Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Hopes for Downtown

Today, a public hearing was held into the proposed downtown arena. People representing different sides of the issue had a chance to address City Council and speak their minds.

As for me, I am not sure I have much to add to this, specifically. I am not against large developments in the downtown area per se, but I do have a problem with a funding structure that will finance a private business using taxpayers' dollars. So, I do have some concerns with the City entering into a deal with a billionaire who is out to make a profit.

That aside, I also have an issue with thinking that Edmonton absolutely, positively needs a project on the scale of the proposed arena in order to keep downtown alive and vibrant. I have a little observation: downtown Edmonton already is alive and vibrant. Sure, there are pockets that are not developed to their fullest extents, and a few places here and there that can seem a bit sketchy. But overall, there are always places to go, things to do, and events going on in the city's core. If we don't get a new arena, downtown is not going to crumble and implode. There is already a new art gallery, a new museum going up, and lots of revitalization in the area. Festivals and events take place galore. New businesses like coffee shops and cafes create excellent meeting places. Downtown Edmonton does not need to be fixed because it isn't broken.

Downtown has a lot of history and a bright future - with or without the arena. Fancy, shiny new things do not necessarily improve society. In fact, I am not sure enough due diligence has been given to the effects a project on the scale of the proposed arena would have on housing and other social issues in the area.

From reading this, you can probably guess I am somewhat leery of the whole thing. Not as someone afraid of change or who doesn't want to see downtown boosted to its maximum potential, as those against the project have been accused. Edmonton is about more than hockey and jumping on bandwagons just because someone slick is trying to sell us something and convince us that we need it.

My ideal downtown is a place of arts, of festivals, of music, and a place where issues like hunger and housing are dealt with effectively. Whether a new arena can help or hinder these goals remains to be seen - and a lot of it has to do with how it is financed, what it will do to surrounding property values, how badly it will congest certain areas, and how it will affect surrounding social organizations. There is too much that is simply not known and given the history of talks behind closed doors and potential done deals made without public input, I am not confident that City Council will let us know enough to make informed decisions or hold a plebescite.

In the meantime, I am going to enjoy downtown for the wonderful entity it already is.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Occupy Edmonton - Reflections on a Movement

Occupy Edmonton by raise my voice
Occupy Edmonton, a photo by raise my voice on Flickr.

This past Saturday, Edmonton joined the growing number of cities around the world in the Occupy movement.

It all started on Wall Street in New York last month, when a grassroots group of individuals decided that they had enough of corporations getting tax breaks, bailouts, and other economic benefits not available to the average person, laden with taxes, debt, and other financial woes for which there are no subsidies or bailouts. The "occupation" involved camping out in the financial district of the city.

Soon, other groups of activists in other cities began doing something similar, in solidarity with the Wall Street campers, but also because this sort of economic unfairness happens all over. Corporations (and the people who run them) are only 1% of the population, while the other 99% pick up the slack.

October 15 was the Canadian day of action, and Edmonton saw at least 1500 people fill Churchill Square for a rally and march. Afterwards, around 50 or so people set up camp in a park on 102 Street and Jasper Avenue, where they remain as of the time I am writing this blog post.

The Occupy movement has taken a lot of criticism on two fronts: one, that is it is leaderless and two, that there is no clear agenda of what exactly people want. To address the first issue, a movement does not necessarily have to have a leader per se. A grassroots movement is exactly that - a group. Decisions can be made by consensus or in whatever way the group decides. The Edmonton model has been run via consensus.

As for the second, there are lots of things people tossed around as demands. Does a protest necessarily have to have one thing as a resolution? My summation, when asked, is that we need a more just economy that supports everyone, instead of putting corporate interests above all else. How that should come about - now, that is something that can have many different theories. There have been a number of general assemblies where the people involved in the camp discuss their strategies for effecting social change. I have not attended any of these, so I cannot comment further.

The same can be said of the peace movement, of which I am also a part. We all agree that war is wrong - how we achieve peace is where we have different ideas. We dialogue. It's all part of the process.

Occupy Edmonton is one of the largest rallies I have attended in around six years of attending, organizing, and participating in the activist scene. Obviously, a lot of people are concerned about the way our economy runs and it is not something to mock or ignore, whether or not solutions are immediately forthcoming.

In fact, I was recently asked about immediate, concrete results coming from a local protest. My answer is that the purpose of protests like marches and rallies is not to bring about immediate results. It is to raise awareness and to speak out. Again, this is all part of the process. It is a forum for expressing ideas and to educate others. People always ask me after events, even if they did not attend but see my photos and videos online, what the issues are. This brings the chance to educate. And then they tell me their perspective, and I learn from them.

There are always activists who get defensive when questioned about their motives, particularly because we have a tendency to get ridiculed for our actions and beliefs. It is unfortunately when lines of communication get muddied, but these experiences do not change the underlying reasons for the protest in the first place.

Whether or not Occupy Edmonton (or the Occupy movement in general) will have any long-term, lasting effects remains to be seen. However, it is a large-scale, bold example of free speech and democracy in action, and for that reason alone, should be encouraged.

To view my entire photo set from the march and rally, click here. For a video play list of all of the speakers and music, click here.

And a disclaimer: I was involved in some of the organizing of the Occupy Edmonton event on October 15 and sang at the rally.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Orchids: Mystery & Romance

I love photographing flowers, and orchids are a particular favourite. Orchids have an incredible range of colours and their shape is sensual and compelling. Thus, I was thrilled to attend a preview of the new display in the Feature Pyramid of the Muttart Conservatory this afternoon.

Orchids: Mystery and Romance celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Orchid Species Preservation Foundation. The arrangements are colourful and unique, and feature stories and myths surrounding orchids. It runs from October 8-23. It's a short show because orchids have a short blooming season.

My favourite part of the exhibit is the rainbow made entirely of orchids. As well, there are numerous explanations of myths and stories about orchids from throughout history.

I can't imagine how many hours were spent putting this whole show together. I go to the Muttart on a regular basis, and this is definitely one of the most intricate shows I have ever seen there.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Getting Out There: Two Rallies, Two Issues

I recently took part in two separate events on two topics important to me: peace and the environment. Despite experiencing a few recent personal challenges, I felt it important to get out and get vocal about the issues affecting our world.

The annual UN International Day of Peace flag-raising ceremony happened on September 21 outside of City Hall. I sang "I Only Ask of God," by Argentina singer/songwriter Leon Gieco. The rest of the program consisted of speakers, The Raging Grannies, and, of course, the raising of the flag, which says "Peace" in over 50 different languages. Here is the complete video playlist.

A few days later on September 24 was an international day of action on climate change. Moving Planet Edmonton was the local response, organized by Edmonton 350 (visit 350.org for more information). I performed "Butterflies and Rainbows," a song I wrote about the tar sands, and received one of the most interesting introductions ever at one of these sorts of rallies! Here is the playlist of all the videos from the event.