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OPINION: Big decisions need big engagement, or else

The big question facing Canmore is this: “Given the uncertainty of the world and the unprecedented speed at which it is changing, how can we welcome jobs and develop an appropriate ‘fit for the future’ economy while we protect our community’s character and values, its natural assets, and quality of life?” 

The Feb. 18 Outlook editorial (“Who controls the future of development in Canmore?”) suggests that more than a few Canmorites believe the Town of Canmore is in cahoots with Three Sisters Mountain Village.

The rumours are unfounded, but we don’t have to look far to find reasons as to why they exist. One reason is that many of us don’t understand how our municipal government works. The even more important reason is that our municipal government doesn’t understand the needs of its citizenry when big decisions are at hand.  

As to the first reason, we need to realize that governments have an inherent bias towards development. That’s because development and growth have long been the mainstays of prosperous communities. Keeping things moving ahead economically is pretty much what mayors and councils are elected to do.

That mindset is being challenged now, but the alternatives have yet to gain much traction. In the meantime, like it or not, our governments are structured to support development, and our officials do their work within those structures. 

As an example, those who believe in a “done deal” often point at the amount of time developers and town planners spend together. What gets overlooked is that town planners are tasked with working with developers, often closely and over long periods of time, to ensure the developers’ proposals are as consistent as possible with (in Alberta) the Municipal Development Plan and the local Land Use Bylaw. 

That doesn’t mean relationships between the planners and the developers are friendly. As the history of TSMV development in Canmore attests, they often aren’t. 

When it comes to the second reason, the Town, by not understanding the needs of its citizens, bears responsibility for all those done deal rumours. For a decision that could forever change Canmore’s essential character, the Town has the responsibility to engage its citizens in a long, difficult, honest conversation about the future of their valley. To date, it hasn’t.

There are different ways a town can interact with its citizens. We’re all familiar with the “engagement light” process the Town usually undertakes, with the display panels, sticky notes, clip board questionnaires and occasionally the option of answering questions online.  For less critical decisions, engagement light works fine – it provides the Town with good information. 

For a decision like the current one, the Town needs to do much more. There are sections in four Town documents that guide the Town to go “above and beyond” the usual public hearings when it comes to engaging the public on major issues. And that’s exactly what the Town ought to be doing: it should be workshopping the decision, educating us both on the decision-making process and the substance of the proposals.

Without favour or bias, it should be giving us all an opportunity to learn together, to speak and to be heard. 

Beyond even that, though, the Town needs to host a conversation of the sort we were introduced to through Mining the Future. Fifteen years ago, citizens sat down together and thought through questions designed to bring to the surface their deepest concerns and values. That sort of deep engagement is hard, messy, and time-consuming, but there really isn’t any substitute for it.  

Indeed, when it comes to big, consequential decisions, if a municipality doesn’t engage in deliberative dialogue, it’s asking for big, consequential trouble: trouble like unfounded rumours and a loss of community trust.

Deep engagement brings people together to cooperatively explore questions and solve problems. The process itself nurtures respect and understanding and builds lasting relationships and trust, and is every bit as important as any fine-sounding words or actions that might emerge from it. 

The Town seems to have forgotten that important lesson. It has done little other than add a TSMV FAQ to its website and, inexplicably, ask its citizens to self-educate by ploughing through 600 pages of technical documents. That’s just too big an ask for a massively complex issue. 

To the degree, the Town isn’t helping us sort this out is the degree to which it is the architect of its own misfortune. 

The big question is this: “Given the unprecedented speed at which the world is changing, how can we welcome jobs and develop a ‘fit for the future’ economy while we protect Canmore’s character and values, its natural assets, and quality of life?” 

Wouldn’t it be grand if we could all sit down together and, with some help from the Town, think that through?  

Given that the Town has two years before it has to render a decision on the TSMV proposal, we have lots of time to pause, to make the question the defining election issue of the fall, and to all take part in a big, deep engagement about the fate of our town and the surrounding valley. TSMV can wait.

Bart Robinson has been a friend of the mayor for 40 years and an opponent of big development on the Three Sisters lands for 30 years. He was communications director and a writer for Mining the Future.