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Franklyn Griffiths: Our big-city leaders need a serious plan to deal with increasing urban violence

Commentary

Living near the Art Gallery of Ontario, I greatly enjoy walking in the neighbourhood and viewing the scene. Not long ago, standing at the corner of Phoebe Street and Spadina, I saw a down-and-out young man turn onto Phoebe and start to flail about in what looked to be a fury. He was twisting, bending, and pounding down on an imaginary person hard enough to pulverize him. 

After a while he looked up and noticed me. Crossing the street, he approached and, a few metres away, said, “I am going to kill you.” There was no time to think and I replied, “Go ahead. Kill me.” He stopped for a moment, shook his head, and said, “No, that wouldn’t be good. I can’t do that.” I reacted, “Those are good ideas. You should hold on to them.” He then turned slowly, shuffled away, and left me to consider what had just happened.

A totally unexpected death threat concentrates the mind and leaves a vivid memory. 

A feeling of relief came first. Being in my late eighties and in no position to fight or flee, it seemed I had talked my way out of a disaster. Then it struck me that in talking to an on-coming assailant I had acted instinctively. I didn’t know what I was doing. I had disrupted an attack by weirdly supporting the attacker’s intention, daring him to kill me, and implying he was a good person. Somehow deflating the bubble he was in, I had deflated a threat that could have been lethal. The outcome was good, but I had taken a big and unnecessary risk. 

These days in Toronto we can be stabbed to death while sitting on a subway bench. In my case the attacker might have been carrying a knife. He could have taken my words as a challenge and tipped into dead-set determination to kill. More aware of possibilities such as these, I might have started shouting, making a scene, and scaring him off. But my personal inclination in dealing with opposition is to begin by negotiating, if I can. So, I spoke normally when I should also have considered trying to freak him out.

How then are Torontonians to protect themselves from random killing in public places?

The question should be answered by citizens aided by professionals. As a professional who happens to know something about security, I believe that effective responses are more likely when we identify and get at the underlying forces and factors. These are the harmful variables that produce unpredictable death, wounding, the suffering that follows, and the decline we all experience in the quality of life in this city. They are best dealt with not in instant individual reaction but in collective proaction based on public understanding and engagement.

Right now, we are in the midst of a mayoral election. Our would-be leaders ought to tell us not only what should be done to increase personal security in Toronto, but how they would build a coalition to make it happen if elected. To demonstrate a capacity for coalition-building, they should consult with constituents and get together in a public commitment to create a city panel on harms control, once the mayor is chosen.

By harms control I mean collaboration to reduce the likelihood of urban violence, its severity should it occur, and the costs of living with it. Policing plays a part but not the leading part here. Rather than take threats of violence as givens and seek to suppress them, a harms control panel should generate consensual knowledge both of the situations that gives rise to violence and of best practices in lessening them.

Is the overall situation one that has us on a slope leading to big-city massacres as in the United States? If so, how do we change direction? If not, how do we guard what works and make it better? Random violence is not the only peril or deprivation we face. But in singling it out and dealing with it we can enhance our ability as a community to deal strategically with all the rest.

We need to think as well as talk together. 

Sam Routley: Alberta is now a two-party province

Commentary

It’s been a week since Alberta’s provincial election and so it’s a good time to step back from the immediacy of the results and assess what they might tell us about longer-term trends in Alberta politics.

While the election produced a majority government for the United Conservative Party and Premier Danielle Smith, it was a highly-competitive two-party race rooted in a conventional Left-Right divide. As a result, even with a UCP government, the NDP was still successful in so far as they won nearly half of the popular vote—44 percent—and elected the largest opposition in the province’s history. 

Indeed, the results reflect a secular change in Alberta politics. The province has gone from a long-standing tendency towards a one-party politics to a more conventional and competitive two-party politics that reflects the standard Left-Right division that characterizes the shape of political contestation in most other provinces. Alberta exceptionalism, in short, appears to be over.

It’s hard to overstate the extent to which this emergent pattern contrasts with the conventional dynamics of Albertan provincial politics. Alberta has, until now, been characterized as a “one-party dominant” or even “quasi-party” system in which, rather than reflective of a back-and-forth competitive process between two or more parties, governments resemble successive dynasties. This includes, for example, the United Farmers (1921-1935), Social Credit (1935–1971), and Progressive Conservative (1971–2015) tenures in office that saw a transfer of power between parties only four times in nearly 100 years. 

This was, to some extent, a creation of the electoral system: the dominant party did not necessarily win a large portion of the popular vote as much as it competed against a very divided and unstable opposition. One academic, for example, found that up to 80 percent of the vote against the incumbent party would drift between parties over the course of multiple elections; that, while an incumbent was able to establish a solid and long-term diffuse basis of support, opposing segments frequently failed to find common cause.

 The opposition benches at the Alberta legislature were therefore always weak, as the government exploited divisions to win a disproportionate number of seats. Up until 2015, it was common for upwards of 90 percent of the benches to be occupied by government MLAs. 

While most dominant parties could be characterized as centre-right, many of the province’s most successful premiers, like Ernest Manning and Peter Lougheed, eschewed political ideology in favour of more moderate, technocratic administration that featured both incredibly high state expenditures and natural resource development. Ideological contestation, for where it was found, was not characterized by Right versus Left, as much as it was about a cyclical anti-establishmentarian dynamic. 

In this unique political context, the premier and his Cabinet tended to be worn down by incumbency and internal pushback from some upstart or neglected faction within his own political constituency rather a rival opposition party. This was most notably seen through the rise of Ralph Klein who, in defeating rival (and future Liberal leader) Nancy MacBeth for the premiership, immediately undid much of the policy legacy of his own party. 

This dominant party structure, in retrospect, appears to have started its decline following the departure of Ralph Klein when, following a string of unsuccessful successors in Ed Stelmach and Allision Redford, the PC’s lost their pre-eminence to an insurgent Wildrose and stable NDP. And, while the UCP’s unification and 2019 victory appeared to promise a return, the party and its leaders have been unable to accomplish the same support among the public as their predecessors. 

From one perspective, this trend towards stable two-party competition was to be expected. The conventional scholarly wisdom is that majoritarian electoral systems incentivize consolidation among the Left and the Right, meaning that both an established governing party and a fragmented opposition is not supposed to happen. 

Thus, most attempts to explain Alberta’s exceptionalism have focused on what makes the province unique. C.B. Macpherson, for example, famously argued in 1953 that Albertan’s predominant economic function and class consciousness as a “quasi-colonial” source of extractive resources for Central Canadian capital did not produce the need for political parties. 

Macpherson was criticized for overemphasizing the homogeneity of the province’s population, but his approach survived through the notion of the “Alberta consensus”: that, on the provincial level, Alberta’s reliance on natural resources and disaffection from the federal government formed a common interest or basis of identity that allowed residents to put their personal differences or interest aside. 

Historically, for example, Albertans were always among the Canadians most likely to identify with their province or local community above Canada. Their rates of volunteerism and grassroots civic participation are high above the average, indicating a general community cohesion. And, both popular and scholarly accounts have further sought to explain the success of right-wing governments by exploring the extent to which the province is structured by a loose populist conservative ethos. Nelson Wiseman and Jared Wesley, for example, have both analyzed public discourse to argue that the province’s debates are oriented around freedom, personality responsibility, and anti-socialism. 

However, recent public opinion data shows that a number of these elements are declining. Not only are Albertan residents becoming more likely to identify with Canada, but they are actually not that conservative; rather, they support relatively high spending on health care, poverty alleviation, the environment, and anti-discrimination initiatives. The same applies to the same issues themselves, in so far as—instead of caring about Alberta’s overall well-being in the Canadian federation—residents appear to care more about immediate issues around health care, the economy, and affordability. 

This year’s election results point to a gradual change that Alberta has undergone for quite some time: it is becoming more like the rest of Canada and even losing its distinctiveness. Rather than between the province and the rest of the country, Alberta’s importance differences are now internal. Calgary and Edmonton now resemble Toronto, attracting both high numbers of young urban professionals and immigrants born outside of the province. They have become among the most diverse, cosmopolitan, progressive—but also increasingly unaffordable—cities in North America. Rural areas, in contrast, retain their old conditions and rely on natural resource developments for their economic success; residents continue to be predominately older, of European descent, and more religious. 

This has not only produced a more competitive party system, but it will provide the foundation for one into the future. It will mean that immediate elections will be close: the UCP will control rural areas, NDP will control the urban, and the suburbs will decide the winner of the election. It may also entail that, while surviving among some conservative voters, appeals to Western alienation may continue to become less successful at mobilizing support among more centrist or undecided voters.

And it could continue the pathway, as with the rest of Canada, towards further polarization among partisan and geographical lines. Alberta’s mythology as the “last best west” has been replaced by an ever-growing city.