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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