Edmonton: Acting As If

I don’t get it . . .

I love living in Edmonton.  Pretty much everybody I know thinks Edmonton is the bee’s knees, or so they tell me.  I often tell people, both here and far away, that I’ve never been to or heard of a place I’d rather live than here on this block tucked between Old Strathcona and the Mill Creek Ravine, on the edge of the centre of Edmonton.

So, I don’t get why the online comments stuck at the bottom of Edmonton news stories are so often a series of diatribes against the city, half-witted name-calling directed at our elected officials, and complaints about winter or God knows what.

One day on Twitter I managed to pin down a fellow who claimed to hate Edmonton and asked him what exactly he hated.  His answer? “South Edmonton Common.  It’s stupid to have a place like that when we have winter.”

Seriously.  He hates a metropolis of over a million people, a city where there are constant festivals of arts, dance, theatre, literature, sports, food; a city where people harvest grapes and strawberries from back yard gardens well into October, a city with more frost-free days than Calgary to the south — he hates this city because there’s a busy outlet mall at the edge of town when we don’t have the perpetual summers of currently burning California!

I don’t get why young people in Thomas Wharton’s creative writing classes “hate it here.”  Mr. Wharton should mention to his classes that great novelists wrote about London and Paris and New York not because those cities were great, but because they knew those cities and by writing, helped to make the cities great.

When I read about Mr. Wharton’s students, I think of my University friend, Chris, who, back in 1983 hated Edmonton and was desperate to get back to Toronto.  Within a few years she was in an apartheid era South African jail, as it turns out.  I don’t think she ever spent much time back in Toronto, but before her death about a year ago she helped in her small way to end apartheid and continued to the end helping to improve her adopted country and continent.

My friend Chris, it seems, very quickly lost her hatred of places other than Toronto.  Indeed, she found herself, through force of circumstance, in one of the most oppressive locations in the world, one of the most un-Toronto and un-Canadian of societies (ignoring for the moment the lessons drawn by South Africa from Canada’s “solution” to the “Indian Problem”).  And Chris made herself the centre of a lifelong effort to improve the lives of girls and women in Africa, beginning with her adopted daughter.  Imagine: a White Canadian ex-pat adopts a young Zulu girl in apartheid South Africa!  Chris went ahead as if apartheid didn’t exist.  Within a few years, Chris was interviewing Nelson Mandela for a biography, and her daughter was sitting in Madiba’s lap, and Apartheid really didn’t exist.

What does all this have to do with Edmonton?  With some hints from former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson’s final 2014 Massey Lecture, “Gross National Happiness”, I’ll explain.  Early in her lecture, Ms. Clarkson quotes Northrop Frye:

We participate in society by means of our imagination or the quality of our social vision. (p. 149)

Next, Clarkson introduces  the idea of living “As If”, borrowed from the German philosopher Hans Vaihinger.  As she distills Vaihinger’s As If philosophy:

You act As If something is true if the result of that act of imagination will bring benefits. (p. 150)

I find these two concepts to be key to understanding something that I sense to be happening in Edmonton.  This city is absolutely bursting with imagination, and, perhaps to a similar extent, is filled with profound social vision.  And the most powerful force in Edmonton right now is an unusual urgency in many citizens, from regular working people right up to the Mayor and Council to behave every day As If their dreams for their homes, their neighbourhoods, and their city were Reality.  This is the urgency my friend lived in Durban as a young working mother and every day of her life.

Vaihinger’s As If philosophy has somehow become — maybe always has been — the unstated philosophy of the movers and shakers of Edmonton.

In our last municipal election, Josh Semotiuk, a bearded thirty-something electrician and fan of Motorhead ran for mayor.  Everyone in the city, not least Josh, knew he wouldn’t win, but he and the other candidates consistently acted As If @josh4YEGmayor were a Twitter handle that could easily change to @joshYEGmayor.  And, in his Motorhead T shirt he made good points at candidate forums, cutting through dross that often appears at such events, and made the campaign more honest than it might have been.

In the end, the forcefully optimistic (and very tall) Don Iveson won the election.  He and his Councillors have spent their first year in office acting As If every citizen has tremendous ideas, As If citizens all have a perfect right to button hole any one of them at the Art Gallery of Alberta, on the sidewalk, or on Twitter, and As If Edmonton is the Best Place To Be.  And a whole lot of citizens are acting that same As If philosophy.

I suspect this As If philosophy has been a part of Edmonton’s social DNA from the time of the Fort up on the river bank and from the earliest meetings of Nations at Pehonan.  Even in the grey, windswept downtown days that cause my friend in Seville to still refer to our city as “Deadmonton”, there were those like Mel Hurtig and Joe Shocter and dapper Englishman John Neville who imagined, and acted As If we were the Metropolis of Tomorrow Today.

Ms. Clarkson writes of Canada:

Because we have lived As If, our multicultural, diverse country has become a reality.

I would argue that because my friend Chris, and countless others, acted As If apartheid didn’t exist, Nelson Mandela became President.  And because Joe Shocter acted As If cold-calling a great British actor would actually bring the man to Edmonton, John Neville walked the boards at the Citadel.  And because John Neville acted As If Edmonton were the centre of the theatre world, Brent Carver and Nicky Guadagni pulled up stakes from Toronto and London to play Romeo and Juliet to crowds of Edmonton theatre goers.  And those crowds acted As If they were worthy of the performances, and so they were.

In my years living in this little neighbourhood I’ve gotten to know business people, actors, writers, poets, visual artists, construction workers, nurses, teachers, musicians, doctors, pharmacists, politicians . . . all the varied individuals that make up any city — or village.

Many days I hear impotent bellyaching about potholes, the new arena, the old airport, or the weather. But every day I see people in Edmonton doing the As If thing.

I see it at the art galleries like Latitude 53 and dc3 Art Projects, at theatres from the Walterdale to the Citadel.

I see it from furnace installers, reno guys, home builders, butchers, baristas, booksellers, municipal politicians.

I see social engagement in artist like Dawn Marie Marchand and Aaron Paquette, in writers like Todd Babiak, in business owners like Kim Fjordbotten of the Paint Spot, campaigning tirelessly for #yegarts, and in a very shy butcher I know who is obsessive about business expenses and yet provides hot lunches at cost to kids at the school across the street from his shop and thinks Edmonton is both the bee’s knees and the cat’s pyjamas.

I see Steve and Sharon Budnarchuk, owners of Audrey’s Books, successfully carrying on As If ebooks, Amazon and big box stores didn’t exist.

And all the artists of the Nina Collective who act As If making art is human nature for all humans and so make it true every day.

What a gap there would be in Edmonton if not for the Spinelli family acting As If Edmonton were a little piece of Italy and creating the Italian Centre Shop.  And consider the Carrot Cafe and the people of the ‘hood around 118 Ave. They acted As If they had the coolest part of town, a centre for festivals and the arts, and you know what? Now it’s cool, and KaleidoFest is one of Edmonton’s most brilliant jewels.

Thirty years ago Brian Paisley acted As If Old Strathcona was the greatest theatre hot spot in North America and The Edmonton Fringe Theatre Festival, the greatest theatre festival in North America, was born.

A century ago, Edmonton’s municipal government acted As If their little northern city were bigger than the Big Apple and set aside the biggest urban green space on the continent, our unbelievably beautiful River Valley Parks.

A few years ago my friends Carlos and Bernardo came to Edmonton from Mexico. They bought a convenience store and acted As If Edmonton absolutely required a wickedly great Latin American grocery store. A few months ago Tienda Latina doubled in size.

And the Bissell Centre. . .

And the Hope Mission. . .

And the thousands of marvellous, huge, tiny, fun, beautiful and moving things happening in this city.

When I read Adrienne Clarkson’s Massey Lectures I feel like I’m reading a description of Edmonton, particularly when she discussed Vaihinger’s philosophy.  As my friend Chris did when she found herself living under Apartheid, a critical mass of Edmontonians act As If the place we live is how we want it to be for ourselves and others.

And through that act, we make it so.

10 comments on “Edmonton: Acting As If

  1. jennamarynowski says:

    Thank you for writing this, John. Absolutely true and very inspiring to read.

    • Thanks, Jenna! I’m happy to say that you are one of the many, many people who make Edmonton the vibrant place it is, and you’re one of the slightly fewer who show this great city to the rest of us.

      • jennamarynowski says:

        Thank you very much, John. That means a lot to me that you think that. Just doing my part for this great city! 🙂

  2. sydney says:

    Reblogged this on sydney lancaster: hand & eye and commented:
    A great commentary on what makes the city I live in a good place to be …

  3. Deb says:

    I’ve always though Edmonton has a lot going for it, I lived there for a couple of years plus we are in the city often as it is close to our cabin. I wish our city, Red Deer had the art scene and festivals that your city can be proud to host. My children love the Royal Alberta Museum, the Muttart and of course Fort Edmonton.

    I giggled at the “Deadmonton” remark; our city is often referred to as “Dead Rear”.

  4. […] Thoughtful piece from John Richardson on Edmonton: Acting As If. […]

  5. […] John Richardson loves Edmonton. That’s the obvious impression one gets when reading his essay “Acting As If.” […]

  6. […] And that old dreamer was right all along: Edmonton really is the place to be. […]

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