Edmonton’s own worst enemy

Colby Cosh on the city’s failings, strengths, and an overlooked blind spot

Edmonton’s own worst enemy

Photograph by Jason Franson

You’ve probably already heard about the contretemps between Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel and the National Post, but in case you haven’t, I’ll recap. June 24’s edition of the Post contained an instalment of Chris Selley’s long-running “Full Pundit” feature, in which he summarizes the work of other columnists and editorialists and occasionally notes where their command of language or logic has abandoned them. Selley had run across a justifiably self-congratulatory, unsigned editorial in the June 22 Calgary Herald about that city’s recovery from flooding. Sometimes “disasters can bring out the worst in people,” the nameless collective voice of the Herald intoned. “But that’s not southern Alberta’s way and never has been.”

Close reading is the modus operandi of Full Pundit, and the word “southern” leapt out at Selley. So he sarcastically endorsed the Herald’s odious distinction, agreeing that, without doubt, northerly “Edmonton . . . would be a smoking hole in the ground at this point, infested with twitchy-eyed, machete-wielding savages.” Four days later, some enterprising reporter finally brought Selley’s joke to the attention of short-tempered Mayor Mandel, who did not disappoint.

“I don’t think I can express how mad I am in language that I can have over any kind of media,” Mandel ranted to radio station iNews 880. “The only thing they can do is a front page recanting that they’re ignorant and they should not even be allowed to produce newspapers anymore.” He went on to suggest that perhaps the municipal government of Edmonton should pull advertising from properties belong to Postmedia, the chain that owns the Post and the Edmonton Journal. “If that’s what they think of the city of Edmonton, we shouldn’t be advertising in it; we shouldn’t be doing anything with them.”

There followed a brief national debate over whether his worship’s reaction was somehow “understandable,” even admirable and justified, or whether he had made himself look like a humourless, illiterate boob. The latter is the right answer, but what was interesting about the discussion was that it never, here or elsewhere, rose to the next logical level. What if Selley had, intentionally, just written a blistering critique of Edmonton?

He must be tempted to try, and it is not as though material is lacking. Unlike either Chris Selley or Stephen Mandel, I was born in Edmonton. I imagine I am expected to dissemble about such things, but the city has shortcomings. Lots of them. Much of Edmonton’s architecture is despair-inducingly ugly, a fact Mayor Mandel has explicitly campaigned on (with a “no more crap” promise) without being told to beat it back to his native Windsor, Ont. Although it was made an official seat of higher learning at the birth of the province, Edmonton’s citizenry is markedly less educated than Calgary’s: Proportionately, according to 2006 census figures, it has one-third fewer degree-holders and one-quarter more high school dropouts.

A fine-dining competition between Edmonton and Calgary, if it extended beyond a few top eateries, would amount to McLovin vs. Muhammad Ali. Edmonton’s football and hockey teams, which were once among its greatest claims to general notice, have become literal laughingstocks. The city is only now attempting to bring its public transit above the level of acknowledged semi-disgrace. It enjoys a routine level of violent crime that would unleash panic in Toronto or Ottawa. I could go on, and at times I have.

It should go without saying, at least by a loyal native, that Edmonton also has great strengths and charms. It has actually recovered with dignity and alacrity from a major natural disaster, the 1987 tornado, that killed and injured many people. And it reserves the edge of its river for public recreation, keeping homes and businesses well clear. (There’s a difference between education and wisdom.) But any writer who sincerely doesn’t like Edmonton’s drinking water or its potholes or its ludicrous sprawl should be allowed to say so in print without having some political bully hold an entire media empire responsible. That’s what bylines are for.

If the city of Edmonton does advertising business with Postmedia, presumably that is, or ought to have been, a consequence of some professional bureaucrat’s objective assessment that Postmedia delivers value for money. (My money.) The really shocking thing about Mandel’s meltdown is that it reveals the opposite: The city’s ad purchases turn out to be convenient hostages, existing to be threatened when the mayor senses some political enmity. No pudding for journalists Daddy doesn’t like.

If Rob Ford even fidgeted with a trial balloon like this, the entire country would not hear the end of it for weeks. The Toronto Star would be sponsoring drive-by eggings of Ford’s house. But in Edmonton, even harsh critics of Mandel overlooked this unsubtle abuse of power, and his many faux-patriotic supporters implicitly endorsed it. So, thanks, Chris Selley: You’ve inadvertently discovered a blind spot we didn’t know about.

For more Colby Cosh, visit his blog at macleans.ca/colbycosh

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