Our Shareable Neighbourhood

We were looking for a horseshoe.
Some of the folks out at last weekend’s Backyard Gardens walk.

I’ve had some time on my hands this summer to brew a couple new projects, and I think one of them is ready to open up a bit to the world. It’s called Shareable Neighbourhood.

Well, it wasn’t always called Shareable Neighbourhood. Technically this is the first time that’s ever happened. Initially I just called it Neighbourhood Walk, and between the two names you kind of get the idea: monthly tours of our neighbourhood in Old Strathcona/Mill Creek, to let people share what they know about local history and nature.

It was an idea born out of Next Up, the leadership program I finished this year. I’d been trying to dream up ways to get people jazzed about the nitty-gritty of where we live. Partly because I’m intensely curious about how and why things got to be the way they are, and partly because I think when you know more about what’s in your soil and who’s lived on it, you’re more likely to stand up for it. And partly I hoped that if we were all learning and sharing this stuff together more often, we’d feel like we had a more natural community of people to turn to when we need help getting a group solar panel discount, or bringing people out to a city council meeting — you get the idea.

The twist is that while we’ve had three so far and it’s ready to be murmured about online, it’s also young and needs fresh minds. I’m really trying to encourage folks in the neighbourhood to feel confident leading their own walks, even if they don’t have a degree or letters behind their name to qualify them in the idea. That’s why last weekend’s theme was Backyard Gardens: six of us who aren’t professional horticulturalists got to show off what we know about making tomatoes and delphiniums look good. So I want to decentralize the planning behind this as soon as possible, and we also need theme ideas.

So if you’re reading this, and you live in and/or know a lot about Edmonton’s Old Strathcona and Mill Creekish areas, drop me a line. If you have a tour you’d like to lead, great! We’ve done Plants of the River Valley and History of Immigration to Edmonton so far, and I think this month we’re going to investigate the local railways. And if you’d like to get involved in organizing, I’d love to hear from you too. Shareable Neighbourhood also has a Facebook group if you want to join. It might need to become a likeable page at some point.

By the way, this project owes a lot to the Jane’s Walks. They’re these annual walks all around the world that work exactly this way. Locals lead walks around topics like how an industrial heart became an urban park. I didn’t even realize how inspired I was by Tim McCaskell’s tour of Toronto’s gay village until someone pointed it out to me.

Also the name change was inspired by the great podcast 99% Invisible, which has much the same mission to explore the unseen story behind everyday parts of our lives. They tell beauteous stories about everything from how a picture gets on a stamp, to why US currency is so ugly, to how a Walt Whitman poem became wrought in an iron fence in Brooklyn. Just listening to the host, Roman Mars, this week made me more pumped about getting people to show off these unseen stories right beneath the surface of where we live. I highly recommend you check it out.


The Beavers That Lived in the Sky

This weekend I went to a farm in central Alberta for a gathering of Next Uppers from all over the province. I learned that the cattle farm was a bit of an Albertan punk rock institution not too many years ago, but more of the conversations drifted towards humans and our place in nature. Whether we have any place in it at all, in fact.

It inspired a little story I’d like to share with you, called The Beavers That Lived in the Sky.

A tower made out of sticks stands out in front of a bright blue sky
Photo credit: arvster

Once upon a time, deep in the forest there lived a colony of beavers. They loved to chomp down on trembling aspen trees, and build dams with them of course. Their dams created swampy reservoirs that lots of fish loved to swim in. The herons loved the dams too, because of all the delicious fish.

Gradually they spread into many colonies all throughout the forest, each with their own specialization: some built wider dams, some added tiny towers, some liked to decorate them with leaf sculptures, and some liked to carve famous beaver faces into them, like little Mt. Beavermores.

Then one day a beaver in one of these colonies said, Why should we stay in these little dams when we could build grand towers all the way up to the sky, high enough to see over the treetops? The other beavers in her colonies discussed this, and said it sounded like a very promising idea. So the chopped down some trees to build a magnificent tower, and lo and behold she was right, they had amazing views of the forest that no beaver had before.

The colony decided to become tower-makers and map-makers, creating exquisite maps of the forest from their new vantage point. And their maps were so splendid and renowned throughout the forest that they knew they’d struck upon the true destiny that all beavers were meant to fulfill.

With all these new trees they were chopping down, they could feed more beavers, and soon their first tower filled up and they had to build more to house everybody. The other colonies thought they were a bit strange with all their talk about the sky, but they said, “That’s all well and good for them, let them enjoy their big towers and we’ll keep doing what we’re doing.”

And they would have.

But the tower-makers started running out of trees. They pondered what to do. Then they looked at all the other places in the forest and said, “Look at those silly beavers mucking about on the ground. They’re letting all of their trees go to waste, and not using them to build towers at all.”

So they tried to convince the other colonies of the error of their ways. The other beavers said no thanks, but the tower-makers were adamant they knew best. So they started moving into the other beavers’ areas to launch mandatory tower-building masterclasses, workshops and conferences.

Where they found the others difficult to re-educate, the tower-makers were regrettably compelled to use force. With their huge numbers, the battles were short, and before long most of the other colonies had become tower-makers too. After a few generations, most forgot they’d ever made dams.

Unfortunately, within a few generations the forest also started to look a little bare. Actually it looked like a disaster zone. With so many mouths to feed, they were forced to build more and more towers, and chop down  more and more trees. Eventually most of the forest became barren clearcuts dotted with towers.

Some beavers started getting very concerned about the disappearance of the forest, and tried to tell others they were headed down a self-destructive path. They warned that unless things changed, there’d be no forest left at all.

The rest of the tower-makers looked around, and agreed they needed to harvest trees more sustainably. Some even agreed that a disaster was going on.

“But what can we do?” they said. “Would you rather live without maps and towers?”

“There’s not much we can do, to be honest,” they sighed. “This is just how beavers are.”

Alberta Election 2012 Underdogs: Marlin Schmidt

I think we can all agree this provincial election has gotten pretty overheated. It’s warranted. There are genuine serious issues coming up about climate change and energy policies, human rights, and moral issues. There’s something else I’ve wanted to focus on, though: underdogs.

There are hundreds of candidates running for office in this election, and though change is in the air, only 87 can become Members of the Legislative Assembly. I wanted to know what motivates the people running in tough ridings, the ones that have been impenetrable fortresses for other parties for years.

So I decided to follow some of those candidates to see what makes them tick. Today I’m starting with NDP candidate Marlin Schmidt. Tomorrow’s profile of Alberta Party hopeful Sue Huff will be a collaboration with my friend and Edmonton Journal contributor Lana Cuthbertson. Without further ado…


Marlin Schmidt out on the street examining a door-knocking list with a volunteer
Marlin Schmidt (left), NDP candidate for Edmonton-Gold Bar

Sitting in the passenger seat of his door-knocking volunteer’s car, Marlin Schmidt is swapping horror stories about the mosquitoes up north. Way up north. Schmidt’s a hydrogeologist for Alberta Environment in Edmonton now, but says his time working in the field in northern Canada shaped his journey from a young Reformer to an NDP candidate today.

The riding Schmidt’s taken on is Edmonton-Gold Bar, and it’s been won by Liberals since 1986. Hugh MacDonald has been the MLA here since 1997, and only decided not to run this time around after running for the Liberal leadership and losing out to Raj Sherman.

That’s a tough legacy to overcome for any candidate, and the new areas that have been added have mostly voted Tory before. But Schmidt’s been through similar battles before running federal races for the Member of Parliament in this area, Linda Duncan. Before she won, Rahim Jaffer seemed to have just as tight a grip on the riding for the Conservatives.

I talked to Marlin Schmidt to see what he had to say about moving over to the NDP, the minor controversy over a public school trustee’s endorsement, and the conditions under which he loves strategic voting.

Swearing at the TV and starting out Reform

Following Schmidt and his volunteer on the evening’s door-knocking route, I realize he’s tall enough to get swiped by most of the trees, so I try to veer to the edge of the sidewalk. As we walk, Schmidt jokes he’s been interested in politics since he was a kid because he his parents were always swearing at politicians on TV, and he wanted to find out what they were swearing about.

His family moved around a lot when he was young, and Schmidt says he has a strong memory of growing up in Saskatchewan under Premier Grant Devine’s scandal-ridden Conservatives. The corruption of that party and its baker’s dozen of MLAs convicted of fraud “left a bit of a mark,” says Schmidt.

The Reform Party seemed to capture the sense he felt of being alienated by the “Eastern bastards” when he was young, he says, and Reform got his vote in his first election. Eventually though, Schmidt realized he felt like the West was being cheated more by big oil and banking companies than by the government.

It was living in northern Alberta with his young wife and working as an environmental consultant for oil and gas companies that guided his shift towards the NDP, he says. He felt frustrated that so much of his pricy consulting fee was going to shareholders, not the people doing work in the company. And eventually he got frustrated with his taxes, too — with how low they were getting.

“Since I started working, my taxes have basically just been doing down,” Schmidt says. But the cost of saving for his kids’ post-secondary education and non-instructional fees kept going up. The NDP seemed to be a better fit for his belief that it’s easier to pay for the important things collectively.

Questions about taxes and oil sands at the door

It’s easy to understand why he just walks past the houses with Wildrose signs on their lawn. It makes sense too that the longest conversation of his evening is at a house where a man tells him he’s worried about high taxes and wages squeezing out his small business.

Schmidt stands at the door for a while trying to persuade the man that the NDP wants big corporations to pay their fair share, but would lower taxes for small businesses. The man nods, saying somebody’s got to pay for everything government does. I’m surprised to hear him tell Schmidt he thinks green concerns about the oil sands are also overblown, but that he’s rented a helicopter to see industry’s impact on the land, and walked through reclaimed forests to see what they look like for himself.

“It’s not much of a forest,” he says.

Although environmental issues play to Schmidt’s strengths, he gives a delicate answer to this potential voter. He talks about the real concerns he sees in his work at Alberta Environment, but agrees they’re occasionally blown out of proportion by advocacy groups. I ask Schmidt later why the NDP platform is so vague about environmental issues, and he admits it’s a third rail for their party in the same way moral issues are proving to be for Wildrose.

“As soon as the NDP talk about the environment,” Schmidt says, “people think we want to shut down the oil sands.” So this election they’ve consciously decided to back down from the development slow-down they called for in 2008, and focus on issues like upgrading bitumen in Alberta.

That issue has earned them attack ads from the Merit Contractors Assocation, which represents non-union contracting companies benefiting from the current setup of shipping unrefined oil out. Schmidt gets a pretty big smile talking about those ads. “Unless they’re a highly vindictive organization,” he argues, they wouldn’t attack the NDP unless they saw them as a credible threat.

EPSB says endorsement controversy a non-issue

The one minor bump in Schmidt’s campaign so far has been Liberal candidate Josipa Petrunic’s campaign’s allegation that he received an illegal endorsement from Edmonton Public School Board trustee Sarah Hoffman. They say Hoffman’s endorsement breaks an Alberta School Board Association policy an abusing her position.

To be clear, I spoke to Dave Colburn, Board Chair of the EPSB. He said they have no policy on the issue as long as the endorsement is personal. I asked whether it was a problem that Hoffman’s endorsement on Schmidt’s campaign literature names her as a trustee. He said unequivocally that their legal team has advised him she hasn’t violated any rules.

As for Schmidt, he says he thinks it’s appropriate for elected officials to support other candidates as long as no public money is involved. Especially with so few progressives in Alberta, he says, they can’t wall each other off.

“I agree with strategic voting sites when they agree with us.”

A Rahim Jaffer sign leaning gently against a lamp-post in a stone-filled yard
Inexplicably, this house had a sign in their yard for Rahim Jaffer. He was the Conservative MP for this riding... federally... until 2008.

The reason I’m standing awkwardly on the porch as Schmidt knocks on dozens of doors, of course, is I want to find out why he’s running for the NDP in a riding held by another party on the left for so long. It’s a question that comes from many people he talks to who’ve voted Liberal before. Schmidt has an answer ready when people argue the riding’s been held by them for decades.

“It was Hugh’s riding for 14 years.”

Hugh MacDonald, he argues, had strong trade union backing, and supported many issues the NDP champion. On the back of his pamphlets, a tiny bar graph reflects how hard he worked to battle the same argument campaigning for Linda Duncan. It shows Duncan was miles ahead of the Liberal candidate in the area during the 2011 election, and that definitely wasn’t always the case. For years, the Liberals argued they were the only credible threat to the Conservatives.

There’s a website called Change Alberta endorsing “progressive” candidates with the best chance of winning competitive ridings all over the province. Though their methodology is a bit shaky, Schmidt has won them over in Edmonton-Gold Bar. Since the NDP so often end up on the losing end of strategic voting though, I ask him how he feels about that kind of endorsement.

“This election I love them,” he laughs. “To be straightforward, I agree with strategic voting sites when they agree with us.”

He’s not the kind of candidate who suddenly puts on a new mask every time he greets people at the door, and I can tell he’s struggling to give an intellectually honest answer. He says he’s trying to come up with a good argument, but there isn’t one.

The pamphlet and the website help this time though, and he knows he needs to win.


Marlin Schmidt’s candidate website

Come back tomorrow, when Lana Cuthbertson and I will profile Edmonton-Glenora candidate and former Alberta Party leader Sue Huff.