Sometimes, Politicians Get in the Way of Community

Commentary, Municipal Government, Frontier Centre


The Herald’s Swerve magazine recently published a lively spread of outdoors skating pictures from in and around Calgary. From as far as High River, we saw beautiful imagery of children and adults partaking in that quintessential Canadian activity. Healthy families give us healthy communities.

Decades of research on civil society show that communities that rally together for their small needs and big difficulties become healthier, stronger communities. Conversely, where governments impose themselves to provide solutions to situations no one else sees as problematic, government action turns communities into weak, dependent groups.

Ultimately, communities grow so weak that their own representatives do not trust them. We see it in over-caring politicians wanting to ban the sale of specific soups, legislating specific size, shape and colours of garbage cans or preventing people from smoking in their own vehicles.

Okotoks (absent from the skating spread) is a good example of a community where local government doesn’t trust its citizens, and where municipal rules defying common sense get in the way of community. A few weeks ago, local residents learned that it is illegal to skate on a neighbourhood pond. People living in the neighbourhood since it was built a decade ago were not aware that town council had changed the rules making such a fun activity unlawful for their children.

Questioned, one town councillor emotively said that she wants to save lives, though no lives have been threatened.

Mayor Bill Robertson’s mantra that it is unsafe to skate on ponds is not entirely wrong, but the case is highly exaggerated as their lack of action demonstrates. If the magnitude of the danger facing children was as alarming as the concerned politicians claim, proper signs and pertinent information would be disseminated to those on the front line of the supposed dangerous areas. Otherwise, the heightened concern seems feigned.

The stealth “closing” of Okotoks ponds has not stopped children from continuing to play and skate on their surfaces. But if the risks were overwhelming high, again, council would enforce its own rule “to save even one life.” If local officials really believed these children were in grave danger, the town would vigilantly patrol the Sheep River running through the town and all ponds to make sure that not a single child ends up risking her life playing on an unsafe surface. No such patrolling exists, however.

Beyond alarm, there is need for common sense. Skating on ponds is largely safe. Canadians have been doing it for centuries. Our national winter game was first played in ponds like these. Are there risks? Of course there are.

Residents enjoy the Sheep River all year around. They swim and wade in it, they walk and ski on it in defiance or in ignorance of the same bylaw. While the river is most dangerous during spring runoff, the vast majority of time it’s very enjoyable. So much so, that the town builds parks and walkways by it. Yet, in spite of the emotional pledge to save lives, there are no signs to indicate the river’s dangerous risks.

The apparent doublespeak in writing one thing into law, but allowing another, is not necessarily incompetence, but it betrays inconsistency.

Neighbouring Turner Valley, Black Diamond, Nanton and High River are consistent and have common sense. They allow people to skate on ponds at their own risk. Asked why they had no prohibitions, a Nanton employee said: “We trust our residents to have common sense.” Theirs is also the standard reaction in Canadian municipalities near rivers, lakes and oceans. Their administrators are not the residents’ nannies.

If the Okotoks mayor’s attitude is any indication, Okotoks council does not trust parents to know what’s best for themselves and their families.

“While I know you are a responsible parent,” the mayor said to me when I spoke to council about pond-skating a few weeks ago, “that is not the case with all people.”

Helicopter parents are morphing into helicopter politicians who wish to decide when and where other people’s children can have fun.

The ban on skating on town ponds represents a wasteful disposition bound to consume more material resources and waste large amounts of water to build more rinks.

The mayor and council could easily allow communities wishing to have their children skate in the neighbourhood ponds to come together and set up ice-surveillance parent rotations. If council had enough common sense to trust its citizens like neighbouring communities do, Okotoks could have greater opportunities to build stronger community bonds.

But then, nanny councillors would have to turn toward real problems such as infrastructure, debt and spending.