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Opinion: A wave of populism washes over Squamish

A wave of populism is washing over the north shore of Howe Sound in advance of the upcoming municipal election.
RawpixelPopulism in Squamish
In Squamish, a vocal group of residents is looking for a more open and responsive civic administration, says columnist Helmut Manzl.

Batten down the hatches, folks.

A wave of populism is washing over the north shore of Howe Sound in advance of the upcoming municipal election.

To call on the immortal lyrics of rock and roll legend Jerry Lee Lewis, there’s a “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”  around here.                                                                 
Martin Gurri, who wrote The Revolt of The Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium, says a recent tsunami of data from online media has inspired a rebellion against power brokers and institutions that previously monopolized the dissemination of information. When the digital revolution and its handmaiden, the internet, came along, consumers of information were transformed into information producers who began to doubt the legitimacy of traditional sources of expertise. As Gurri points out, “Uncertainty is an acid, corrosive to authority. Once the monopoly on information is lost, so too is our trust.”                                                         

Wherever populist movements have taken root, they share common elements, but they also exhibit unique features to suit the lay of the land.

In Squamish, a vocal group of residents is looking for a more open and responsive civic administration.

They claim many policies are misguided, and municipal staff and council have ignored their concerns. 

Various citizen engagement and public intervention options have emerged to deal with the prevailing unease.

They include town hall gatherings, small discussion sessions, and neighbourhood activist associations, such as the Stop the Squamish Infill consortium and the Crumpit Legacy movement. Several Facebook-affiliated civic forums, including Squamish Speaks and two versions of Squamish Voices.                                          

Over the years, the funding process for municipal projects has been keenly scrutinized and at times challenged by individuals or groups of residents.

These days, that level of intercession has become even more acute, and the chosen course of action to staunch the perceived fiscal hemorrhage at muni hall is the Alternative Approval Process authorized by the provincial Local Government Act and the Community Charter.                                                                  

Under the AAP guidelines, a minimum of 10% of eligible electors were required to submit response forms to challenge a proposed $18 million District of Squamish borrowing proposal to construct a new municipal works facility.

Opponents of the District’s loan initiative cited a lack of transparency, limited public engagement related to the construction of the new facility and undue influence by municipal staff. Of 14,695 potential voters, 1,700 cast ballots to halt the borrowing process, thus triggering a possible referendum on the matter.                   

But the rising populist discontent evident in town may have deeper roots. In a persuasive essay, Andrés Rodríguez-Pose, a Professor of Economic Geography at the London School of Economics, argues that globally populism’s attractiveness was triggered by “the revenge of people living in places that have seen far better times. In the face of dismal economic trajectories and prospects, these are the people who are tilting the political balance.”                                                                

To a certain degree, that is the case in Squamish where more and more wage earners are struggling with the rising cost of living, coupled with stagnant wages and diminished buying power. A growing number of residents are suffering from too much month left at the end of the money. Although they may be in the driver’s seat of a new pickup truck or SUV, their ride is tethered to bi-weekly loan payments. That tab competes dollar for dollar with mortgage or rent costs, monthly mobile phone and cable bills, as well as a raft of other income-draining expenses.                                                                                                              

Everything considered, potential candidates in the upcoming municipal election should be prepared to address the dynamics of populism in this community.

Failure to do so will limit their political ambitions for the foreseeable future.

Helmut Manzl is a long-time Squamish resident and political columnist.

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