Politics

Winnipeg’s Sad, Weird City Election

It’s not just Toronto that is having a crisis in ideas.
October 22, 2018, 3:07pm
​Mayor Mayor Brian Bowman and candidate Jenny Motkaluk from Winnipeg
Mayor Brian Bowman and candidate Jenny Motkaluk   | images sources, YouTube.

One mayoral candidate wants to dam the Panama Canal. Another thinks “drug homes” should be bulldozed on third offence and fondly recalls his childhood in Jamaica where they used “a combination of barks, leaves, herbs and marijuana” to treat ailments (“And it worked!”).

A cop-turned-mayor-hopeful wants to buy police new cellphones and directly bill criminals for doing crime. Yet another was actually arrested during the election for breaching a probation order and blamed the infraction on a stroke.

Welcome to Winnipeg, hosting one of Canada’s sadder municipal elections—fairly accurately compared to both an ‘80s sitcom and dumpster fire.

“Winnipeg has just given up,” said Kent Davies, creator of A Perfectly Cromulent Election — a Tumblr page which uses Simpsons memes to mock the election — in an interview with VICE Canada. “There’s a lack of vision. There’s a lack of quality candidates. And in some wards, incumbents are uncontested.”

“Winnipeg is full of toddlers, just whiny people who are resistant to change and see a price tag and freak out when it’s nothing,” agreed the anonymous creator of the parody Twitter account Nardcity Winnipeg, in an interview.

Let’s set the scene for the upcoming election.

Winnipeg is in the depths of a devastating meth crisis, rampant housing unaffordability and ever-worsening public transit service. Last month, council capitulated to the development company that owns the Winnipeg Jets by not requiring any so-called affordable housing in its new publicly subsidized luxury condos. The Progressive Conservative provincial government has also unleashed brutal austerity on the city, closing emergency rooms and slashing social services, while also somehow finding the money to write off an $82 million loan to the local CFL team.

Such a combo should make for a spicy meatball of a municipal election!

Instead, some of Winnipeg’s aspiring leaders have spent the election testing how many dog-whistles they can get away with in a single shitty video and bickering over whether the downtown Portage and Main intersection should be “opened” to pedestrians. The latter is something which incumbent mayor Brian Bowman pledged to do when he was elected but chickened out and put on the ballot in a non-binding plebiscite, the first of its kind since 1983.

Despite being in control of a uniquely powerful and arguably undemocratic council framework, former privacy lawyer Bowman flunked out on almost every remotely ambitious promise he made back in 2014. His claims to fame are now building a downtown dog park, installing wifi on a few city buses and cracking down on panhandlers. In this election, he’s boosting more road investments for cars (RIP climate) and robbing a transit bus garage expansion to pay for more heated bus shelters. So confident is he in his re-election chances, Bowman only campaigned for 36 days during a six-month election period, according to the CBC.

Meanwhile, Bowman’s main contender, Jenny Motkaluk, has premised her entire campaign on appealing to voters who feel “unsafe” in the city’s downtown and somehow oppressed by modest increases to property taxes. She’s tightly linked to developers: her brother owns a construction firm that received $19 million in road repair contracts from the city.

Meanwhile, the police union has cozied up to Motkaluk’s campaign, running a bizarrely alarmist anti-Bowman attack ad that implied children may be murdered by home intruders without a change in leadership. In a recent interview with CBC, Motkaluk said about the downtown: “If you take a walk, someone is going to threaten to stab you, and I'm not making that up and you know that it's true.”

As one would expect, the mayoral debates have been complete disasters.

In one, exuberant candidate Umar Hayat requested the crowd applaud Motkaluk for doing a great job running “as a woman.” In another, filmmaker Ed Ackerman mimicked fellow candidate Don Woodstock’s Jamaican accent and used a Breaking Bad anecdote to ask cop candidate Tim Diack if he would support the police budget being cut by almost 300 per cent.

During that same debate, Woodstock waved around a football and proclaimed that Winnipeg should be the “sports capital instead of crime capital.” Motkaluk just skipped the debate on poverty because it had no “value” for voters.

“We need the eccentric people involved in the political process,” Davies of the Simpsons meme Tumblr site acknowledged. “But when you have six of them, it’s hard to get some policy guarantees on the incumbent’s side.”

To be fair, there are decently solid progressive candidates running for councillor in several wards. But there’s no unofficial united front akin to Vancouver’s Coalition of Progressive Electors or even a single decidedly leftist candidate like Toronto’s Saron Gebresellassi. The best Winnipeggers can apparently hope for is a spattering of very vague commitment to improve transit and affordable housing—with the mayoral spot soon to be claimed by either a deeply uninspiring neoliberal or “tough on crime” suburbanite.

“We have a pretty apathetic population in general, so if things are just kind of fine then they’re just chill with it and will gripe about it,” said Nardcity Winnipeg. “But nobody’s calling for a revolution. Unfortunately.”

Follow James Wilt on Twitter.

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