By John Ashton
Last week, drowned out in the clamour of the COVID-19 pandemic, the City of Edmonton revealed its new proposed municipal ward map. The redrawing of municipal wards is a dull and pedantic task, full of compromises that please few.
Nonetheless, it’s a process that has winners and losers. And then, like Edmonton’s inner city Ward 7, it has people in danger of disappearing from the municipal agenda altogether.
Ward redrawing (or “redistricting”) is a process that’s supposed to divide Edmonton into 12 equally populated pieces. In the process, the city is also supposed respect “commonality of interest,” which means keeping neighbourhoods together with similar cultural and urban panning interests, and not cross major boundaries like the river valley or major arterial roads.
Each ward winds up electing a city councillor who represents that ward’s collection of neighbourhoods. Some of what those councillors vote on create big headlines, like a new rink for the Oilers or a new LRT line. Most do not, like budgets for road maintenance or permits for sewer expansions. And many who watch City Hall carefully would tell you that those uninspiring initiatives are the truly vital tasks.
The conditions of a neighbourhood often rest on the tenacity of their councillor. You may not care about the road maintenance budget, but you do care about the devastating pothole at the end of your block. You may not care about zoning by-laws, but you might care about a 100-unit condo building next door to you. In those instances, you’re likely to ask your city councillor to do something about it.
One of the places in Edmonton that has always needed that kind of resolve in their councillor was Ward 7. It contained two of the most economically depressed parts of Edmonton: Beverly and Alberta Avenue. For decades, it’s battled drug addiction, decaying infrastructure and unemployment, even in “boom times.”
The proposed ward map takes the north part of Ward 7 and attached it to a new “Ward C” that runs across Edmonton’s Yellowhead Trail to the city limit. Older neighbourhoods like, Glengarry or Northmount, that face their own challenges, will be lumped in with newer and more affluent subdivisions.
It’s worse for Alberta Avenue and Beverly. They’ll be crammed into the only ward that crosses the river valley. “Ward F” will pair them with strikingly different neighbourhoods like Gold Bar and Ottewell, all the way down south to King Edward Park.
These neighbourhoods could not be more different economically, demographically, or culturally. The concept of “commonality of interest” is demolished by just driving through the inner city of 118 Avenue across the Wayne Gretzky Bridge to Gold Bar’s genteel older homes.
Looking at the awkwardly mapped “Ward F” reminds one of a grade-school long division equation with a sizeable remainder. Having carefully crafted 11 better wards, the leftover neighbourhoods are cobbled together into a ward that meets numeric requirements but ignores the needs of residents.
The former Ward 7 will also be lumped with neighbourhoods where voter turnout is twice as high. Even the most progressive, reform-minded, councillor would have a brutal time trying to improve these challenging neighbourhoods when a high voter-turnout neighbourhood on the other side of the ward wants their community hall renovated or their street repaired.
These new maps are not carved in stone, but changes are highly unlikely. The maps will go to City Council today to face one more round of public hearings. Elected officials have been known to edit these kinds of maps, but rarely. Councillors will likely want to avoid the appearance of gerrymandering (trying to create a ward more likely to re-elect them) and acceptable compromises are even harder to reach among that group.
Barring a miracle, this map will be in place for the October 2021 election. At that moment, two councillors will be elected to represent the former Ward 7, but with little incentive and even fewer resources to do so.
John Ashton has served as a staff member on 26 NDP campaigns. He is co-author with former Alberta NDP leader Ray Martin of “Made in Alberta: The Ray Martin Story.” A former resident of Ward 7, he is a regular guest contributor to the AlbertaPolitics.ca blog.