Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Rich/Poor Divide

A few years ago, when I was still on council, I was at a meeting of the Housing Committee.  After the meeting,one of the committee members said to me "You have to remember, Prince Albert is really two communities, one rich, the other poor."  That comment has stayed with me, as I see every day how true this is.  It helps, of course, to live in one of the areas that has its share of those less financially well off.

One of the main contributing factors is that those in government, whether civic, provincial, or federal, usually have little experience of financial hardship.  And as is often the case, we think that most people are like us, and either can't fathom that there are others out there without the same benefits, or if there are, then it's their own fault.  As an example, I remember once at a council meeting when we were discussing public transit.  One councillor, who represented one of the richer areas of the city, said that it didn't concern him, because "nobody in his ward took the bus."  He not only ignored the fact that he was supposed to think of the whole city when making decisions, but that encouraging public transit is better for the environment, and would lessen parking issues in the downtown.

Other decisions that show a lack of consideration for the less fortunate include SaskPower's decision to move their office out of the downtown, out to an area not served by public transit.  We still pay our power and energy bills in person, and when we did this downtown, there were always others there, either doing the same thing, or making inquiries.  Not so at the new location, where we're usually the only clients there in person.  I know that the option of paying by phone or on-line is out there, but not for those who may not have computer access, or a bank account.

Or take the new Sarcan location, even farther out than the previous location.  Again, not on public transit routes, which is why I often see people walking along the road, carrying large bags of recyclables.  It may come as a surprise to some, but not everybody has a car.

Or the STC shutdown, to bring the provincial government's recent budget decisions into the discussion.  Rather than looking to see which routes could be kept because they still served a fair number of people, the government shut the whole service down, making those who relied upon it find alternate ways of getting from one community to another.  The son of Ontario friends of ours recently moved to Tisdale, but had no vehicle.  Fortunately, I have a spare vehicle, but he had no way of getting to Prince Albert to pick it up.  He was going to take a cab (not an option for poorer people), but a co-worker was able to drive him in yesterday.  He's a big, healthy young man, so hitch-hiking might have been an option, but what about a woman in the same situation?

One of the responsibilities of leadership in government is to remember that you're responsible to the whole population, not just those who elected you.  And part of that population is less well off, and needs more support to be able to move ahead.  One of the best examples of leadership that I'm aware of is the Saskatchewan government that, more than fifty years ago, was brave enough to bring in universal health care, knowing that it would lead to their defeat in the next election.  It did, but all these years later, it's one of the things that Canadians are proudest of, and appreciate the most, not just those who use the system more than others, but those who are lucky enough not to have to.

So while this current council is contemplating the budget for next year, I would encourage them to remember the less fortunate city residents as they make their decisions, realizing that paving the Art Hauser parking lot or irrigating the golf course will benefit far fewer residents than other expenditures will.

"Anyone who has struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor." - James Baldwin

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Some Thoughts about Downtown Revitalization

Andrea and I took a few weeks in October to take a holiday, visiting family and friends back in Ontario.  It was good to see Andrea's Toronto-area siblings, as well as my family, and friends that we haven't seen in awhile.

We spent about a week in the town where I grew up - Fergus.  It's about an hour and a half from Toronto, ten minutes north of Guelph.  When I left Ontario, more than thirty years ago, it had about 10,000 people.  In the intervening years, the population has doubled, largely due to houses for people who are willing to make the commute to Toronto every day.  After leaving Toronto on a mid-week afternoon, it's not a choice that I would make, but apparently many people do.

With the increase in population, it now has businesses like McDonald's and Tim Horton's, and larger malls on the edge of town.  But surprisingly, it also has a healthy downtown.  We went there pretty much every day, and noticed how it's thriving.  Some of the businesses have been around since I was a kid, but others are new.  We had lunch one day at a restaurant that was at the rear of a health food store (and which I remember as the pool hall), visited a combination used book and essential oils store a couple of times, and browsed a chocolate and gift shop for treats for our cat sitters.  We also dropped in at the newly renovated library several times.  It is not a downtown without vacant store fronts, but unlike Prince Albert, the vacant stores are the exception rather than the rule.  It was also, in the middle of the week, full of people, many of them seniors.

So what's the difference between Fergus and Prince Albert?  I don't know all the answers, but I noticed some things.  Fergus does not rely on government offices, so there aren't a lot of offices downtown.  In Prince Albert, much of the prime downtown space is taken up with buildings that are only open five days a week, and aren't the kind of places where you can drop in and browse.  The Fergus businesses that are downtown  are all small, without tons of employees, but they're quite welcoming.  And there are no parking meters, but we never had trouble finding a place to park.

They're also filling niches - the restaurant that we ate at was mostly vegetarian, but was full over the lunch hour, again with many seniors.  Andrea commented that she'd never seen a restaurant serve hot water with lemon as a beverage, but she saw three people have that as their beverage of choice.  That's a business that knows its clientele.  And it's interesting that all three of the businesses that I mentioned had more than one purpose.

And people obviously had no safety concerns about being downtown.  We saw no discarded needles, or panhandlers.

There is a downtown business association.  A brochure, advertising that downtown was open on Sunday afternoons, was at the cash register at businesses.  This may be to help them attract some of the tourists that are the lifeblood of the neighbouring small town, Elora, which has the good fortune to be on a river, and close to a limestone gorge, and is quite a tourist attraction.

One thing that they haven't done - spent money on signs pointing out where the downtown is, or on lampposts or fancy paving.  Those things do not attract people - safe streets with thriving businesses do.  Prince Albert needs to figure out how to do that.

"If you do not change direction, you may end up where you're heading." - Lao Tzu