Keith Gerein: Time ticking closer to Edmonton's economic reckoning

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Perhaps the biggest surprise of my return to Edmonton after eight months away at school is that I can’t help feeling a confounding deceit of time.

The fellowship I completed at Massey College in Toronto is recalled only as a distant, hazy dream. I have woken up back at home with the sense that mere hours, not months, have passed, and everything is the same as it was.

After all, COVID caseloads and policies continue to be the prime subject of public discussion. Dr. Deena Hinshaw is still giving regular news conferences. Computer screens remain the predominant vehicle for most human interaction.

Heck, even the Valley Line LRT is still under construction, and we continue to have no idea what to call Edmonton’s football team. (Elkhounds is growing on me).

Of course, I know much has changed since last September.

Most importantly, the province has hit a positive milestone by getting two million vaccine doses into Albertans’ arms. COVID conversations have shifted, with the names Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca now discussed with the familiarity of brands of gasoline.


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Optimism is on the rise, and yes, there will be playoff hockey in Edmonton this spring that actually involves the Oilers.

I also know even bigger changes are to come for our city.

Naturally, Edmontonians are hanging on for a return to something resembling normalcy, though it’s still unclear when vaccination progress will allow the safe resumption of water cooler conversations, restaurant outings, bridge clubs, and baseball games.

Those moments are ahead. But in the meantime, I hope Edmontonians are also beginning to think about the approaching civic election, which is now just five months away.

Journalists are often guilty of characterizing every election as “pivotal,” or “crucial” or “the most important thing ever,” but I hope you’ll indulge me a little as I make my case as to why this municipal race is different from most others.

With Don Iveson not seeking re-election, the mayor’s race is wide open, featuring several quality candidates and no clear frontrunner. At least a couple of other big names may join the list in the next few weeks. Whoever ends up winning may do so by the thinnest of margins.

At the same time, three city councillors are stepping down, while a fourth, Mike Nickel, may also be absent from the next council if he loses the mayor’s race. A fifth councillor, Tony Caterina, has also put himself in a vulnerable position by tentatively deciding to run in the central O-day’min riding where he has never before been a candidate.


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In short, there are going to be a lot of new faces at the decision-making table. And since new mayors tend to stick around for two to three terms and sitting councillors are nearly impossible to beat once they’re in office, the choices we make on Oct. 18 are set to define the city’s path for at least the next decade.

In that vein, the vision, experience and leadership abilities on offer from candidates must be weighed more acutely than ever, especially as Edmonton heads into an extended period of uncertainty and instability.

To be sure, issues of infrastructure, homelessness, transit, civic finances, provincial-municipal relations, policing and taxes will be featured parts the discourse. A new ward map, the loosening of campaign finance and third-party advertising rules — not to mention having at least one provincial referendum appended to the campaign — will provide a lively context to that discourse.

Yet in my view, the central issue of this election and the one that casts a shadow over all the others, is Edmonton’s economic future.

In the short term, this means recovery from the pandemic, particularly for those who have lost jobs and businesses, or find themselves in a chronically precarious position.

In the longer term, massive government debt at the provincial and federal levels, cuts to post-secondary schools, reduced funding for municipalities, and a sour outlook for the province’s oil industry are combining to create arguably the most difficult economic climate Edmonton has experienced in decades.


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As I see it, the city has two general options. The first calls for the city to hunker down, reduce its exposure, refocus on its core priorities, and otherwise get out of the way of economy.

The other path envisions a more activist municipality that assumes a lead role in innovation and growth, takes risks, and makes targeted investments toward enhancing the city’s attractiveness and liveability.

More than any other question, candidates must spell out where on this spectrum they fall in responding to the coming challenges. Platforms suggesting mere tinkering, tweaking or fine-tuning how the city does business won’t be sufficient this time.

I have my views on which path to take, but as much as I might wish otherwise, Edmonton Elections won’t give me more than one vote. As such, I want to hear from you on this topic and the other issues you believe should shape this election.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be offering more detail on how I plan to get that feedback, but in the meantime I would be thrilled to hear from you through email.

It’s good to be back home, Edmonton. And although it feels like no time has passed since I left, the more relevant truth is that there is no time to lose in planning the future.

Stay posted with 10/3, our Canadian affairs podcast featuring expert perspectives, wherever you get your podcasts. Listen to the latest episode:


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