Silver Don: How a progressive mayor might have handled OccupyNS

On his Green Interview website, Silver Donald Cameron imagines how an innovative, creative mayor might have responded to OccupyNS: He starts by quoting the late Allan O’Brien, mayor of Halifax from 1966 to 1971.

The Mayor has very little actual power – but he has the power to bring people together, to encourage action on matters that he considers important. He has the power to influence the public agenda. He has access to the press. And if you use those powers strategically, you can accomplish quite a bit.”

Cameron muses:

Imagine if Peter Kelly had that kind of awareness, that sense of direction, when he looked out the window in the middle of October. Imagine if he’d gone down there with his eyes and ears open. Who are you? Where do you come from? What do you do? When I asked those questions, I found I was talking with some very interesting people. An education graduate from St. Francis Xavier University who was playing a mad scientist in a children’s theatre. A sustainability consultant. A young boutique farmer. A Mi’maq veteran. A postal worker. A filmmaker.

Silver Donald Cameron at the Remembrance Day eviction

Okay (the Mayor might have said), let’s not talk too much about things that are clearly national or provincial. What are the things that municipal governments actually can affect? Food? Maybe we need an innovative urban agriculture policy. What do you think such a policy might look like? Homelessness? Let me get a couple of property developers and someone from the province down here, and let’s brainstorm a little. Tell me about youth unemployment. Say that again, will you – there’s an organization in Winnipeg called Build that trains street people to do energy refits? Fascinating. Let’s get someone from Winnipeg down here to talk about that. How can I reach them? (Answer )…

What if the Mayor had treated the occupiers respectfully, as though they were actually citizens whose voices deserved to be heard, whose ideas might have merit, whose concerns might reflect the concerns of other citizens? What if the city had welcomed the arrival of new ideas, new insights, a passionate commitment to a better future? What if the Mayor had paused to reflect that the young people among them were not aliens or monsters – or bums or dregs or scum, as they have been called by adult commentators who should know better? These are our own children, brought up in Dartmouth and Moser River, Blandford and Fairview. What if the Mayor had contemplated the possibility that those young people probably are the future?

What if the Mayor had acted not as a short-sighted enforcer of petty bylaws, but as the wise, patient leader of a functioning community?

If he had acted like that, Peter Kelly would have taught the occupiers that civic engagement actually works, that change is possible, that older people can and do welcome the energy of youth in the quest for a better tomorrow. Instead, he taught them the exact opposite – that their concerns are not of interest, that their involvement in politics is not welcome, that civic leaders cannot be trusted, that violence is just fine as long as it’s the police who start the brawl.

If Peter Kelly had found a fresh, positive way to engage with Occupy Nova Scotia, the news would have gone around the world – just as the news of the eviction has gone around the world. Other cities that are also trying to figure out what to do next would have taken note. Halifax would have looked like the thoughtful, creative community that it is. And Peter Kelly would have been a hero, a prime contender for higher political office had he chosen to pursue that.

Like I said, history just tossed Kelly the political opportunity of a lifetime. He blew it. And we are all diminished by his failure.