Has St. Albert mayoral candidate Cam MacKay moved from opposition to a branch library to opposition to libraries?

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PHOTOS: A children’s reading event at the St. Albert Public Library, illustrating the level of partication in some of the library’s programs. (Photo: YesForTheLibrary.ca.) Below: Councillor Cam MacKay, who is running for mayor of St. Albert on a platform that prominently features opposition to a new branch library, and St. Albert Mayor Nolan Crouse, against whom Mr. MacKay had expected to run. (Photos: Cam MacKay Twitter account and Fort Saskatchewan Record).

ST. ALBERT, Alberta

Based on a social media post yesterday morning, St. Albert mayoral candidate Cam MacKay now appears to think public libraries are all but obsolete and ought to be shrinking, not growing.

Having made opposition to development of a branch library in St. Albert one of the few key policy planks in his campaign to replace Mayor Nolan Crouse, who is not seeking reelection, Mr. MacKay suggested in the Twitter exchange that libraries are heading toward technological extinction much like commercial video rental stores.

Never mind that the data suggest the opposite as libraries move into the digital era, with the addition of Internet, ebooks and other digital services among the changes that are bringing patrons in increasing numbers through the doors, literally, of Canadian public libraries.

Since 1984 in St. Albert, there’s been an increase of more than 1,000 per cent in program participation at the St. Albert Public Library, driven in part by an 84-per-cent increase in the city’s population. Library space, as is well known, is unchanged.

But such arguments find little sympathy among many of the core supporters of Mr. MacKay’s campaign, who in the social media forums they favour have shown increasing hostility toward library users, frequently dismissing them as elitists and members of a special interest group. If you disagree, you can’t argue with them in places like the so-called St. Albert “Citizens’ Coalition” section on Facebook, because dissenting voices, no matter how respectful, are swiftly excommunicated.

Still, Mr. MacKay’s Twitter exchange with a representative of T8N Magazine represents a troubling shift in the evolving positions taken by the candidate on the branch library in particular and the St. Albert Public Library’s services in general.

Back on Nov. 26, 2015 – along with Councillors Sheena Hughes and Bob Russell, often his sidekicks in opposition to Mayor Nolan Crouse and the rest of the current council – Mr. Mackay voted in favour of approving the branch library’s community charter, a key first step to building the facility at a time library supporters were working hard to build support for the project.

On Dec. 12, 2016, the three councillors joined the rest of council in unanimously approving funding to build the branch library.

And on April 18 this year, the three councillors again voted with the rest of council to give first reading to the branch library-borrowing bylaw, in which the budget envelope had been set foolishly high at close to $22 million for the $17.5 million expected to be required for the project.

But as St. Albert began to move into the season preceding the Oct. 16 municipal election, now drawing near, the campaign to replace current councillors with a hard-edged anti-spending council led by Mr. MacKay seemed to hit on the library as an issue around which to build a coalition that could win.

Despite the two councillors’ earlier votes, members of both Mr. MacKay’s and Ms. Hughes’ families were closely involved in a petition campaign last spring created to block the library funding bylaw.

In mid-June, city officials ruled the petition to be invalid, based on the number of signers whose signatures had not been properly sworn to be genuine by the activists who were gathering signatures. The actual validity of the approximately 6,700 signatures on the petition was never checked by city officials.

Later, councillors MacKay, Hughes and Russell all voted against the funding bylaw on second and third reading and successfully pushed for a plebiscite on the library as well as recreation facilities during the Oct. 16 election. Supporters of the library development argued the plebiscite was worded to encourage a no vote. Last night, city council voted to change the wording, excluding controversial cost estimates, a change that is certain to further inflame library opponents.

It was in the context of the plebiscite that yesterday morning’s back and forth on Twitter took place. It went like this:

T8N: “Quick question to council candidates. If the pleb says no to a library, at what pop level should we reach before we reconsider?”

Mr. MacKay: “Physical space needs should be declining per capita with technology. A second library should be based on location/access to current library”

T8N: “Ok, but, our pop has doubled, do we need only half the space? What if space is not avail near current loc? When is a good time for new lib?”

Mr. MacKay: “Replace library in your tweet with blockbuster video and let me know if you see my point about relevance of per capita”

It’s important, of course, to separate the plan to construct a new branch library from broader hostility to library services – the direction in which Mr. MacKay’s Tweet makes it appear he is moving.

It’s perfectly reasonable in a democracy for a municipal politician to take the position a new library is simply not affordable, or merely that it is not on the politician’s promised list of priorities. In the recent past, this seemed to be Mr. MacKay’s position.

But the rhetoric many of the library proposal’s opponents direct toward library supporters, and even library users, suggests Mr. MacKay’s campaign is tapping into quite something different here – a deep resentment among a small group of far-right activists that is not likely to contribute to a healthy community.

Beyond opposition to the branch library, anger about painted crosswalks, opposition to public transit, and strong personal antipathy to Mr. Crouse – against whom Mr. MacKay had expected to run – the campaign doesn’t yet seem to have much of a platform on many of the significant challenges facing the city.

As part of the MacKay campaign, an effort seems to be under way to rebuild the slate supported by the anonymous “St. Albert Think Tank” in the 2013 election.

Library users in St. Albert, regardless of their position on the branch development, are within their rights to wonder what Mr. MacKay actually now thinks the future of library services should look like in St. Albert.

And voters generally may want to ask themselves if Think Tank 2.0 is a group they want running St. Albert.

Categories Alberta Politics St. Albert