Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Why Don't We Care About Mayors?: Why young people keep leaving Halifax

Michael Nutter, mayor of Philadelphia, introduced legislation creating an independent Ethics Board. Yes, ethics. In municipal government. By municipal government.

Headlines almost wrote themselves with Rhodes Scholar Cory Booker of Newark RAN INTO A BURNING BUILDING TO SAVE A LIFE.

Rudy Giuliani was certainly hated, but it was for what he did to the city, and not for what he did or did not do.

& of course, it’s easy to get into the old favourites like Cleveland’s famous Tom Johnson, a rich man who did not need any of the public systems he enacted like lower streetcar fares and public baths, but did it anyway, because that’s what good mayors do. He also set a standard for milk and meat inspection, which is so far away from what municipal governments concern themselves nowadays unless it’s a fancy catered meal paid by the tax payers.

Do I sound like my grandfather yet? Good. Because it seems like Canadian mayors aren’t earning our money or our trust lately, which is really problematic in an era where we need them more than ever.

If we need them, why are mayors so irrelevant? It’s plenty fun to rip on Rob Ford, but at least I know his name. Halifax mayor Peter Kelly made national headlines when he evicted Occupy Nova Scotia on Remembrance Day, which means that Peter Kelly made national headlines because of Occupy Nova Scotia. I would remark that makes the general public better communicators, except when was the last time the mayor of Halifax Regional Municipality tried to make national headlines? With pure mediocrity being a goal, how can we be surprised when they actually mess up? Can anyone name ten Canadian mayors any more? After the federal & provincial government and before the school boards, it's easy to get frustrated with the whole thing and just forget it, but now is the time that we need to redefine the role of municipal government. Who we pick now must adapt the position and modernize it. 

Under the leadership of Pierre Trudeau, the trend of city leaders being irrelevant ribbon cutters made sense. In ye olden days, when healthcare was a national program thus intending to ensure some sort of equality of care between each province and territory, what was there for mayors to do, really? Even infrastructure had a national bend, attempting to unite thousands of kilometers of land we have with highway development and talks of a national transportation program that has still yet to materialize. Do I think Trudeau was good? Eh. However he certainly excelled at making mayors look pretty irrelevant, & when you think of the amount of government present in places like the Maritimes, that’s not really a bad thing.     

But that's not what this is anymore. Stephen Harper has mandated a Canada of division, which does not have to be a criticism. Most provinces are playing with pennies to pay for the things that most affect Canadians day to day. Whether you want to see transfer payments as a “Not my problem!” or a middle finger, the lack of accessible mental health facilities in many parts of Cape Breton and the increasing number of families moving the ever growing municipality we once called the city of Halifax, it’s pretty hard to continue to pretend this system is working.

Having so many universities, it’s easy to say that Halifax is a young city, but the older I get the more I realize immature is a better word for it at times. After all, when the graduations are over, flights out of here are booked as we sweep up the broken beer bottles. We have the greatest brains and we can't hold on to them, because why would they stay here? Perpetually working for the weekend and refusing to pay into any type of investment plan, I want to march into Halifax’s basement apartment with a bottle of Windex, break its bong, and give it a groan inducing lecture about potential. You used to be so creative, why don’t you make art anymore? Why do you waste your time on these petty fights with Moncton? You never get out and do anything! Even if you were for the Loch Ness stadium (some say you can see it on a dark night if you truly believe!), it was inevitable that some sort of public transportation would have to be arranged to get to it. Which is not something council is good at. Which is pathetic. 

Of course, it's not like half the university students who came here actually thought about Peter Kelly at all. Most probably didn't know who he was, other than a man who seems to perpetually have a cold. Am I really blaming one man for our grad retention problem? Of course not. But to quote a bunch of t-shirts I really hate, if you're not part of the solution you're part of the problem. I've yet to hear someone tell me they really want to stay in Nova Scotia. No, they want to stay somewhere specific in Nova Scotia if by chance they do. One does not pick a province and say "Yes, yes, anywhere in here will suit me"; people chose cities, or towns, or coasts, yet somehow our little brain drain problem is always passed along to the premier. Something to do at night will keep young people in a community better than a tax credit maybe in ten years. Jobs are nice, but having a decent paying one isn't enough if there's nowhere to spend money. Amazingly, the best way to attract smart, young minds is to be attractive to smart, young minds. Someone explained this concept to me before leaving for suburban Vancouver.

It’s time to buck up. As areas become municipalities to cut costs, it is foolish to assume the growth will simply stop. Do we acknowledge that our land division system is nonsensical and outdated when HRM takes up half of Nova Scotia, or when Cape Breton starts e-mailing Quebec asking just what exactly does sovereignty mean? Cities are going to need seats at national tables, but the trap of it all is that they’ll have to earn it first. Because really, do I want the guy who can’t handle busses handling my healthcare? No, I don’t want him at all. Why shouldn’t I question candidates about their views on sustainable energy? Because they never talk to the premier? If that’s the best answer I have received so far, which it is, the problems are pretty obvious.
This is big talk for a big country. Some would think this means changing the way things have always been done, but that’s not true. So far our 'progress' has been largely reactive and somewhat subtle; amalgamation being spoken of when it must. Towns dry out, but by the end of it no one lives there so no one cares. Meanwhile, exceedingly average one bedroom apartments go for 800$, 1000$, 1900$... in metropolitan areas in a country that has land to spare.  

No, I don’t have a perfect plan to fix this, but I expect our mayor to. Honestly, I’d be rather skeptical of myself if I did; I’m a fourth year Public Relations student with only an interest in urban planning. Oh trust me, I have ideas, but you know what? They don't matter. Favouring public opinion over professional knowledge at all the wrong times is a special skill round these parts. It seems as though someone declared to not be good enough to represent Cole Harbour Dartmouth on a federal level will soon be leading my city, so my expectations are currently limited. Still, if this fourth year PR student can identify an issue with a few months on the internet, why isn’t it fixed already? Or even talked about? It is not a tall order to expect government to keep issues from turning into problems. Maybe a seat at the federal table won’t happen in the next few years, but even an attempt at reigning the potential power of cities would convince me that when everyone in New Glasgow moves to Halifax, we won't all just leave for Mississauga later. If I'm going to end up in Fort McMurray, I might as well get there as quickly as possible so I can cement a spot at a decent day care that I won't need for another ten years. Childcare is another thing that would be nice if someone paid attention to, but hey, I get that I'm starting to lose you at this point.

It's easy to get carried away when complaining about the place that you frustratedly love, but I'm not getting carried away. These are the realities of our future, and we need leadership that's ready to think about about this together. In true mayoral fashion, no candidate will until the public does, which is already a bad sign, but I'm sceptical, not hateful. I'm willing to be persuaded.

I did try to think of some role models. I don't like to talk about dark water without some kind of metaphorical buoy, but would you really identify anyone other than Naheed Nenshi, otherwise known as "That guy with... the name... that's running Calgary!" Canada's mayors don't get our attention because so few deserve it. And we all deserve better than that.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Corporate "Responsibility", or Raging Within the Machine

I have accepted Starbucks as inevitability in my life. Once a symbol of wasteful consumption in my mind, the not so secret dystopian lair of “The Man” and classist brand snobs, I now understand that every single group meeting being held “At Starbucks” just because it’s cool to be seen talking about ideas in public does not necessitate a lecture from me. I have come to accept that their hot chocolate is good, and we probably won’t get another place that sell mini whoopee pies in Halifax any time soon. Starbucks, you’re kind of okay. I’m not proud of you, but I don’t mind you. I guess. Okay, Starbucks, truce.

I am in Public Relations. The reaction I get to this is always mixed, but eventually people understand. I can take your big ideas and make then 140 characters. I can organize events that people not only attend, but always look forwards to. I can explain why the NDP aren’t communists to your grandmother, or why feminism isn’t scary hairy arm pits to that guy you hate in your classes, or why what most politicians say is utter crap to most politicians in an agreeable & polite way. It doesn’t always work, but it generally leaves people kind of speechless. This is just what I do. This is what I’m good at.

But Walmart scares me. I don’t think having an economy based on oil is very good for Canada. The way most corporations conduct business terrifies me, and I have a hard time arguing that most of the consumption we do is ethical, even if everything has a random, unearned “eco friendly” sticker on it. It’s been a few months since I’ve purchased anything new, aside from basics like food and Mother’s Day Gift.
But yea, I’m in public relations. So you want to call me a spin doctor. So you want to think I’m going to brainwash you some day.

And don’t get me wrong, I have met people who are literally trying to brainwash you, but they’re usually part of the brainwashing themselves. There was the terrifying blond guy who wanted to be the next Glen Beck. There was the offspring who wanted to take over the family business and justify dumping in streams. And then there was also the more mundane but equally creepy individuals who felt as though nothing had changed since what we see on Mad Men and you can stay golden if you don’t get caught. My degree and future profession certainly attracts some people with questionable goals. Kind of like law. And education. And health care. And journalism. And pretty much every other job on the planet.

This is why seeing a petition thanking Starbucks forstanding up to the National Organization for Marriage  was more than a little disturbing for me. To be clear, what Starbucks did was right and they did not have to do it. But since when do we “reward” corporations simply for not doing the wrong thing? Supporting LGBT right is so ingrained in the urban image which is the one of the most important parts of Starbucks’ brand strategy. So what was the right thing is also the right thing for business, which is of course commendable, but Starbucks made this decision because half the people in NOM hate Jason Mraz and probably still use the term “city slickers.” If Starbucks did anything but this, you should have been able to hear a pin drop in their restaurant. Boycott would not be strong enough a word. Do we mindlessly applaud what looks to be corporations caring because we know we don’t have the willpower to stop purchasing the product? Or has the bar really been set so low that thanking a corporation on the Internet feels like activism? A few homophobes may skip around the place that gentrified and commercialized your neighbourhood now, but doesn’t that just make it better for everyone in it? Buy a latte!   

But, once again, I’m in public relations. So shouldn’t I want you to sign eighteen petitions, share it on Facebook, and then distract yourself from anything that might be happening on the streets of Montreal and filling your moral quota for the day by putting extra topping on your coffeecaramelchocolate atte-occa-chino? “Corporate responsibility” is second only to “social media” in terms of buzz words in classes right now. I spent three years at The Gap folding t-shirts. Can no machine be a good machine?

While I do think the word ethical has been diluted to the point of meaningless (there will never be anything ethical about spending money on crap you don’t need, no matter how granola the packaging looks) when Mark's Work Wearhouse announced that they would not continue to stock CAT products after their complete betrayal of the Canadian public, I added woolly socks to my mental gift list, and shared the article with my Facebook friends. The brand meant nothing to me, but their action, which tarnishes a relationship with a popular brand, lost them money, and could freak out future clients did speak. A press release went out. Actually, I'm sure many did. But they did not ask me to retweet a message as a condition to donating a nickel to a dubious house owned charity, nor was there a petition glorifying them. They made a smart but scary decision. They did what someone SHOULD do in that situation. And while I did not rush out and get a plaid shirt, I did the next month when I needed to give one. That's responsibility to me. 

Corporate responsibility means doing the right thing and should be expected, not exceptional. We need to empowers ourselves to the point that we feel comfortable telling businesses that not doing wrong is not a right. They exist to serve us. Not the other way around. I don't know how those waters became so muddy.

As someone in public relations, I should want everyone to thank Starbucks, but as someone who will probably never do PR for Starbucks I want us to think harder. And I think that tells you who we should be listening to.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Where the Wild Ideas Aren't

When I was young, I loved Where the Wild Things Are, but probably only as much as you did too. Several generations of children, bound together by cat pyjamas and a cardboard crown liked every Facebook status with the most heartwarming quotes about monsters & homes and felt a weird sort of silence as just for a minute they realized yes, childhood is ending. 

"Why are all of the good celebrities dying?" laughed E as Call Me Maybe blared in the background. 

I used to chalk most of my friends' & I's nineties kids nostalgia up as pretention, the past being the most exclusive hipster gold of all because no one could visit it. But lately I can't help but feel like maybe things just were better back in the day. This is not to say that people were more talented, and not am I ignorant of the fact that only the best surfaces many years later, but there was once a time where expression was valued at a professional level, and I can't help but feel as though we are running away from that. 

When I was young, my favourite picture book was Madeline. My fourth favourite book was Where the Wild Things Are. Maybe fifth. It was good, it was fine; I’m not going to pretend it was my most favouritest ever, but Maurice Sendak’s passing has certainly affected me more deeply than I thought it could.

In a day and age that rewards those who are constantly creating content, why is creativity less valued then every before? Every mainstream newspaper takes its chance to swipe at idiot students who dare to pursue studies in irrelevant things like arts, history, and writing. From the intolerable Margaret Wente’s “baristas of the future” comment to family gatherings across the country, the current attitude seems to be that the books of the future will be put together by third world, just like our cars and trinkets.

It’s easy to feel like talent is finite when it is not celebrated. Deficit after deficit has convinced Canadians that what is wasteful is this elite art, this education for education’s sake... Never mind that we are a country so much defined by Green Gables and Jacob Two Twos. Never mind our nation's wealth. Art is risky! Art is expression.

The occasional superstar author comes along, but I haven’t seen a new Maurice or Mordechai in a very long time. Creating quality is becoming the ultimate rebellion in an era where everything has messaging but so little has meaning. When I mourn Sendak’s passing, I mourn the spirit behind the people who contributed to his success. I hope unknown authors and artists stay strong as people find it prudent, not acceptable, to blare that their decadence will never contribute what a plumber does to this country. We have not toppled the elite; we are merely punishing intellectuals.

"I don't write for children,” Sendak explained. “I write, and somebody says, 'That's for children.”

I have a paper crown to make. 


Sunday, May 6, 2012

Embracing Monday: May 6th, 2012

I know, I know, but sometimes I go! & it's nice to see you again too! I hope you just thought that.


"Life is too short and we cannot spoil it. I don't have 300 years in front of me. So I just do the things that I really want to do at the moment because that's the only way you will do them well. If you don't believe in yourself, it won't work."

I spend an abhorrent amount of time looking at cool apartments, so at least this absolutely beautiful one is for a great cause.

I am always claiming I'll move somewhere new. Lately, Ohio City, Cleveland looks pretty damn cool.

I wish it was a theme park, but I guess this is more accurate.

So this actually happens?

"On our first date, I treated her to the finest ice cream Baskin-Robbins had to offer, our dinner table doubling as the curb. I kissed her, and it tasted like chocolate."

As much as I love glitz & glamour, there's something so realistic and adorable about this apartment that makes me happy inside. Like home should.

- Uhhh...

-Of course the same weekend I start reading John Ralston Saul I start reading headlines like this...