Edmonton city hall. Photo: iStock/holgs

The call to take back’ city hall isn’t new — but who pays?

In Edmonton, history shows the true cost of populist campaigns.

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Considered beside the populist attack on the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. on January 6, the populist rhetoric to “Take Back City Hall” in Calgary and Edmonton is, at best, unsettling. Yet it’s nothing new.

Populist calls from the right have rung out before in Alberta’s municipal elections, and they’ve activated citizens to vote to expunge “elites,” fix their city’s economy, and make life affordable.

But as they’re swept up in these angry moments, few ask if this populism works over the long term and if it actually makes life better. If we look into it, we find it often doesn’t.

Considered today, the Stickmen appear as part Dollar Store political-action committee, and part Trump-loving Twitter account.

A glimpse into the past raises questions about who will benefit from this latest rise of populism-fuelled anger taking root in municipal politics in Alberta. Those who have seen this before suggest it won’t be voters.

Instead, they suggest, the real beneficiaries will be the provincial government and the private sector.

And they’re right.

How the Edmonton Stickmen ‘took back’ city hall

Our wayback machine takes us to 1995. Back then, Edmonton was a city of about 600,000 people grinding through a recession. Premier Ralph Klein had cut municipal grants and public-sector jobs. Both moves brought economic pain and anger.

The municipal election loomed that October. Sensing an opportunity to provoke, a right-wing populist group called the Stickmen appeared. They were five men. No one knew their names because they stayed anonymous during most of the campaign.

Considered today, the Stickmen appear as part Dollar Store political-action committee, and part Trump-loving Twitter account. They had $10,000, little in the way of art skills (the “stickmen” moniker referred to the art on their ads), and an excess of snark, which they posted on billboards.

“Anyone care about Edmonton anymore?” the Stickmen asked with one of their ads. “Edmonton City Council: The best advertising Calgary ever had?” read another.

“Why does Edmonton city council want to ban animal acts? Because they want to be the only circus in town,” read yet another.

[The Stickmen] were hostile, anonymous, snarky. They were pre-Internet trolls.

Kirsten Goa,

Former Edmonton city-council candidate

The Stickmen disliked Edmonton’s progressive city council. But the person they disliked most was the incumbent mayor, Jan Reimer. She was a centrist and Edmonton’s first (and still only) woman mayor.

That year, Bill Smith ran against Reimer for the top job.

Smith was a defensive back with the city’s football team who’d later become a business guy known as “Booster Bill.” He was for private enterprise and against spending and taxes. He was a fiscal conservative and Reimer wasn’t. He belonged. She didn’t.

And the Stickmen amplified this sentiment. “Calgary votes for Reimer,” bellowed their final ad.

Kirsten Goa, a former city-council candidate who was 20 in 1995, recalls being “enamoured” with Reimer as mayor. She also remembers the Stickmen. “I had a visceral reaction,” she said. “It felt ominous. They were hostile, anonymous, snarky. They were pre-Internet trolls.”

They were also powerful.

Premier Jason Kenney has used his power over municipalities to further muddy what motivates voters to show up.

The Edmonton Journal dismissed the Stickmen as “inarticulate about their grievances,” and “all sneer, no substance.” But no matter. In the end residents, clearly activated in part by the anger the Stickmen churned up, elected Smith with nearly 80,000 votes to Reimer’s 78,514.

They’d taken back city hall.

City elections ‘ripe for manipulation’

In 2021, Goa expects to see more Stickmen-like groups appear in municipal election campaigns in both Edmonton and Calgary—just meaner, nastier, darker versions.

It’s a safe prediction.

For one, by passing Bill 45 (under recently-turfed former municipal affairs minister, Tracy Allard), the UCP has now allowed political-action committees (PACs) to deploy up to $350,000 in these campaigns without having to disclose their backers.

If you thought the anonymous Stickmen were creepy, buckle your seatbelt.

And for another, Premier Jason Kenney has used his power over municipalities to further muddy what motivates voters to show up. He’s decided that, simultaneously, the province will hold a referendum on equalization as well as elect mayors and municipal councils.

“We're being set up, for sure, for next year's local elections to make it about non-municipal related issues and bring out the right to vote,” said Erin Stevenson, a councillor in Spruce Grove, just west of Edmonton.

It doesn’t take as many votes to create momentum. You just have to engage a small group of committed people and you can take back city hall.

Jared Wesley,

Political scientist, U of A

But beyond a certain conservative outrage for progressives like Mayor Don Iveson in Edmonton or Mayor Naheed Nenshi in Calgary, or the typical conservative wedge issues— bike lanes, police budgets—why would the provincial government want to meddle in our cities?

Let’s look at two reasons.

The first is it’s easy to do. Populism and city politics go together like Donald Trump and a bottle of spray tan.

Jared Wesley, a political scientist at the University of Alberta who leads the Common Ground initiative, which studies political culture in Alberta, says voter clarity on what governments are responsible for is low in Alberta and therefore “ripe for manipulation.”

Voter turnout in these elections is also low, he notes. “It doesn’t take as many votes to create momentum. You just have to engage a small group of committed people and you can take back city hall.”

The second reason is the UCP senses potential to offload more responsibilities and costs that are unpopular with their base or with private enterprise.

They did this already with municipal development grants, but also with mask mandates during the pandemic and conversion-therapy bans.

In future, costs to run libraries, or build transit (oh, hello, constantly-under-review Green Line), or to fund the arts, are likely next.

The conservative playbook [Smith] was enabled to run, thanks to the Stickmen’s populist action, has helped create a fiscal albatross for Edmonton.

The UCP base dislikes this stuff. A conservative wave in municipal councils could allow the province to pass the buck.

And here the Stickmen in Edmonton offer another cautionary tale.

The true cost of our sprawling cities

In 1995, with the Stickmen's help, Edmonton voted Reimer out and brought Smith in to fix fiscal pain (though, as Reimer rightly had pointed out, job creation was actually up during her term). Nonetheless, over three terms, Smith hewed close to the fiscal conservative playbook.

He froze property taxes for four consecutive years, cut infrastructure upkeep as well as services (though also battled the province to pay its share to cities), and accommodated roughly 100,000 new residents over nine years with the “pro-business” approach of rubber-stamping greenfield sprawl communities (developers are businesses, after all).

Under Smith, voters likely saw property taxes stabilize at first. Yet a generation removed, with Smith long gone, the conservative playbook he was enabled to run, thanks to the Stickmen’s populist action, has helped create a fiscal albatross for Edmonton.

Consider pavement.

Today, Edmonton has a population of just one million yet, thanks to sprawl that Smith and many other “fiscally conservative” mayors have enabled, currently owns and maintains 11,000 kilometres of roadway network. For comparison, Montreal, with 1.8-million people, has but 4,000 kilometres.

Worse, Edmonton’s giant asphalt liability has a lifespan of between 30 to 50 years. The cost to replace it all? Roughly $10-billion.

Fiscal conservative councils repeatedly fall for the ruse that supporting development is pro-business and also saves money.

Indeed, the city now devotes more than $250-million each year just to service and maintain this behemoth. But once it crumbles, which could be soon, those numbers will look quaint. (And it’s even worse in Calgary, where there’s 16,000 kilometres of network.)

Private sprawl developments cost municipalities little, up front at least. Once built, however, a suburb becomes a liability through the infrastructure required to service it. It’s typically not the private sector that pays for these costs, nor the province. It’s the municipality, through property taxes.

Fiscal conservative councils repeatedly fall for the ruse that supporting development is pro-business and also saves money. But instead it leads to the most expensive way to build a city, and citizens end up paying for it.

Paving the way for provincial referenda

The UCP has made little effort to conceal that this shift is part of their wish list.

They recently released a draft bill that would largely prevent cities of more than 15,000 people from limiting greenfield sprawl.

Grant Hunter, the associate minister of red tape reduction, told the Edmonton Journal that the changes will accelerate subdivision approvals. “We’ve taken action toward becoming the freest and fastest-moving economy in North America, but we’re not done yet.”

I’ll be asked more times about my thoughts on federal equalization than whether we’re on the right track balancing economic and residential growth.

Coun. Erin Stevenson,

Spruce Grove

Add in the UCP plan for a provincial referendum alongside the municipal vote to the current Take Back language swirling in municipal campaigns and the province’s meddling is rather obvious.

“I’ll be asked more times about my thoughts on federal equalization than whether we’re on the right track balancing economic and residential growth,” said Coun. Stevenson.

For Wesley, it’s a UCP trial run for bigger things. “I look at the equalization referendum as almost a test balloon,” he said. “If this works and drives small-c conservatives to the polls to vote in a referendum and to elect city councillors, that could be a sign that we could actually see similar referendum questions on police and pensions in the 2023 provincial elections.”

Will voters fall for the Stickmen approach—but on steroids? Or will they see through it?

Goa isn’t confident it’s the latter.

“When we have a crisis, people are anxious. And when people are anxious, if you can point the finger and blame someone for the problems, it makes it really easy to think there’s a way to fix it.”

Tim Querengesser is a writer in Edmonton. He has written about cities for CityLab, Canadian Geographic and the Globe and Mail.

Now more than ever, Albertans need strong independent journalism.

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Thanks to the support of 1,900+ Sprawl members none of our stories are behind a paywall. Help us do more of the journalism we need right now, become a member today!