Lessons from the 1990s for Calgary city council
A Q&A with former councillor Bob Hawkesworth.
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On Monday, at city hall, I ran into Bob Hawkesworth.
He was there as part of the Keep Calgary strong campaign. The group is asking city council to do the "least harm to the most vulnerable" as it makes decisions about the city's 2020 budget adjustments—particularly when it comes to transit, affordable housing and social services.
Hawkesworth is a veteran of public service in Calgary, both as a Ward 4 city councillor and as a two-term NDP MLA for Calgary-Mountain View from 1986 to 1993. As a city councillor, he served under Mayors Ralph Klein, Al Duerr and Dave Bronconnier.
Hawkesworth ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2010 against Naheed Nenshi, and ran the Government of Alberta's southern Alberta office (2015-2016) under then-Premier Rachel Notley.
How long have you been involved in public life at the municipal level?
I was elected in 1980 as a city councillor and served on council for 23 years in total. And before that, I had run as a candidate for the Calgary Urban Party—and I'll bet you that was before you were even born.
That's probably true. What was the Calgary Urban Party?
The Calgary Urban Party was very similar to what we see here. It was an attempt to give voice to grassroots concerns about the way development was occurring in Calgary, and to try and root and plant civic policy on the basis of community and being attentive to the needs of the larger city.
When you look at civic life in Calgary and people getting involved in issues like that, what’s changed? It seems like it’s waxed and waned over the years.
It's all part of a continual process. I think you're quite right, it has waxed and waned, depending on the context for the city—whether it's growth or boom or bust. But fundamentally, the needs of the city have not changed a lot. That's one of the joys for me of civic government, local government. It's a foundation on which everything else is built.
Our life together in a local community and the important role that city council plays in guiding that and nurturing it—or not—that's really what local government is about. And at times, citizens have felt a need to be activists, because they don't feel those needs are being attended to.
At times, citizens have felt a need to be activists, because they don’t feel those needs are being attended to.
You’ve been on many city councils. Do you know how many?
Ten city councils! When you reflect on that, what were some of the good ones? And what made them good—where you look back and say, "This was a council that was serving Calgarians"?
They were all, in their own way, working diligently and in good faith to do what they felt was right. What might be most comparable to our current circumstances were the councils in the mid-'90s. Al Duerr was our mayor.
There was always a balance and there was a respectful relationship between all the members of that council. Despite our ideological and political differences, we made it work, and actually used our differences in a creative way to manage our way through very difficult times.
We made it work, and actually used our differences in a creative way to manage our way through very difficult times.
So how do you do that? How do you manage those differences creatively? That's something this council is struggling with.
It is. I think that was one of the gifts that Al Duerr had as mayor. He was criticized for being bland, but in effect what he was doing as a leader was setting the tone for all voices on council to feel they had a role and were able to contribute.
We certainly had our differences on that council. There were significant budget cuts from the provincial government, downloading, big changes in the role that city council was asked to play.
There were reductions in spending, but there were no major slashing of city services. We kept on an even keel and kept the boat from tipping over, and I think that's because everybody on council recognized that despite our differences, we had to figure this out and try to find common ground. That's how I remember those councils.
I suppose, to some extent, there's always some grandstanding when you're in public life. People need to know what their councillors are doing and standing for. But there were also respectful relationships. And we liked each other, despite our differences.
What advice would you give to those serving on council today who are trying to navigate through some of this same stuff you're talking about? We have similar problems to the 1990s, with budget cuts.
I think we're here, as a group, out of a concern that we don't want to see the income gap in our city become more accentuated than it is already. There are already deep financial cleavages across the city. People who are struggling rely on a variety of city services. We feel those needs have to be kept at the top of the priority list for this council.
Whatever else they do around taxes, around support for various infrastructure projects—don't lose sight of the fact that we have to be a city for everybody.
That's why I think there's such a huge turnout here. We feel, perhaps, that council's lost that vision.
We don’t want to see the income gap in our city become more accentuated than it is already.
It’s interesting to see the emergence of the Calgary Alliance for the Common Good. When I look at that group, I think back to CivicCamp a decade ago, which galvanized around Plan It, the city's long-range growth blueprint. It seems like there are things that galvanize people at certain times, based on what's going on in society, what's going on in politics.
What do you think is galvanizing these people to come together at this time?
I think what galvanizes is when people feel that the pendulum has swung too far in one direction and that a balance has been lost. We all recognize the need to be competitive as a city around North America, as a good place for business to prosper. That's an important consideration. But you also need a livable city where people feel safe and it's a place for everyone. That's the secret to a successful city.
The fact that we have been rated one of the top five cities globally by some independent arbitrators of these things, I think, is testimony that over the decades we've gone from one side to the other, but fundamentally we've tried to make Calgary work for everyone at all income levels. We've attended to the basics—the water is clean, the garbage gets picked up, traffic moves.
Council’s primary responsibility is to ensure the foundation is strong. If they lose sight of that, people feel the need to show up and remind them. And if that means a 5% tax increase across the board in order to do all the things that this council has said they want to do—from building an arena and expanding the BMO Centre to attending to all the other things that council has to do—to do those things, it costs money.
Don’t dodge that bullet. Accept the fact that for us to move forward, that's the price tag, and let's get on with it. But don't make terrible choices where to do one, you have to punish the other.
With all the spending they’ve approved, there’s a price tag to do these things.
Some council members worry that if they do raise taxes in order to cover what you're talking about—these projects that they've approved, along with the basics—they’ll face public backlash. When you're on council is that a challenge, trying to navigate that?
Well, certainly they have to keep their mind on it, but with all the spending they've approved, there's a price tag to do these things.
If we need these big projects for the economy of the city—not everyone believes we do, but if that's what council has determined—then you have to go to your community and say: Here's the price for doing that.
You can't have it both ways. Either spend it and raise taxes to pay for it, or don't spend. But the folks here today are saying: don't do it on the backs of cutting services to the most vulnerable in our community, because that's just not going to put Calgary in a good place.
If we compare the taxes we pay here in Calgary to other cities across the country, for what we get, it's a bargain. So if I were on council, I'd face that music and say, "Okay, we voted to do these things. Now here's what it's going to take to bring them across the finish line."
You can’t have it both ways. Either spend it and raise taxes to pay for it, or don’t spend.
You were an MLA and served on council for many years. When you look around the world—when you look around this province right now at what's happening—do you feel a sense of hope? Do you feel a sense of alienation?
How do you look at the world these days?
I served in public life before social media was a factor, and I think that's been a game-changer.
Social media thrives on controversy. The algorithms are tuned to amplify our differences, and the more we rely on social media to communicate with one another, the more and more difficult it's going to be to find common ground—to use our differences as a source, a wellspring, for creativity.
That was a thing, going back to our councils, that worked well. We respected our differences as being legitimate. Whether you're right of centre, left of centre, both of those views were considered legitimate.
So how do we square the circle? How do we integrate those points of view? That's a creative process. And that was possible then. I don't think it's as easy to do now. And if we lose sight of the ability to find common ground across our differences—it doesn't bode well for any of us, anywhere, at any level of government.
Social media is driving us into solitudes, and therefore we're losing the ability to be creative. It's just becoming destructive. So I despair, at times, at what we've become, or what we're becoming.
Social media puts new pressures on council members, too, that you didn't have to deal with.
That's exactly right. No matter what you do, even in well-meaning or well-motivated intentions, somebody somewhere out there will twist it into fitting some other narrative, and you don't have any control over it. And any person anywhere can do that.
It just makes it more and more difficult for these folks in our council chamber to do that important work of integrating and responding and keeping a balance and keeping a calm and steady course when they're being yelled at by all sides, no matter what they do.
We can’t put everything on the shoulders of our councillors and expect them to figure all this out. We have an obligation as citizens as well.
You’re also involved with the Calgary Climate Hub. What drives that involvement?
Part of asking for strong funding of Calgary Transit is that any kind of resilient climate response is going to a very strong public transit system. Every city is going to have to have that.
So it's not only transit for very low-income people through the transit pass, but for everyone. This is how, more and more, we're going to have to get around if we're going to make any gains in reducing our greenhouse gas emissions as individuals and as a city.
We have to figure out ways to communicate and have conversations with one another to see everyone finding their way to be part of the solution to this issue.
That's also the importance of having difficult conversations, so that when we come to council, it's not so difficult for our council to act—because some of those difficult conversations have taken place amongst civil society and amongst citizens.
That's our role, too, in a democracy. We can't put everything on the shoulders of our councillors and expect them to figure all this out. We have an obligation as citizens as well.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
The Sprawl is crowdfunded, ad-free and made in Calgary. And in Alberta today, we need strong independent journalism more than ever. You can help by signing up as a Sprawl member. Most Sprawlers pitch in just $5 or $10 a month—and that's what keeps us going. Become a Sprawler today so we can keep at it!