"There’s an election on Monday?” she asked? “How was I supposed to know that? What am I a mind-reader?”
I rolled my eyes. She’s a good friend, professionally employed, and a resident in my federal riding of Calgary Centre—still, she had no idea about the November 26th by-election. It was shaping up to be one of the most interesting and hotly contested in the city in years. But on the day, fewer than 30 per cent of eligible voters turned out to cast their ballot.
At first I was disappointed. Clearly the people of Calgary Centre don’t care. They don’t care about their economy, their riding, or their community. If they did, more of them would have come out to vote.
But on closer examination, I realized just the opposite is true...
There is more civic engagement than ever in Calgary Centre—and indeed throughout Alberta. It just isn’t being expressed through the traditional electoral system. People aren’t expecting government to solve all the problems.
Still, the right wing ideologues shouldn’t be getting too excited. For just as much as Calgary Centre fails to see government as the solution, it also fails to see ‘the market’ as the solution either. The notion that a rising economy is a tide that lifts all boats has failed to impress. Even in Calgary—where the economic tide is clearly and steadily rising—not all boats are being lifted. You don’t have to look very far. It’s easy to tell the panhandler to get a job. But you can’t get a job without an address.
Think of Alberta’s economy supported by three legs of a stool—each leg plays a different role. One leg is the municipal, provincial and federal governments. The second leg is the private sector, or the “free market” economy. And the third is community and charity work. Increasingly, Albertans are finding solutions to the social issues in neither government nor the market. Yet they are more engaged than ever in making their community great for everyone through volunteering and giving to social charities.
Consider some of what’s going on.
St. Stephen’s Anglican, a socially progressive church in Calgary Centre, has headed a long-running program called “Inn from the Cold.” It’s a solution—albeit a partial one—to alleviate homelessness by providing overnight accommodation and a meal for displaced individuals who have no roof over their heads. Dozens of other churches have joined in.
One of Alberta’s major sports institutions, WinSport (which operates Canada Olympic Park’s ski hill and supports Canada’s winter Olympic athletes) is also part of the solution. Because skiing is cost prohibitive for low-income families, WinSport is offering schools a free visit this season for Calgary’s elementary students. Winsport also collects winter coats and warm clothing to distribute to under-privileged homes in the city.
And of course, the Habitat for Humanity program has been active throughout Alberta communities—and around the world—in providing affordable housing solutions to low-income families.
The list of social organizations and volunteer groups in the province goes on and on.
The point isn’t that Albertans are angry with government (although some might be). Most Albertans recognize the vital role of governments in providing education, health care and infrastructure. Nor are they angry with “the market”—in fact, they embrace it wholeheartedly. They like their jobs, their shiny cars, and their high incomes. These are no communists.
Many Albertans just don’t see how governments or the market economy can offer practical solutions to the problems they see in their community. They are far from apathetic to the issues of poverty and social displacement —but they are finding compelling answers to social problems in the third leg of the stool: being part of the community. Washing laundry for the Inn from the Cold program, collecting clothes and Christmas presents for under-privileged families, and donating time and energy to ending homelessness is where they are finding engagement.
In light of these examples of caring and engagement, the dismal per cent voter turn-out in Calgary Centre didn’t seem so bad after all. It would still be great to see voter engagement higher. Still, I know that Albertans do care about their community through their participation in charity and volunteer social programs. Their actions speak louder than their votes.