
“… the job of being a mayor is an activist one. People expect you to produce results. They don’t expect you just to say the right thing, they expect to see things really happen whether it’s building mass transit or changing the electricity grid. They have that expectation, so mayors are impatient and action oriented.
“…I do see the rise of cities. …We see (the) C40 being far more influential on …(climate change) and issues like inequality and I think as you see national boundaries (becoming) less and less relevant because of globalization and trade agreements, you’re going to see cities become more and more relevant. They are already taking a place on the international stage. Citizens who live in cities look first to the city … for services. The services they deliver touch people in every way from health to transportation to libraries… I see cities rising …”
Here in Edmonton we have seen a shift through the last two mayors to a more liveable city, a more global city and a more activist city.
Not everyone has liked that change and that’s fine. As James Luther Adams wrote, voluntary associations only work if there is an intentional inclusion of dissent.
And so it comes back down to us. The real question for each of us on October 16th is what kind of city do you want? And maybe a second question is do you want this city to become a player in this new age of rising cities? There sure are a whole lot of candidates out there and their platforms are available.
Our Principles affirm and promote the use of the democratic process in our church and in society at large. That means we are all called on to exercise our right and privilege when we are asked to set a course for the future of the city. It’s not just a civic duty. For Unitarians it’s a religious one as well.