Tag Archives: Windsor

The Promise of Neighbourhood Councils

By Paul Chislett

In his 2010 inaugural address, Mayor Eddie Francis said he hoped “City Council will act quickly to create Neighbourhood Advisory Councils [which will] bring City Hall, local residents, and businesses together to . . . meet neighbourhood needs.” Adding that he would not bend to special interest groups, Francis stated that “. . . for this to work . . . ideas must be consistent with our larger vision, . . . [be] focused, and deliver on two or three priorities that enhance our quality of life. . .” .

On the surface Neighbourhood Advisory Councils sound like a very good and necessary idea. However, in the context of a divided community highlighted by the city strike and the defeat of a citizen movement to allow urban chickens, a closer look is needed at what neighbourhood advisory councils can be.

One look at a photo of the present city council indicates that not all Windsorites are represented. Out of 10 councilors, eight are white males with professional backgrounds. This stands in stark contrast to the multicultural and working class reality of Windsor.

In Windsor, representative democracy is failing to include many viewpoints and experiences, and this fact makes neighbourhood councils necessary. In a report entitled Respect All Voices: Neighbourhood Councils as a Tool for Building Social Inclusion, Glynis Maxwell reports that “…community members feel . . . their vote won’t make a difference to the outcome of [an] election and/or to the policy decisions made thereafter.” Maxwell indicates that neighbourhood councils, as a form of citizen engagement, should be seen as a “transformative process”; that is to say, a citizen process to liberate politics from what Daniel Schugurensky, a researcher with the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), calls a “clientelistic” relationship which “disempowers and control[s] people” – that is to say people as passive accepters of services designed and delivered by others. Neighbourhood advisory councils can enable people to engage in the democratic process on an ongoing basis, not just when election time rolls around.

Windsor’s municipal government can be described as a technocracy peopled by a professional class with an agenda of further economic growth which enriches other members of the same class. Municipalities are generally in the hands of developers and city professionals, and our elected representatives serve those interests. It is a democracy of a kind, but exclusionary, lacking humility, and generally derisive of citizen involvement. Before these councils are formed, citizens need to define their roles in these councils before it is done for them. Even the definitions of what constitutes a neighbourhood and citizen need to be agreed upon , according to Maxwell.

Maxwell points out that neighbourhood councils have a confusion of names and purposes and that there “…is no commonly agreed definition of any of these terms.” Windsorites, therefore, have the ability to define for themselves the framework for the councils. The most important elements, according to Maxwell, are that the councils be “neighbourhood based”, be “formed with the support of, and have a formal relationship with, municipal government”, and “formed for the purpose of building social inclusion and civic engagement” , the latter of which is arguably the most key. As well, they should not be confused with other committees or advisory boards that simply give input to decision-makers. Maxwell stresses that city officials must learn to have confidence in “neighbourhood intelligence” , something that seemed absent during the debate on urban chickens. Yonn Dierwechter and Brian Coffey, in their study of Tacoma, Washington neighbourhood councils, investigated whether neighbourhood councils evolved as “political spaces” able to challenge and transform development agendas or if they were merely useful political tools – “segmented spaces” – keeping activists busy and powerless. They found that Tacoma’s neighbourhood councils had yet to reach their potential as political spaces and struggle to avoid being co-opted by the city .

Schurgurensky takes the approach that education is a transformative function, and that we must learn to be empowered citizens, a process neighbourhood councils can play an important role in shaping. Schurgurensky points out that there is an “urgent need” for citizens to begin the learning process of empowerment by doing it. That we learn by doing is a key concept in adult education; and therefore, neighbourhood councils are crucial for citizenship development and decision-making. Schurgurensky adds that “…learning . . . acquired through participation … often has an expansive effect”, leading to greater interest and participation beyond local issues. The expansive effect . . . allows “. . . the transition from narrow self-interest to the common good, and . . . to a more comprehensive understanding of the community as a whole.” Citizen solidarity, therefore, has the capacity to transform the way we do politics.

Mayor Francis already views citizens as merely taxpayers and has warned against special interest groups – a convenient phrase to denigrate those outside the established order. This does not bode well for neighbourhood councils in Windsor. Maxwell points out that city councils and staff should avoid viewing citizens as “consumer[s] of services (the taxpayer approach)”, but rather as “. . . urban citizen[s] with a vital role to play in governance. . . “ . Neighbourhood councils, by transcending the traditional top down model of politics, should be able to challenge authority, be agenda setters, and build solidarity among citizens to overcome barriers of privilege. The expansive factor can also influence provincial and federal politics.

( A version of this article appears in the April issue of  Windsor’s The Scoop)

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Workers’ choice in a brutal game.

From the Windsor waterfront, one can see a stream of cars leaving the Joe Louis arena after a Red Wing game. It is a comforting scene, yet Detroit provides a brutal lesson on how to struggle to a new economy. Sudbury and Windsor may seem distant from each other, yet shared experiences of working people in both places should provide support and lessons in hard times. Windsor could never afford to ignore the world because it sits on the edge of the American empire with Detroit as an example of how wrong things can go.

detroit1Photo: Paul Chislett

The predicted and devastating job losses in Sudbury have awakened Sudburians to the realties of global free market capitalism. Sudbury’s insistence that the area was immune to the unfolding global calamity was equivalent to whistling in the dark, knowing something is about to knock us off our feet. The fact that the ore bodies are foreign owned is really secondary to the challenges Sudbury workers face. If the political will was present, a government could nationalize the mines; however, local workers would still be in dire straits. It is not the collapse of an economic system that is devastating workers lives as much as it is a collapse of values. In Canada we had debates about values beginning with the Free Trade Agreement of 1988, through to the North American Free Trade Agreement and on into the sell off of Ontario’s manufacturing base. Additionally, the Mike Harris regime in Ontario, and the 16 year old national liberal/conservative coalition, made matters worse, implementing tax cuts which destroyed the progressive tax system we had; a system dependent on a wage economy that redistributed wealth into public services such as health care, housing, education, and the like.

It is not that jobs being lost, especially in the auto industry, may never come back (they won’t in the numbers we knew); it is that we are facing the end of the wage economy and the benefits that went with it. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but to avoid catastrophe a historic shift in values is required. So far the working people of Canada are failing to rise to the challenge. In Windsor, Professor Jeff Noonan, a former Sudburian now at the University of Windsor, has organized a discussion group entitled, Philosophy for Workers: Where we are, How we got here, and Where can we go? The discussion group will grapple with the problems facing workers in Windsor and Essex County by investigating “…the system of values that rules political choices and … how those in power reason about the choices they make and impose on everyone else”[1].

This is an activity that workers in Sudbury urgently need to do. In fact, what should be occurring across Canada are a series of general strikes so that workers can convene such discussion groups out of which could be born a new sense of empowerment not seen since the struggles for unions and women’s rights. The stunning lack of coverage, by the Canadian corporate media, of recent worker movements demanding more from their governments, most notably in France, indicates that corporate elites are not so fearful of the economic meltdown as they are of workers mobilizing to determine new values, modes of production, and in fact, a new economy, thus undermining the positions of power and prestige that the elites undeservingly hold.

The ruling global oligarchy is running out of answers. The reasoning behind their decisions and their value system of commodifying everything on the planet, including human labour, is now laid bare for the self-serving lie that it was. We must carve out our space in an economy that doesn’t work for us so we can ask the questions which should lead us to discover our own system of values. Such a value system could lead to a mix of co-operative worker owned enterprises, state owned, worker run factories producing major goods for human requirements, sustainable energy production and transportation policies, and especially, sustainable farm operations growing healthy food close to where people live.

The challenge for Northern Ontario will be recognizing, as some do, that as consumption levels fall – as they must if we are to preserve the planet – there can only be scaled down commodity extraction activity. The future of the north lies in the preservation of the land and waters while building a mixed economy which includes mining and forestry, but more importantly, local manufacturing, fishing, farming, and the like; offset perhaps, with a guaranteed annual income. A national manufacturing policy can share work around the country and this will be required on a global scale as well. Workers have a stark choice, we either value cooperation and sharing of resources, or we live under the yoke of others’ choices in a world of violence and competition. As beings of inherent worth and dignity we have no right to allow a minority; a cabal of clever schemers, to determine our future. In fact, we have a historic opportunity to remake national and global economies so they work for people. From urban to rural, from Sudbury and Windsor to Shanghai and the slums of the world, we must grab hold of our destinies or accept being passive victims in someone else’s game.

This article appeared in the March 11th  issue of Northern Life

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