Perception and Trust

“There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception” – Aldous Huxley

As I have said many times I love Calgary. Every time a life event has taken me out of the city I eventually find my way back here, this is my City. At least it once was. Following the actions of Calgary City Council during their July 22, 2019 meeting I am left challenging my perception of what Calgary was and what it appears to have become.

Have I put my trust in an entity of the past that has fractured beyond recognition or was Mayor Nenshi’s refusal to allow #KeepCalgaryStrong to speak a “one off” and not a foreshadow of dismissiveness to come. It really challenged my perception and the level of my trust for what I believed was the City I loved.

This is why words matter, while Mayor Nenshi was expressing concerns over “setting precedent” I was witnessing a lost opportunity for Council to allow “reasonable accommodation” to those speaking on behalf of the marginalized. Both my perception and trust in this City have now been shaken weakening the foundation of my belief in Calgary.

Public Perception

Over the last number of decades Western societies have become generally healthier but increasingly more cognizant to risk aversion.  Society has come to perceive itself as increasingly vulnerable and helpless to a range of hazards around them, from storms to earthquakes, from food additives to toxic chemicals, and from faulty building designs to dangerous energy facilities. The accepted perception (often blindly) is that governments are addressing risk concerns.

Society has invested a great deal in ensuring that many human needs are satisfied and risk is minimized.  This includes areas involving food and shelter, police protection, education, health and other opportunities for human growth.  With this minimization of risk comes greater regulatory authority, which leaves the populace with the assumption that they are being protected and taken care of by the government.  Most of the protection is of a general nature and has a positive impact on the general population. 

On the other hand, that segment of society that has been marginalized for so long has come to expect the same levels of quality that the rest of society enjoy.  Unfortunately, the traditional approaches that have served us well for so long may not be as effective with the more non-traditional members of our society.  This requires innovative and progressive thinking in establishing programs and initiatives that allow for flexibility when dealing with specific target groups, such as the disabled. 

Many of the general public lack the awareness of the “micro-inequities” that confront the disabled daily.  Improved education and awareness has increased the visibility of disability but so few people really look at all of the “little things” that make living in the community possible. An effective regulatory system in the world of disability is central to independent living.

When a City Council like Calgary begins cutting programs that impact one group more than others they are sending a strong message that they only represent a certain segment of the community. This was not the Calgary I use to know. The Calgarians of today have become so segmented local groups spend more energy “ripping” each other than working for the good of all. The concept of “compromise” appears to be a false perception in Calgary. If you watch Council meetings you quickly discover that “some” are more equal than others, that’s a reality.  

The second reason for greater public concern is the impact of the modern media.  Technological change has given the media the capability of delivering news from all over the world in an instantaneous fashion.  And just as individuals tend to find bad news more interesting than good news, media outlets tend to deliver bad news events more often than good news events. 

The public considers involuntary risk to be much riskier (i.e. they pose a greater threat to their health and well-being) than voluntary risk.   Consequently, individuals willingly choose to go skiing, use a tool without proper safeguards, or eat vegetables they have sprayed themselves, and they will consider the risks of such activities to be relatively minor.  But for somebody with a physical disability (just one example) involuntary risk looks very different. When a City ignores the maintenance of their own curb-cuts it creates an “involuntary risk”. When a City cuts funding to emergency services, like fire fighting and police services, they are creating an environment of involuntary risk. These are “ripple effects” which requires authorities to proceed very cautiously when introducing new initiatives that have broad impacts on society in general.  There are two caveats that should be adhered to when planning any new initiatives having an impact on society in general:

  • they must be built on a strong foundation with support from a cross section of participants and disciplines;
  • and a strong education and media program must be in place which will inform the public and recipient of the initiative.

Public Trust

The second consideration is “level of trust” that exists between the public and the government.  This trend of distrust is particularly evident in the populist political cultures we are seeing from the USA, to Canada and to the EU.  Psychologist, Paul Slovic, has written extensively on risk management and in a recent article discussed the role of political culture and levels of trust.

  • “One of the most fundamental qualities of trust has been known for ages.  Trust is fragile.  It is typically created rather slowly, but it can be destroyed in an instant – by a single mishap or mistake.  Thus, once trust is lost, it may take a long time to re-build it to its former state.  In some instances, lost trust may never be gained.”

One further observation related to trust.  This is the fact that trust takes much more time to acquire than to lose.  This is because negative trust-destroying events are much more visible than the positive trust-building events (the tainted blood scandal receives more news coverage than Sheldon Kennedy’s skate across Canada to raise money for the sexually abused).  Society, also, gives greater weight to negative events than to positive ones.  Combined with these facts is the general orientation of the media to publicize bad news as opposed to good news.  All of these features combine to make trust-building a very difficult exercise, and one that is played on an un-level playing field.  Paul Slovic emphasized this point:

Organization or individuals that have an opportunity to have input into the design of community support programs meant to improve quality of life for the marginalized need to have their voices heard.  The disabled community has heard from as far back as the polio epidemic in the early fifties that their needs would always be looked after only to discover that “being looked after” can be more restrictive than not being seen at all. To attend a Council meeting only to be refused your right to be heard is no way to build trust in the community.

With the proposed budget cuts having a disproportionate impact on the already marginalized of Calgary it is hard to have any trust in this Council. My perception of the city I love is definitely waning. I am not convinced the city I have moved back to is the same city I love. I am starting to realize that my door of perception has opened into a city I no longer recognize and that I may be clinging to a memory out of a need to love.

Today, being Monday, I tuned into the live stream of the Council meeting and right out of the chute (organizing the meeting agenda) the Ward 4 representative, Sean Chu, opening remarks challenged the level of trust with Council. He raised his concern of “leaked” information to the press by an unspecified member of Council. Mr. Chu made it very clear it was his belief that this information was leaked by someone interested in running for Mayor in the next municipal election.

If this new “fractured” Calgary is what has become of the City I grew up in then I have to re-evaluate my own belief system. When you can no longer trust your perception of what you believed to be a “community” you understand why love and commitment is fragile. In fact in todays society you begin to doubt if “love and commitment” is even a factor in this new world of politics. No budget cuts in the world justify further denigration of those already marginalized that the @KeepCalgaryStr1 speak for.



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The Western Migration

“If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” – African Proverb

A couple of political events in Calgary and Alberta opened some curtains in the mist of some lost memories this week. That can be beneficial because it makes me think of how we got to where we are today, certain events on the development of Calgary and some of the irony generated by our past. The first was the issue over Calgary’s planned transit expansion, the Green Line and the second is the Alberta governments new labour law, Bill 9. Both of them stirred up childhood memories.

We are experiencing some elements in our current societal discourse regarding diversity and reacting like it’s something new. ALERT, it isn’t. My fathers legacy is buried deep in the world of the Mennonite faith. His ancestors had migrated to Canada in the late 18th century to avoid the religious persecution Mennonites were experiencing in many European countries of that time. With him came a diversity of faith. Large sectors of Mennonites settled to farm in what would eventually become Manitoba following Confederation.

Mennonites are pacifists and live almost communally. They are tight knit and dedicated to self sustainability. They were into environmental protection before anyone even knew what environmental threats were. This was reflected in their farming techniques, rotating crops, field left seasonally fallow and planting crops to meet the needs of the soil. This wasn’t a conscience plan, it was just common sense farming.

When WW2 came along many of my fathers generation of the Mennonite faith joined the Canadian military. They were young and they felt they owed the country that allowed their fore-fathers an opportunity to live a safe, unthreatened life. Unfortunately the price, as ideological pacifist, was excommunication from the Church. As the new generation of Mennonites, their belief in Canada as a nation, the very country that had offered them safe harbour, was a belief worth risking excommunication over. They left the farms, took up arms and the rest is history.

My father, upon on his return from the war, began dealing with war related health issues before beginning a new life off the farm. He began with my mother in a small rural Manitoba town and eventually found himself in Winnipeg driving street car. Electric vehicles driven on tracks and power through trolley wires. Again “electric” vehicles ahead of their time.

But the lure of the west was growing. For numerous reasons the need to move westward was decided over 60 years ago for my parents and the offer of a driving position with Calgary Transit just sweetened the deal. So started the transition to what became my home city, Calgary.

Calgary Transit circa 1960

Calgary, like dad’s family, was growing. A position with Calgary Transit was a “union” position which offered some security to my father. A security he needed with a growing family and a son (me) who was a polio survivor. The Alberta Children’s Hospital was offering services to polio kids so there was no hesitation when the opportunity arose. With the assurance of employment and health care for his son (this was long before universal healthcare) he packed up the family in the mid 50’s and made the westward move to Calgary. When we arrived Calgary was just shy of 200,000 and a good number of those were European immigrants displaced by the war. There was no doubt Calgary was diverse but far from the shining beacon of success it is recognized as it is now.

One of my first memories of Calgary was sitting on dads shoulders as he walked picket in 1958. The transit workers had taken strike action due to the City’s reticence in renewing a union contract (I now refer back to the current situation with the Alberta governments position over Bill 9). Part of the issue with the contract was the extension of transit routes. At that time the northern most point for transit service ended at Northmount Drive and 4th Street NW (Mount Pleasant/Killarney). The Thorncliff/Elbow Drive routed ended at Northmount Drive and Centre Street. Thorncliff was the northern most part of the City at the time. How boundaries have changed!

My point here is Calgary has a long history of being progressive and diverse. The diversity was mainly European and it existed. The Kensington area was Little Greek Town, Bridgeland was little Italy, Tuxedo was German Town and Thorncliff/Highwood was basically prairie farmers who had decided to move west. Calgary was the stopping point and the expansion began to happen. With the value of natural resources taking off in the mid 60’s the growth explosion happened. By 1980 Calgary had almost tripled in size (to almost 600,000) but the driving group-think was still the WW2 veterans. The Baby-boomers were just coming into their own.

Today I watched the City Council meeting listening to arguments and debates that mirrored many of the past issues this City has faced. We have had that “Green Line” transit argument in the past except it involved extending trolley lines for electric buses but resulted in gas powered vehicles because of the new found belief in the natural resource community. We have had that same argument over tax relief by cutting services, services that are crucial tools to quality of life issues. That same quality of life that brought thousands of immigrants to Calgary over the past fifty years.

Palliser Hotel downtown Calgary 1964

While some may think todays Council meetings are steps backwards (in my opinion they are) others frame it as protecting the future. I see it as a Council that either doesn’t recognize their history or have chosen to ignore it. Times are changing, again, and how politics works needs to change as well. What worked in the 60’s wasn’t so hot in the 80’s. At the same time we have also outgrown what was working in the 80’s. Time for a rethink over how we move forward and how we do business. Most of the people our politicians are playing to are dying off (myself included). It’s time to focus on the policy makers of tomorrow and what will work for them. Time for change…

Canada Day Celebration 2019 – what is it?

Canada is the only country in the world that knows how to live without an identity.” – Marshall McLuhan


It is Canada Day and the country is celebrating. Large, joyous celebrations from coast to coast to coast. That day of the year dedicated to what it means to be Canadian and express our joy of being Canadian. For many new Canadians, this is the first experience enjoying a Canada Day celebration and welcome. Many more have celebrated back to the time it was still called Dominion Day and for those, to quote a great Canadian artist (Neil Young), “keep on rocking”.

What would Canada Day be without a bit of Canadian trivia, another contribution to the world, Trivial Pursuit? Today is “Canada Day”, originally called Dominion Day but changed to Canada Day when the British North American Act (BNA Act) repatriated to Canada in 1982. From that point forward the BNA basically ceased to exist and the Constitution Act, we we know it today, came into being as did Canada Day. “O Canada” was not proclaimed our official national anthem until July 1, 1980 but was sung for the first time in French 100 years ago. The Canadian flag became official February 15, 1965 leaving the Union Jack behind. We have been an evolving country for 152 years now. As long as new Canadians continue to arrive at our shores and families, regardless of what part of Canada they live in, we can look forward to another 150 years of celebrations.

Speaking to Inclusion and Diversity at a Canada Day celebration in 2014

In the 90’s I was very involved in an international exchange student program. I spoke with more international students (these were high school students) about where they would prefer to be placed. The program had volunteer host families (no families were paid but the student was expected to some of their own spending money). The importance of a “good fit” placement could not be understated.

This was planned this way with the expectation that the student would become part of the family and truly understand life as part of a Canadian family. In my mind it was a successful model. My wife and I hosted a young man from Japan the first year, a young fellow from Belgium the second and finally a young fellow from Germany. I am still in touch with all three of them almost 30 years later and they continue to be like family.

That is when I really began to think about Canadian “identity”, I needed some concepts to help frame it for these kids. The first time I heard my student from Japan phone his parents the call was over in about five minutes. He then shared with me the extent of the conversation and part of it was “Canadian”. I asked how he had cramped all of that info into such a short call including describing what a Canadian was. His was response was simple “Easy, I said you were Canadian”.

I have lived in Toronto and they would describe a Canadian very differently than some from Calgary. I have lived in Halifax and they would describe a Canadian very differently than someone from Montreal. I have lived in Montreal and they would describe a Canadian very differently than someone from Vancouver. My experience has been to most of the world we are “Canadians” and identity is unimportant. Identity reminds too many of them of “class distinctions” which is what many immigrants were fleeing when they came to Canada. They just wanted to be “Canadian”. My point is Canada is diverse and regional, that has worked for 152 years now.

Marshall McLuhan made that statement over fifty years ago and it is true today as it was then. We don’t have an identity. We are simply Canadian. We are a country that has been build by immigrants escaping perceived “identities”. My roots go back generations however they began with one branch escaping persecution in Europe. We all started somewhere so it is always overwhelming for me on Canada Day to see the focus being put on what it means to be Canadian, diverse, accepting and open to compassion. We are Canadian not based on identity but based simply on being Canadian.

I can only hope that 150 years from now those grandchildren of this newest group of immigrants are sitting around in their lawn-chairs celebrating the way most are today. Right now I fear we are at a turning point where too many politicians are playing “identity politics” rather than continuing to build on the strength that is the commonwealth of Canada. We may have regional differences but at the core we are all CANADIAN.

Happy Canada Day…and in true Canadian fashion, let me close by saying “I’m sorry” if I’ve offended anyone (smiley face).