How many affluent, middle aged Albertans does it take to change a province?

Reboot Alberta (picture by Mack Male)

Alberta is experiencing a revolution in social activism. In the past, the influence of the affluent, middle-aged, white man in Alberta was lamented; now we are seeing these same types of people shape a movement that has promised to increase democratic participation, inclusivity, and accessibility in Alberta’s political environment. Small pockets of individuals, province-wide, are springing up and enacting genuine social change through long ranging and diverse discussions.

Enter into ChangeCamp, CivicCamp, and the most recent political conference, Reboot Alberta, where the first goal is bringing about a fresh perspective in Alberta. These events are truly engaging Albertans. People of all ages and backgrounds are invited to come together to participate in these discussions, and in the eyes of many, they are signals of a new time in Alberta. It seems like genuine progressives are taking command of the political culture.

The recent upswing in interest in politics of Alberta may be due to someone who is not a middle aged, affluent, white male. Danielle Smith, the newly elected leader of the Wildrose Alliance Party (WAP) has been featured heavily in local news, and seems to be everywhere; from The Rick Mercer Report, to The Economist. Her party is one without any official policies, and only one elected member in the house. Despite this, it is also posing a threat to the Progressive Conservative (PC) dynasty, as two MLA’s have crossed the floor to the WAP. The party, its infrastructure, and credibility seem to be building up; block by block, riding by riding, communication director by communication director.

Albertan, progressive, and proud of it

The Reboot logo

So where are truly progressive Albertans to turn? For some, the answer has been found in a new party, The Alberta Party. For others, new formats of discussion are becoming increasingly viable and effective.

Reboot Alberta, a conference that has an attendee list that reads like the who’s – who of Edmonton and Calgary business members. The first meeting was held in Red Deer last November. This past weekend, February 28th, 2010, a second meeting was held at the Delta Lodge in Kananaskis. While open to new attendees, there was some concern by organizers and original members that new people would slow down the process, and halt the progressive discussion that was being built.

To gain a deeper and truer understanding of how Reboot is shaping Alberta political engagement, and what goals it has for this province of ours, I spoke to two individuals who have been a part of this organizations from the beginning.

The faces behind the button

Andrew McIntyre and DJ Kelly are both Calgarians, and both work in community advocacy, public relations, and communications. Both men are active in their communities and have been politically engaged in one way or another for quite some time. In addition, both are original ‘Rebooters’ and have worked to shape and organize this collective which believes it can “help revitalize our democracy,”

I asked both McIntyre and Kelly why they attended the Reboot conference. McIntyre responded with a decisively personal claim: “I attended Reboot to continue a conversation about a new direction for the province. Reboot serves as a space for this discussion to take place.” Kelly, a little more directly, “I attended the first Reboot Alberta because I was disillusioned with the one-sided nature of politics in Alberta. I spend a lot of time with many of the new tech tools (such as social media) and I couldn’t help but think to myself there must be a better way to engage the public – to involve them in the decision making process. I’m a firm believer that the government acts on our behalf. In order for that to happen, we must instruct them on an ongoing basis. In order for that to happen, we must have more openness and transparency. I was looking for a group that was willing to discuss new options for Alberta, to make that happen.”

So, what do these two participants want to get out of Reboot, and how do they see this movement affecting Alberta? McIntyre responded with his perspective: “a group of politically interested Albertans came together without a preconceived plan of what would emerge through voting, participation, and conversations several separate “streams” emerged, some where focused on big picture issues and others where more focused in specific action, like the group that wanted to form the Renew Alberta party.”

Kelly’s perspective changed between the first the second event, “after this past event, I’m starting to realize there is value in the conversation alone. Many of the people attending Reboot Alberta are already extremely involved in various activities in their own hometowns – work, volunteer projects, etc. What I think is really interesting, is what those people do with what they’ve learned at Reboot when they go back to those projects. That to me is much more interesting than anything that “Reboot Alberta” itself could do or become.”

Neither of these two individuals are party-focused though, and both noted that despite there being a heavy presence with members of Renew Alberta and the Alberta Party – the conference was held after these two parties merged – many Reboot participants did not partake in the partisan discussion. The conference was attended by members from the PC party, the WAP, the NDP, Liberals, and of course the members of the new Alberta Party. McIntyre reinforced the point that he, “attended as a private citizen, as did all other attendees.”

In discussing Reboot’s contribution to the re-emerging centrist and/or progressive mindset of many Albertans, Kelly commented that, “I think by its very definition, the “centre” is where the majority of people are – or at least it is the average of what all the people believe. Centre is a moving target, which is why I prefer not to talk in terms of left or right politics – they don’t actually exist. Centre in Ontario is different than centre in Alberta, or Texas, or England, or etc.” However, Kelly does see the value behind the centrist movement. He noted that it is possible for the Alberta Party to succeed here, “…mainly because it is nothing more than a group of people saying, instead of a small group of “us” deciding – whether that be members or caucus or a committee or whatever – to be a centrist you have to put the power into the hands of the “average” Alberta to decide what your party will stand for, and do. Will the Alberta Party folks be the ones to do it? Time will tell, they will only be as good as the hours they put in and the people involved.”

Coming down from the mountains

Breakaway discussion

Reboot is not a movement powered by hot air. Rather, it is truly walking the walk through its social media inclusion and the genuine desire to open up the dialogue to be more accessible. The Reboot website encourages participants to publish blog posts and position papers, and on-line discussions are held with those who may not be able to physically participate in sessions. For some, such as Kelly and McIntyre, Reboot needs to be spread out to be effective.

DJ Kelly was affected by Reboot, causing him to look for ways to bring that discussion to the relationships and communities that already exist for him. “I’m the president of my community association and I realized, upon looking at the way we engage the people living in our neighbourhood, that we do a terrible job of involving people in the way they would want to be involved. Too often when someone expresses an interest – bam – we put you on the board. But they could care less about being on a board, they just wanted to work on a cool event, or something like that. So I partnered with CivicCamp to help them create CivicCamp in a Box, which we are piloting in our community. The goal of the event is to, through the “unconference model”, take what the residents like and don’t like, talk about them, and then give them the tools to help make those things happen. That’s just one example. Another might be, I’m spending more time on my blog trying to build a bridge between what one group thinks and another.”

Is Reboot really for everyone?

The Kananaskis Delta Lodge

It is easy to see the merits of Reboot, and sing its praises while marveling at the open process it has embodied. However, despite likely best intentions, the truth is that it is the still the same individuals already engaged in their communities, politically or otherwise who are the driving force behind this movement. It is still putting up barriers, likely unintentional but present nonetheless.

The conference held in Kananaskis this weekend was costly. A registration fee of $150.00 and to stay at the conference site, the cost per night was roughly $110.00. Those costs do not include travel, or time needed for travel, nor does it include any extra costs such as food, drinks, spending. Debra Ward, an Edmontonian was one individual who couldn’t attend because of the cost. She commented that, “distance equals cost. I think that was probably why they got the same people they always get. I wasn’t the only person who would have liked to have gone. It was cost; cost and little bit of disenfranchisement. A feeling of not really being a part of what the event was trying to attract. When you’re exclusive, you miss out on a huge part of the population, think of those disabled. How do they there if it isn’t easily accessible? I have friends who are disabled; they wouldn’t, and they couldn’t go.”

Ward has other criticisms. She was also a member of the ChangeCamp organizing committee, and found the experience to be less than positive. “I sat on the organizing committee for ChangeCamp, there were only two females in that whole group. That’s pretty sad when there is two females, and we are half the population. I felt, myself, like I was given lip service anytime I tried to bring up issues. I really believed in the process of ChangeCamp, but it was a headache for me and it made me reconsider joining anything again.

Wards disillusionment comes out of the barriers in place throughout Alberta’s political organizations, barriers clearly not being addressed by the members of these up and coming movements. Ward notes, “I hate to be gender specific because I believe the best person for anything should always be the best person. But, reality is, that’s not happening. It’s not happening because it’s the same people; the same group of society that is trying to change things but because there so insulated, they’re just altering it.”

In the end, only kindness matters

Ok, well that may not be true. In the end, what matters is staying true to what you preach. In end, what matters is that if Reboot, Renew, and The Alberta Party are here for Albertans, then they should be here for all Albertans. Kelly talked about increasing interests and genuine participation by opening up the process. In order to do that, all voices need to be heard and considered. Moreover, all voices need to recognized, and actual actions need to be taken, to ensure that their concerns, and their perceptions, are taken into account.

Reboot Alberta could be a game changing movement in the province. Working alongside, though not necessarily in consort with, new parties like the Alberta Party and WAP, this social change movement has the potential to produce actual change in Alberta’s political culture.

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4 thoughts on “How many affluent, middle aged Albertans does it take to change a province?

  1. Tom Howard says:

    I would question that last sentence: “produce actual change in Alberta’s political culture”. What is actual change? A change in regime, in governing parties? In that sense, you may be right (although you have to admit, it’s an outside shot at best). But in terms of actual change – reforms encouraging participatory democracy, equitable wealth distribution, slowdown of tar sands production, and re-alignment of growth with natural limits – I would still remain skeptical.

    First, you have to consider the twin issues of co-optation and incrementalism. There has been lots of talk about the PC party swinging to the right in order to safeguard themselves against the anti-tax-and-spend lobby, but in which direction must the Alberta Party, WAP, et al. swing in order to capture some of those PC votes? These parties are populist parties at best, and are going to play towards preserving the major structural conditions of the status quo as much as possible. I see both the PCs and the WAP acting within the rubric of neoliberalism, while the Alberta Party seems to speak the language of sustainability and participatory democracy without really engaging structural barriers to each of those fields. What choice does that leave us with?

    The Alberta Party calls for us to “listen to Albertans”, but this ignores the sway that the governing regime (composed of a solid alignment of government and business interests, both of whom have a vested interest in continued growth) have in convincing the average Albertan that growth is good, taxes are evil, and global warming is unprovable. If we want real change, we need a truly radical politics. So yes, The Alberta Party and Reboot Alberta may be a small step for us, but I would wonder if they would keep us from taking the great leap that is necessary.

  2. Jenn Prosser says:

    Hey Tom,

    Firstly I would argue that a regime change, a change of governing party would indeed affect “reforms encouraging participatory democracy, equitable wealth distribution, slowdown of tar sands production, and re-alignment of growth with natural limits.”

    But overall, I agree with you. This change may work, it may change the game being played but I think it will take longer then two years to do so.

    However, the endless optimist I am, I cannot help but hope that there is some opportunity for growth here, and the WAP’s questioning of the PC’s governance could in the end help the progressive Albertans gain a foothold.

    I think though, in order for it to work, the Alberta Liberals need to fold. Truthfully, they are held back by a brand that cannot be undone, which means good people are not being heard in the way they deserve.

  3. Diane Begin says:

    While I can’t speak for CivicCamp or Reboot Alberta (and any discussions that may have occurred within either) because I have not been involved in those initiatives, I did want to address the comments about ChangeCamp. I was the other female at the table organizing ChangeCamp Edmonton and my experience was different. As far as I was concerned, the call for organizing committee members was open to anyone who stepped up.

    I personally never felt as though my opinion wasn’t valued, nor did I feel that the group wasn’t trying to be inclusive of both genders, all races and cultures, income classes, the web savvy and those who aren’t etc. It’s really unfortunate if anyone’s experience wasn’t anything but inclusive. There were many discussions about how we would be more inclusive of those outside our circles including face-to-face meetings with as many people as possible to encourage attendance to the free event. At the end of the day, a volunteer run committee did its very best to achieve the goals it had set out for itself.

    Prior to my current position, I was involved in advocacy for about eight years. I almost always found myself with predominantly middle-aged men, but I never found myself in a position where I felt my voice wasn’t as valued as anyone else’s around the table. In fact, that was an opportunity to bring a different perspective to the table (just as I did when I was also the youngest at the table). At the time I worked for those organizations, a woman headed each on a national level. They served as mentors for me, even though they were in the minority.

    I am proud to have been involved with ChangeCamp Edmonton because of its inclusive nature and I hope my involvement also encourages more women to organize and come out for ChangeCamp II.

  4. Debra Ward says:

    I respect Diane (I also like her but that is another post). Moreover, I am aware that her and my impressions and experiences regarding ChangeCamp Edmonton were different. I also believe that she and the other organizers truly felt they were being as inclusive as they could be. That was simply not my experiences.

    Did I try to address the issues, yes, I did. I also acknowledge that my concerns not being addressed and recognized were as much my fault as the other organizers as ChangeCamp was utilizing a non-linear, two-way communication and organizational model.

    Why did I not bring up my concerns after the event? I did at one after meeting with one other organizer and a participant who attended this in the bar meeting which was not a conducive setting for insightful conversation.

    I did not attend the “after Camp” functions as the main function set appeared to be drinking and schmoozing. Nothing wrong with these activities but nothing relevant to the kind of real change this city, province, country, or world requires in my mind.

    Am I proud that I was involved with ChangeCamp Edmonton #1? You bet.

    Do I hope even more women become involved with initiatives such as this? Again, you bet because I believe in change and I believe the only way for change to occur is to stand up, be engaged and be heard. However, I also want to see some new faces around the table as well. Some older faces, some faces of those who are not “connected”, teenagers who would jump at the chance to be involved, faces of marginalized groups like our first nations population, the un or under-employed, the retired, the handicapped (or differently abled), the housewife and the househusbands.

    Yes, ChangeCamp Edmonton invited these groups but I believe we failed to ensure they felt truly welcome or heard judging by the low representation from these groups and comments I fielded after the October 17 event.

    For change to occur then no one group should feel they are not as important or heard as another, not one. Change is not only for the young nor for the old and it is not easy nor for the faint of heart. Nevertheless, change especially in governance is essential and it must be systemic.

    Will I be part of organizing a ChangeCamp #II, perhaps.

    Love the ideals of ChangeCamp (and CivicCamp and Reboot) but am not as convinced with the processes. This is however simply my opinion and I respect others have differing opinions.

    Sometimes in the debate, in the differences, we can only agree to disagree but we must respect one another and our right to express ourselves.

    What it all comes down to is one person’s experiences, and opinions. Not right or wrong simply individualistic.

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