One step forward, two steps back for freedom

Paul Bunner
October 11, 2017
When he wasn’t kayaking on or swimming in the North Saskatchewan River near his home in Edmonton, C2C Journal editor Paul Bunner spent some of his summer fighting two battles for little freedoms in his local community. He won one and lost one. Although he’s a veteran political activist at the federal and provincial level, Bunner contends that the lifeblood of democracy must be nurtured at the foundations of society if it is to flourish at the top.

One step forward, two steps back for freedom

Paul Bunner
October 11, 2017
When he wasn’t kayaking on or swimming in the North Saskatchewan River near his home in Edmonton, C2C Journal editor Paul Bunner spent some of his summer fighting two battles for little freedoms in his local community. He won one and lost one. Although he’s a veteran political activist at the federal and provincial level, Bunner contends that the lifeblood of democracy must be nurtured at the foundations of society if it is to flourish at the top.
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On the North Saskatchewan River flats in downtown Edmonton where I live, an international consortium of engineering and construction firms are building a light rail transit tunnel, bridge, elevated trackway and station. This is all part of the 13-kilometre, $1.8 billion Valley Line from downtown to the southeast quadrant of the City. It’s a noisy, dusty, traffic-disrupting, and earth-shaking infrastructure megaproject, slashing through the heart of Edmonton’s bucolic downtown river valley parklands, and it’s going to take five years to build.

I almost went postal a couple of times this spring when crews were installing caisson piles and cofferdams for the giant concrete piers the bridge and trackway will sit on. The loud, unrelenting drilling and hammering impaired concentration and conversation, and the soft clay of the valley transmitted the vibrations to the china in our cupboards and the pictures on our walls.

One day in late spring I strolled down to the river bank for a closer look at the cacophonous mess and discovered, to my amazement, that a big, beautiful sand beach had appeared out of nowhere, immediately downstream from a massive stone jetty built partway into the river to support a huge construction crane.  I later learned that the jetty had created the beach by slowing the velocity of the current and allowing fine sand to drop out of the water below it.

For a river swimmer and beach bum like me, this was pretty significant compensation for the construction trauma. I thereafter spent many joyful hours on the beach with relatives, friends and neighbours, cooling off by swimming in the jetty-protected shallows on hot days, working out by paddling my kayak against the current in the narrowed channel, and building sand castles with kids.

The beach grew over the course of the summer, eventually stretching the length of five full city blocks. Its popularity grew too, especially after the Edmonton Journal published a front page story in mid-August quoting me and others as suggesting the City ought to consider how, or if, the “Accidental Beach” could be made permanent.

Within days the number of beachgoers grew into the hundreds. On a few hot days, thousands came. It was completely ad hoc and unregulated. Somebody tied a rope to a tree to help people rappel down the steep bank. Others created rock pathways across rivulets. The City scrambled to provide parking and traffic control, garbage barrels and portable washrooms.

Conventional and social media lit up with a lively debate between beach lovers and haters. The former seemed to greatly outnumber the latter, with the haters mainly comprised of three groups: local NIMBYists, public safety worrywarts, and green protectionists. Despite their shrill warnings about uncivilized behaviour on the beach, bacteria in the water, and downtown “wilderness” despoliation, the crowds kept coming. Amazingly diverse crowds, disproportionately comprised of new Canadians with young families, but lots of preening young adults too. One eyewitness claimed he saw a topless female sunbather not far from another young woman in a burkini.

The beach was also a hot topic at a local civic election debate this fall, and almost all the candidates expressed some support for making it permanent. In an age when development of almost any kind is suffocated by regulation, and when public safety trumps personal risk and responsibility at almost every turn, the apparent public and political support for the Accidental Beach was a small win for freedom – a spontaneous popular vote for liberty and against meddlesome killjoys.

Alas, freedom also suffered a minor setback this fall, at least in my little universe. Earlier in the year, the nanny statists who dominate Edmonton City Council voted to lower the speed limit around 425 parks and playgrounds to 30 kilometres per hour. As a result my tiny downtown river valley neighbourhood (pop. about 930), which is built around a huge park, was suddenly blighted with 16 shiny new road signs announcing the new, photo radar-enforced speed limit.

In the hundred-year history of my neighbourhood, there have never been speed signs. Nor, as far as anyone can recall, has there ever been a serious – certainly not fatal – vehicle-pedestrian accident. Moreover, the natural, safe speed limit on our narrow, leafy streets is about 40 kph, yet among the new signs there are three announcing that the speed limit beyond the park zone perimeter is 50kph.

So at the annual general meeting of my community league in September, I introduced a motion calling on the City to remove all or most of the signs. After a sadly one-sided debate where I was pilloried as a reckless idiot which ended with a community member saying he would prefer 16 speed signs to a single fatality sign, my motion was defeated by a 2-1 margin.

I maintain the streets of our community will be more dangerous, not less, as a result of these signs. But what troubles me even more is that my friends and neighbours, the vast majority of whom are rational, reasonable, civilized people, were so easily persuaded to vote against freedom and personal responsibility.

These local stories may seem trivial to some readers who expect C2C Journal writers to tackle big national and international stories and enduring cultural and philosophical questions. Sure it’s a matter of greater import and urgency whether U.S. President Donald Trump is going to make good on his cryptic threats to drop the big one on Pyongyang. And sure Canada’s economic future is increasingly imperilled by regressive progressive assaults on resource development and our competitiveness as a nation.

But freedom, the essence of healthy democracy which constrains the excesses of government left or right, lives or dies at the foundations of society. If we don’t champion it at the bottom, it will not prevail at the top. Which is a very roundabout way of urging readers who care about freedom and democracy to get involved in local politics, as advised by Edmund Burke:

“To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind.”

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