Edmonton Election 2010: Inner City Issues at The Learning Centre

It’s pretty clear that technology is playing a big role in this year’s election. Lots of candidates now have websites and a presence on social networking sites, and there are an increasing number of places you can look online for more information. We’re fortunate in Edmonton to have lots of opportunities to meet candidates in person too, such as at City or community organized forums, many of which are either streamed online or live-tweeted by those in attendance.

But what about Edmontonians that don’t have regular access to the web? Or Edmontonians whose reading skills are in need of improvement? Some people simply don’t feel comfortable attending a forum or talking to candidates in person, so how can they have a voice in this election? I was happy to discover that The Learning Centre (I am a board member) was making an effort to help people in the inner city get involved.

The Learning Centre

Daniel Johnson, a sessional instructor in the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta, has been a volunteer at The Learning Centre since being introduced to it through the Humanities 101 program. Recently, he decided to try to get people that use The Learning Centre and Boyle Street Community Services (BSCS) thinking about the election. For the last few weeks, Daniel and other volunteers have been running an informal session called “Inner City Issues” in the Boyle Street drop-in. The goal was to get people talking about the issues they care about. Daniel would write down their questions and thoughts on the whiteboard, and then he’d ask other people what they thought. As you can see below, they’ve come up with not only questions, but also lots of ideas.

As the election draws near, the focus of the session will shift toward helping people be prepared to vote, ensuring they know where to go, what identification is required, etc. And everyone will continue to have the opportunity to voice their concerns.

The Learning Centre

Daniel also organized two candidate forums, held at The Learning Centre on September 30 and October 7. Mayoral candidate Daryl Bonar was joined by Ward 6 candidates Brian Kaptiza and Jane Batty at the first forum, and Mayor Stephen Mandel was on hand for yesterday’s forum. I wasn’t able to attend the first forum, but Daniel told me that there was a great turnout, with lots of questions and animated discussion.

I was able to check out yesterday’s forum, however. Mandel arrived late but stayed for quite a while to answer more than two dozen questions. There were about 25 people in attendance, a little less than at the first forum. There were a range of issues brought up, but homelessness and housing issues (bed bugs, basement suites, etc) dominated the discussion. Other issues that came up were policing, transit (not enough passes or tickets in the Donate-A-Ride program), helping those with mental illness, the amount of garbage downtown, school closures, safe injection sites, and the downtown arena. The airport and EXPO were mentioned once or twice, but were definitely not the focus!

I thought Mandel did a good job of answering questions for the most part, though he did get a little defensive on occasion. Most people in the room wanted to see more action on helping the homeless, though a few did explicitly thank Mandel for the work the city has been doing under his watch. What impressed me most was that people didn’t just have questions, they had ideas for possible solutions too. Things like using recently closed schools for transition housing, or offering a free downtown bus route. One person even suggested that Mayor Mandel go homeless for a night, to see what it’s really like. He replied: “I’ll think about it!”

I think it’s great that Mandel, Bonar, Kapitza, and Batty took the time to meet with people in the inner city. It’s a group that is often overlooked, even as we tout the statistics of the Housing First program and other service agencies. Kudos to Daniel and his fellow volunteers for making it happen!

The weekly inner city issues session will continue to run next Thursday at 1pm at the BSCS drop-in centre, and on October 18, there will be buses available throughout the day to bring people from BSCS to the polling station.

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