Following the decline of the welfare state, beginning in the early 1990s and through the subsequent rise of neoliberal economic policies, many troubling social issues have plagued small cities across Canada. In Small Cities, Big Issues, a collection of 13 peer-reviewed, academic chapters, editors Christopher Walmsley and Terry Kading bring these issues into focus. Albertans who lived through the budget cuts of the Klein years and beyond will find much to identify with here.
The editors, with their respective backgrounds in social work and political science, explain that many pressing social problems—homelessness, illicit drug use, racial exclusion—were exacerbated by provincial and federal government cuts to municipal funding. Local governments were left to pick up the difference, largely through increased property taxes. The result was predictable: Municipal governments today rarely have the fiscal capacity to respond fully to social problems.
Divided into two broad sections, Small Cities, Big Issues uses case studies to both explain the social problems in our communities and offer solutions. Readers first learn how the neoliberal push for smaller government, entrepreneurialism and individual responsibility hasundermined community cohesion. Increases in homelessness, for example, correlate with decreases in federal government funding for
public housing. Similarly, exclusionary and punitive municipal zoning regulations in response to sex work lead to social isolation and community fragmentation. In the second section, the focus is on inclusionary social planning approaches that small cities might consider—to stave off the political traps of xenophobia and “othering” that seem to arise with an excessive emphasis on individual responsibility.
While the collection is published in Alberta, none of Alberta’s small cities, such as Red Deer or Grande Prairie, are featured in the collection. Eight of the 13 chapters are focused entirely or in part on Kamloops, BC, where both editors have ties to Thompson Rivers University. Nevertheless, municipal officials and policy makers in Alberta can only benefit from hearing the lessons learned in small cities in neighbouring provinces.
Residents of Lethbridge, for example, can take solace in knowing that other small cities are also learning how to safely and humanely manage street use of injection drugs. Sydney Weaver, an addictions researcher who works on the frontlines in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, outlines how municipal officials in Nanaimo, BC, as with their counterparts in Lethbridge, have struggled to reconceptualize addictions as a public-health issue. The challenge, she notes, is to move beyond fear and bring more of the community on board.
Yet, as repeatedly noted in this collection, small cities are well positioned to do just that. The editors remain optimistic that, contrary to stereotypes, “the very smallness of small cities is an advantage, since it opens the possibility of grassroots citizen participation of the sort associated with direct democracy.” In her chapter on multiculturalism in small cities, Mónica J. Sánchez-Flores observes that retreat into ethnic enclaves is less of a problem in small cities, as newcomers have little option but to fully engage with their host community. “This intermingling,” she hopes, “may serve to break down barriers created by culturally based assumptions about identity, encourage people to get to know each other as individuals, and foster a cosmopolitan outlook.” While the neoliberal era still remains with us, life in Alberta’s small cities will only get better if the optimistic thrust of Small Cities, Big Issues influences the perspectives of our policy makers and municipal officials.
—Jeffrey Doherty is a writer in Lethbridge.