A Culture of Collaboration: Mayor Don Iveson on the Edmonton Spirit | By Antony Ta

What goes into the experience of city-building? Of building communities? What does it mean to be an Edmontonian living in Edmonton? Like any other city, it clearly comes with its pros and cons, some of which are unique to our corner of Northern Alberta. Who are the ones trying to make Edmonton a better place? Are you amongst them?

When his Honourable Don Iveson, the Mayor of Edmonton, is not busy finding answers and new ways to move people in the city, or fighting poverty and social disorder in his town, he is also finding time to represent the city at national forums. For instance, recently he has lectured some of Ottawa’s finest citizens on the importance of building basic infrastructure by making reference to the cult classic video game Civilization. In between these important tasks he finds time to speak with major national publications such as MacLean’s and he has recently even found the time to speak with our very own Wand team (more below).

But before we get to that – did you have a chance to see the Mayor dressed in his Trekkie gear at the 2014 Edmonton Expo – where he gave a talk about how he envisions the future of Edmonton?


Since his election win on October 21, 2013, he has been a very vocal mayor, never shying away from the media or taking a day off from the publicity which comes with his unique and modern style of leadership. No one in the public eye can go long without having to face their own share of criticism, and Iveson, despite being a popular mayor, has also faced criticism on some popular issues – such as photo radar -as well. Regardless of day-to-day challenges, Iveson has not allowed himself to be distracted from the importance he holds for city-building, for which he feels strongly.  Well, okay, maybe once in a while even the Mayor has to take some time off. This October, Iveson entered into his second year as Edmonton’s mayor. I spoke to Iveson about a range of topics from his early life here, to what makes our city “tick,” as well as what makes the Edmonton experience unique. Among his answers are his thoughts on how collaborating to build better communities can help build a better Edmonton.    

Q: How did your life in Edmonton, or your experience here, motivate you to run for and become Mayor of the city?
A: Well I was more or less born and raised here. I was born in St. Albert but raised most of my life in Edmonton. I lived two years in Toronto and then came back when I was in my early twenties. Most of my friends didn’t see opportunity or potential in Edmonton. They are still – many of them – in Toronto, Vancouver, New York, London – and these are great people doing exceptional things. I very nearly went back to Toronto because that was the obvious thing to do. Particularly for me because I was in media and communications and publishing kind of work. Toronto is the place to be in Canada for that sort of thing.  Just about the time my girlfriend and I (who became my wife) decided to maybe get married, we were thinking about moving to Toronto. We did this big cost/benefit, pro/con analysis and really looked at Edmonton in a different light. […] Even though I figured out I’d probably have to change careers, when we decided to stay here I didn’t feel a lot of fear about that. I saw a great opportunity. I am thrilled that we stayed and I think we made the right choice. Friends of ours who are in other parts of the world – now that they’re getting to the point where they’re having families and making different decisions – they’re starting to see Edmonton in a new light as well. I think the city’s just bustling these days. So people are giving it a second look. Some of those friends of mine are moving back now. I saved myself a whole lot of time and trouble by just staying here and getting established. “Getting established” meant winding up becoming the mayor… [laughter]

Q: Edmontonians value the importance of education, whether through the University of Alberta or NAIT. How would you describe the role of teachers and education in your life? 
Well teachers and education have always been central in my life. My mom used to be a high school English teacher. She’s taught at the University of Alberta for almost three decades, actually. She got her PhD when I was just a little boy. That was dinner table conversation. As I mentioned before, one of Edmonton’s key competitive advantages is the quality of education here. From kindergarten to the PhD in Nanotechnology – and everything in between in almost discipline. The only things we’re missing at this point, I think, are a veterinary school and an architecture school – and I’m working on the architecture school. This is a great place to learn – as a destination for learning – particularly at the post-secondary level. With over 100,000 people enrolled from Kings, Concordia, Norquest, MacEwan, U of A and NAIT – that is one of our signature advantages.  

Q: Is there an “Edmonton Way” of doing things?
Yes and no. I think the “Edmonton Way” of doing things is more like a couple of principles attached to it than it being a specific way of doing things. We collaborate very effectively across sectors. That’s made possible because people are open to different ideas. You can phone up the President of ATB or the President of Stantec and say, “I have this idea that might be relevant to your company.” Even just to attracting and retaining employees – which all the big employers especially in this labour market that are thinking about that sort of thing. You can pitch an idea, find allies and make something happen very quickly here. We’re open for business in a culturally, artistically, economically, and entrepreneurial way. People are willing to partner and see others succeed. There is that great sense of community here too. If you’re prospering and you’re doing well in your enterprise and that’s relevant and exciting for people and that’s going to improve conditions for all of us. You can pitch an idea, find allies and make something happen very quickly here.

Q: How important is it for Edmonton to develop grassroots initiatives alongside bigger infrastructure projects?
A: I think the strength of many of the things that we do here is that they are not top-down initiatives. Or if they are, the ones that work the best are the ones that also have buy-in at the grassroots. If we’re hosting a major international athletic event, then [we must be] able to turn out thousands and thousands of enthusiastic, helpful, capable, trustworthy volunteers to help execute that event – we’re known internationally for that. We really invented that in the Commonwealth Games in 1978. That was a huge event for a city of that size almost 40 years ago. We pulled it off because we were able to mobilize people. Ever since then the festivals that we’ve run and the events that we’ve run and all the events we’ll host in the future – including hopefully Commonwealth Games 2022 – has been built on that model of mobilizing people to support it. I think that culture of volunteerism is strong for a variety of reasons. Something about the prairies… many Edmontonians are only one or two generations off the farm. In that rural context, on the one hand every family was an island doing its own farming, but not without the farming community to support each other to fix equipment or get through famine and illness and other things like that. I think there’s something about the frontier that’s this interesting tension between rugged individualism and supporting others – because you can’t survive without community. I think that tension is still alive and well in Edmonton. People do give back and they do want to contribute. That’s the culture of the place. You see that manifested not only in festivals and athletic events but also in things like the community or the volunteerism that you see supporting social agencies doing their work in the community. We just have a very strong sense of community. Every city says they have that, but I’m quite convinced we actually have that.
Q: Do you believe there is a requirement for diversification of Edmonton’s local businesses and industries?
A: I think if your culture is one of collaboration and one of taking initiative, then absolutely then that’s the right condition for business as well. Particularly for small business and for startup business. If you think about Edmonton, we don’t have as many large, publically-traded head offices – but we’re still a city of head offices. There are close to 40,000 businesses in Edmonton – the majority of whom are small and medium-sized businesses – mom and pop shops. Each of those was founded by a small group of people or an individual who was taking initiative to do something. That is our business DNA. We’ve also seen some of those companies grow into global giants as well, from Stantec to PCL, and others. This is a place where you can start something and find the allies to make it grow. That sense of collaboration and initiative is absolutely compatible and is part of the reason why our economy is very strong. 

Q: What role do start-ups play in Edmonton’s rapid downtown expansion? 
A: Edmonton has a long tradition of startups. A lot of those are manufacturing and service businesses with local and specialized markets which is good and you want that in your economy. You want knowledge economy and you want technology innovation. Hopefully some of that applies to today’s economy as well where it is spurred on by needs in today’s resource economy. The world is so small now that people can innovate anywhere as long as they can access talent and capital. We’re trying to enhance the conditions for entrepreneurship and the knowledge economy to thrive here in Edmonton. We’ve got a strengthening ecosystem. Startup Edmonton is getting noticed all around the country. At the last Startup Canada Awards 7 out of 20 awards went to Edmonton. We might have celebrated that except right away we said “Which are the thirteen we didn’t win and what can we do?” TEC Edmonton which is the City and University of Alberta’s commercialization wing has been highly ranked internationally for the last two years. I was top incubator in Canada last year. We have a lot of the ingredients here. There’s always the opportunity to do more and as this grows as we hope it will happen – we will see more companies doing business here and locating downtown. A critical mass of support services for those companies and eventually it’d be great to fill a new office tower with these kinds of businesses – and to see one of those businesses – and it’s a bit of a Hail Mary – but you always hope that one of those companies turns into a big technology company headquartered in Edmonton. But if you don’t nurture the startup from the beginning, and put all the ecosystem in place that’s going to happen somewhere else – that idea’s going to go somewhere else. Edmontonians are here and they have the skills from our great institutes of learning and they’ve got the ideas because they’re well-travelled and they know what the world needs. We want to make sure they have the opportunity to deliver their solutions and build their companies here.

Q: When I was in New York I came upon this T-shirt. It wasn’t like any of the other “I ♥ NY” or “I ♥ LA” T-shirts that you often see. It said “GO ♥ YOUR OWN CITY?” How do you suggest to Edmontonians to love their own city?
I don’t know if you’ve come across Peter Kageyama book “For the Love of Cities.” You should take a look at it because it’s apropos of what you’re talking about. He talks about two things that really stuck with me from the book (so this isn’t in my own words, but I’ll give you more in a minute). He talks about mid-sized cities being where the action is. It’s really easy to move to New York. New York’s almost finished. But it’s almost kind of impenetrable. There’s an established aristocracy there. So many of decisions that shape the destiny of that city have already been made. And they made them well and it’s a great city… but any one person’s ability to go and actually be a part of the city building is very limited in big established cities like that. So if you’re content to go and pick something up that is well along the way, those are the cities for you. But if you want to be a part of shaping the destiny of a place – if you want to be a part of something a little more challenging – then mid-sized cities which are part way through their journey, especially those that are kind of more open for new ideas and open to new voices and growing rapidly and rely on that injection of new thinking and new people, those are the cities that are still in progress. Mid-sized cities like Edmonton are very much in that space. Everybody has the opportunity to do that second thing which he talks about: which are love notes to your city! They’re not literal love notes, like putting a yellow sticky on a telephone pole. It’s starting a festival, or starting a different kind of business that livens the city. It’s running for office. It’s volunteering for one of those festivals and meeting new people. Eventually, you know, the way the Folk Fest has devising something like the plate sharing scheme for example. That’s something that somebody innovated along with dozens of other things that have made the Folk Fest one of the lightest footprint festivals. In addition to being a great music festival it’s the leading edge festival in Edmonton for sustainable practices. The love note to your city could be starting the festival or improving it or simply volunteering for it and sustaining this great cultural asset that we have here. I think in [Kageyama’s] words, “What’s your love note to your city?” But because this city still has so many opportunities to be shaped and so many opportunities to grow and show the way to others. We all have the opportunity in Edmonton and people are encouraged to do that. It’s one of the reasons I love living here: we’re open for business in that very broad sense. I think anybody’s got that opportunity here if they want to put themselves out there and provide leadership in whatever little pocket appeals to them.  

Q: So there’s a niche for everybody?
I think so. For lots and lots of people definitely. We’ve got to a certain size and if it’s not folk music there’s Interstellar Rodeo. If it’s not that, there’s the Symphony Under the Sky. You can get just about every genre of the things that are exciting for people. You can find it here. We’re big enough for that. But we’re small enough that the city’s still only half built and you can inject yourself into the city-building process and help shape the future in a much more significant way than they could in a city that is nine tenths of the way to its final resolution.

Q: There are a lot of local movements, such as @iheartyeg on social media, which attempt to promote positive urbanism among citizens. Do you have any messages you would like to relay to these local groups?
A: Keep it up! On the one hand you would want to bring them all under one umbrella and let’s all pull together! That’s desirable where it makes sense. But it’s a very Edmonton model to be kind of distributed right? To have many different networks working together in their different niches. If the City can provide a hub function there, whether through Make Something Edmonton, or through NextGEN, to help enable these other organizations to promote vibrancy and to support things that connect people with community better or enhance their ability to innovate or start something. So whether it’s NextGEN’s meet events that microfinance things for social enterprise projects. Whether it’s interVivos’ work with mentorship and public policy and getting people interested in civic issues from all orders of government. Each group is in its niche and needs to be supported so that they can continue to create community. You can’t create one sense of community for 900,000 people. You can do it in pockets that add up to something greater than the sum of its parts. That’s what this ecosystem here does very well. Keep writing love notes to the city and keep giving other people the tools and the drive to know that we are creating something much bigger than ourselves: we’re making this city’s future right now. It’s a very, very dynamic time. It’s a pivotal time. People will look back on and say this is one of the moments where our own imagination of what Edmonton could be evolved within the national consciousness. People’s perception of Edmonton tips from this forgotten Industrial place to one of the hippest spots in Canada.

Q: What kind of “spaces” define Edmonton as a city? 
A: I think it’s a combination. This is a four season city – there’s points in time when you really need to be inside and points in time when you really need to be outside – in each of the four seasons. Some of our cultural venues define the city. Whether it’s the Citadel or the Winspear – places where we congregate to be enlightened. Whether it’s the Art Gallery of Alberta or Latitude 53. Those cultural venues are part of the heart and soul of the city. This is a very, very cultural and artistic city. I think some of the outdoor spaces that really define us are Churchill Square, which has really started to come alive in the last few years. We’ve figured out how to program it more effectively. People are more drawn to it. There’s more activity year-round. Whether it’s skating on the pond in front of City Hall or the festivals in the summer time. In the shoulder seasons we’re still working to make sure it’s attractive to people. I can look right out my window and see if it’s working – and its working better and better all the time. I think the river valley obviously is a one giant continuous space that we talk about. Each one of us will have those special little bends in the river where one of the creeks joins the river or a bridge or something that is their place in the river valley. The fact that it is vast enough and we can each have those areas that we identify with.    

Q: If there is a place which comes to mind that is intrinsically and uniquely “Edmonton,” where would that place be? 
A: The Rossdale Flats area has such a neat story behind it. It’s where the first couple iterations of Fort Edmonton was. It’s where Treaty 6 was signed with the First Nations people. It’s where First Nations people have been gathering for thousands and thousands of years to trade medicine, to trade culture, to trade language. It’s at the hub of a number of traditional trails that pre-date colonialism. It’s been a gathering place in our city for thousands and thousands of years since before it was called Edmonton. The Amiskwaciy name for Edmonton [means] Beaver Hills which is this whole area. It’s a very special place in the city and it has deep colonial history as well. It’s where the Legislature is now and it’s got this industrial heritage with the Rossdale generating plant. It’s this intersection of all these threads in our history right at the heart of our city, right in the middle of the river valley. We’re just getting started on figuring out on how to acknowledge meaningfully all of that history and re-enliven it as a gathering point between and among all the cultures that have worked together to build this city. 

Cover photo by Wanderer Online Photographer Muntaka Shah. Gallery photographs by Wanderer Online Photogaphers Wayne Gong, and Muntaka Shah.  


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