The election is over so I can use the internet again
Just kidding, I never stopped using the internet.
But in the weeks leading up to the election I found myself dreading looking at social media, and at the deluge of inflammatory comments, straw man arguments, and overall negativity aimed at the Coalition for Portage and Main (aka 'VoteOpen') of which I was a spokesperson during the recent election.
I'm going to talk about that experience as frankly as I can because that's what I've always tried to do. Maybe this will hurt your feelings. Maybe this will piss you off. Maybe you'll agree with me. Maybe some of this will ring true to you.
As a member of VoteOpen I got to know some of the most passionate and dedicated people I've ever met.
As a business owner I have the privilege of regularly meeting interesting and motivated people as part of what I do, but it's not often that I've had the good fortune to be in a room with so many people who fit that bill on an ongoing basis.
The VoteOpen committee meetings each Friday afternoon became one of the highlights of my week (especially the post-meeting cocktails). I got to know smart and thoughtful people like Adam Dooley, Ian McCausland, Anders Swanson, Wil Belford, Glen fucking Murray, Adam Duguay, Brent Bellamy, and a whole lot more who brought creativity and great ideas to every meeting.
I met dozens of volunteers who weren't on the committee, but who donated time on evenings, weekends, and during their workdays to advocate for a cause they believed in.
I spoke to passionate Winnipeggers on a daily basis who believe that the best downtowns are accessible, pedestrian-focused, and who share the same vision of my city as I do.
I got to be on podcasts, on the radio, and on the news multiple times as a spokesperson, which sharpened my chops and helped me become a more confident public speaker.
I tabled at my alma mater and got to engage with university students about the civic process, and talk to them about the kind of city they want to live in.
I gave a talk at Design Winnipeg's 10x20x20 where people cheered for our message.
That one felt good.
A local "journalist" (heavy quotations) blocked me on Twitter after I repeatedly asked him why he was going after a group of volunteers instead of holding City Hall accountable for keeping the public uninformed about the impact of the plebiscite vote.
Instead of explaining his reasons, he blocked me.
Does that one get me a badge? I feel like it should.
Then, near the end of it all, I got to attend OpenFest, a free public concert where my favourite local band played my favourite song in support of a cause I believe in, and which I campaigned for.
That was a really good night.
At the end of the day, the city voted 2-to-1 to keep the intersection closed. Obviously I'm disappointed with the outcome; how could I not be, really?
But the thing that disappointed me the most was how little our elected officials did to keep the public informed about an issue that will continue to shape the future of our downtown.
Instead of leading the discussion, our Mayor (who initially campaigned on reopening the intersection, by the way) and City Council left it to a group of volunteers to try and do their work for them.
This would have been a great moment for the incumbent (and now second-term) mayor to lead the discussion and showcase the vision of the 'City of a Million' he led with during his initial bid for mayor back in 2014.
It would also have been a great opportunity for City Council members to - at the very least - make the information regarding the Portage & Main more readily available and understandable so the people living in their wards could make informed decisions about the future of the city they live in.
Unfortunately that would require some vision and consideration for their electorate, neither of which I've seen around City Hall recently.
Dan Lett wrote a wonderful piece in the Winnipeg Free Press articulating what a farce this entire plebiscite vote was, so I won't repeat it here, but suffice it to say we were fighting an uphill battle from the start, and one that was deliberately stacked against people who support and believe in our downtown.
Honestly though, the worst part was watching my city turn its back on progress.
As a recent New York Times article pointed out, all over Canada and elsewhere cities are revamping their downtowns to focus on pedestrian foot traffic, transit and cycling infrastructure, and business development to reinvigorate decaying downtowns and wean ourselves off of our dependance on single-person vehicles and fossil fuel.
Except here in Winnipeg.
In Winnipeg, the car is still king, even though it shouldn't be.
(Don't give me any blowback about the "cold winters," please. I've lived in this city for most of my life and I've never owned a car. I walk or bike when it's warm enough [which is actually most of the year] and in the winter I take transit, or a Tapp Car, and I get by just fine. So do many other people I know. So that excuse is moot as far as I'm concerned.)
One of the most frustrating parts of this experience has been the repeated accusations and insults hurled at a group of people who are volunteering their time to try and effect positive change for our city.
I repeat: we were volunteers with no political experience doing the best we could with limited time, resources, and information.
We did our best to convey information from sources like 90-page reports, documentation about local transit, etc. in a succinct and effective manner, but that shit is hard, and doubly so when the majority of "no" voters we engaged with continued to accuse us of deliberately trying to mislead the public, or of "not providing them with enough information."
Because here's the thing: we had all the same information as everyone else in this city. We just took the time to read through it all (or most of it) while the majority of voters decided not to.
(And if you didn't, that's fine. But people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.)
Specifically, however, I want to touch on a troubling component of this campaign, which is that the VoteOpen folks were held to a significantly higher moral standard than the "no" side and our local politicians.
A local politician called us "elitists" (which is laughable - I rent my home and don't own a car. I'm hardly "elite" by anyone's standards), our local smear "journalist" called us "arrogant," and I've had more people accuse us of being condescending or of "talking down to people" than I've ever heard in my life.
(And I grew up in an abusive household, so I know what it feels like to be talked down to, or to be made to feel small or stupid on purpose.)
I helped manage the VoteOpen social accounts, so I can say with certainty that we always strove to be respectful in our messaging, and to rely on facts and data whenever possible while also trying to paint a picture of what our downtown could be.
However, the one talking point that seemed to really incense people is this:
The general public are not informed enough to vote directly on matters of public policy.
This one confused me, because here's the thing: it's OK to be uninformed.
Being "uninformed" doesn't mean someone is stupid - which is what a lot of people seem to think it means for some reason - it means we haven't learned as much about a subject as we could, and that's totally okay.
But the impact public policy projects - from The Forks, to The MTS Centre, to The Floodway (aka "Duff's Ditch"), just to name a few local ones - is hard to convey because it's hard to get people to think "big picture" at a civic and multigenerational level if they've never had to before. And that's okay. We all start somewhere (and I can say this from experience).
That's why VoteOpen consistently linked to relevant data, facts, and opinion pieces from urban planners who spend their lives studying the effects of areas like Portage & Main whenever we could.
We did this not to make other people feel small, but because we were trying to avoid getting into rhetorical arguments, or from using logical fallacies whenever possible.
We stuck to the facts whenever we could because the facts are how we make informed decisions, both in our personal and public lives.
The "no" side, however chose to hurl insults at us, leave negative or rude comments, or tell us that they hope people die if the intersection is reopened.
Here's a small sampling:
These two stand out:
"When car accidents increase and people are killed if and only if the road is open... then your group should be feathered."
"Im hoping it does open and every pedestrian DIES lmao"
I heard this sentiment a lot: people commenting and saying they hope people die so VoteOpen will "learn a lesson" or that they can't wait to see the bodies at Portage & Main.
What the actual fuck, people. These kinds of attitudes and comments are extremely alarming. Would you want to live in a city where people think this way about you?
But my point is that we were repeatedly dragged over the coals for engaging in what was always intended to be respectful and civil public discourse, while the "no" side had a field day and wasn't held to the same moral standard.
We weren't perfect, of course - this was an emotional election and both sides got worked up - but I can say with certainty that everyone officially associated with VoteOpen always did their best to be respectful to everyone we engaged with.
I know from experience that that wasn't the case on the other side of the aisle, and seeing such an ugly and repulsive side of my city really started to wear me out as the campaign dragged on.
Despite the result of the plebiscite (which is non-binding, by the way) I doubt that the discussion about Portage & Main is over.
We already know that millions still need to be spent to repair the underground concourse, which is infested with mold and decaying (as concrete tends to do after 40 years) so the barricades will come down anyway... and frankly it seems stupid and small-minded to simply put them back up again after we spent millions taking them down.
I guess we'll see.
At the outset of this whole debacle I said that the Portage & Main debate is an embarrassment to Winnipeg, and even after being called "arrogant" I still stand by that statement.
It was embarrassing to have to work so hard just to try and get people to say "yes" to opening an intersection.
It was embarrassing to hear people in my city dismiss people with accessibility issues who stated that the intersection didn't let them cross the street with dignity.
It was embarrassing to hear people make fun of and dismiss women who expressed concern for their safety while navigating the underground concourse alone or at night.
I felt embarrassed of my city when I spoke to individuals from elsewhere who didn't understand why people were fighting to keep people from crossing the street.
The most embarrassing part was seeing firsthand that many people who live in this city don't care about the health and well-being of the place we call 'home' if it affects their commute in any way whatsoever.
Actually, that was equal parts depressing and embarrassing.
Our downtown deserves better than to be a thoroughfare between one suburb and the next.
Still Feeling Hopeful
Despite all of the negativity, what this experience taught me was that the tides are changing in my city. Things are changing slowly, and from the centre out (as is typically the case with cities, it seems), but things are changing.
This is especially true among the younger demographic, who are spending more and more time downtown, and in the surrounding areas like The Exchange District and The Forks.
When tabling at the University of Winnipeg the majority of the students I talked to were open to the idea of a walkable and vibrant downtown, and saw Portage & Main as a key point to making that happen because they wanted a city that they could be proud of.
That was inspiring.
Because here's the thing: you can't stop progress.
Sure, you can slow it down. You can try and get in the way. But progress always wins out because eventually people will want to start replicating the success stories we see and read about in other North American cities.
Hopefully we can get some real leadership and vision in City Hall sooner than later, and the next round of politicians in the civic election will do a more effective job of communicating a vision of the kind of vibrant, safe, and accessible downtown that we and future generations deserve to be able to enjoy and experience.
Winnipeg will get there, eventually.
And I, for one, am happy to keep leading the charge for progress.
See you around, Winnipeg.