May 20: City Council vs. The Neighbourhoods: Crisis of democracy in Windsor.

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Community resistance. Photo: Paul Chislett

For the last few weeks, the city has been preparing some neighbourhoods for a new aquatics centre to be built west of downtown. The idea so far is that it will feature a 50m pool and a library. Likely to close are the pool at Glengarry Housing and Adie Knox pools, and the main library branch on Ouellette. These will be amalgamated into the new aquatic centre. Public consultations have occurred for all three neighbourhoods and were well attended.

                                                           Photo: Paul Chislett

 The first two meetings were designed by city staff with four questions citizens were supposed to consider in small breakout groups. The questions were similar, and for the May 18th meeting they were:

• If WPL were to relocate its downtown branch, what services and programs would you like to see go with it to a new location?

• If the downtown branch is relocated, what new types of services and programming would you like to see included?

• Is there anything we could explore to facilitate you using the relocated facility?

• Information from this consultation will be forwarded to assist with the formation of a Business Plan which will be presented to City Council for review and discussion. Do you have anything to add which hasn’t already been covered?

The people at the library meeting demanded that they remain in the larger group and have a public discussion about the possibility of the library being moved. They did so because they could see how the other discussions denied people full expression of their views. People want to talk and have their say about decisions that will radically alter their neighbourhoods. The process to change the meeting was certainly a little messy but everyone figured it out. Library staff took care of the flip charts to record views, and the microphone was placed in the centre of the aisle to allow people to line up and have their say. And guess what? The meeting was accomplished and ended on time without any blood on the floor.

People have their say. Photo: Paul Chislett

The real issue isn’t just the aquatic centre. The real issue is the growing rift between elected officials and city bureaucracy, and citizens. Instead of, ‘here’s what we’d like to do and I wonder what people think of it and how do they think it can be achieved’, we get ‘here’s what I will do and how do I make people go along with it.’

People were passionate and perhaps somewhat angry. Anger is a valid emotion, despite what Councillor Valentinis had to say. People were attempting to grapple with a crucial issue affecting them personally. They had little information and clearly sensed they were being manipulated into providing a false consensus. The refusal to simply go along with the meeting format was a significant victory for participatory democracy in Windsor.

Researcher Daniel Schugurensky provides some insight on how we can build towards a more participatory local government and by eliminating the “democratic deficit”. He highlights two themes in a 2004 talk: “[t]he first is the discontinuity of representative democracy. What becomes of citizen engagement in-between elections? Not much, because we are only called to participate in democracy every four years, when we go to the ballot box. In the interim we are asked to go home, watch the show on TV and become political couch potatoes until the next election.” “The second cause of the democratic deficit”, he said, “is that most educational systems (from elementary schools to universities) pay little attention to the development of an active, critical and engaged citizenship. Educational institutions are increasingly expected to focus on economic competitiveness…”

We have a long way to go to tackle this reality so we have to start wherever opportunities arise, and the city plan to disrupt neighbourhoods, specifically less well-off ones, is such a starting point. Hopefully citizens will continue to mobilize. City council has yet to review the business plan being worked out. There is little doubt the city will go ahead with its plans. Citizens would do well to be ready to appear before council in force with numerous delegations to show why it is the city which must prove the worthiness of the plan, contrary to what Councilor Valentinis said. He maintains that it is the citizens who must show why the existing facilities need to be maintained, even in the face of an ill-defined plan with few details for citizens to make an informed decision.

Former library board member Andrew McAvoy. Photo: Paul Chislett

I should note that meeting chair, Al Maghnieh, as quoted in the Windsor Star, implied that only malcontents showed up at the meeting on Wednesday but that most people in Windsor were satisfied. No one at the public meetings opposed the aquatic centre in principle. They simply do not want it to be an excuse to uproot their neighbourhoods.

(The opinions expressed are those of Paul Chislett, and do no not necessarily reflect those of CJAM or OPIRG Windsor)

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