What we now call Edmonton has been inhabited for thousands of years. There are many bends on many rivers in the western half of North America. Why this bend on this river? Lewis Cardinal writes of Monto, the great mystery, in Cree. People came to this place, in particular, to trade, to prosper, to celebrate, to build.
If this is the beginning of the Edmonton story, how does it connect to the fur trade and the twentieth century? The city we now live in?
This is a civic mystery to solve.
I started with the notes from the City Vision process. We spent time in the library and we interviewed people. When you ask someone, “Why Edmonton?” they nearly always say something about the river valley. We’re proud of the city’s diversity. It’s a sustainable city, and friendly. Did I mention the river valley? We had to be semi-belligerent, to force them to give us deeper answers.
Who did we interview?
There are the usual suspects: the bright young people of Startup Edmonton, the business leaders and artists and philanthropists and super-volunteers. The people Peter Kageyama calls “co-creators.” They’re the ones who come to every public session, every consultation. Then there is everyone else: academics and steel fabricators, plumbers and bureaucrats. Why do they live in Edmonton, when it is easier than ever to move away? What do they love? What do they hate?
My hypothesis is it would be something about the north. Edmonton is the northernmost major city on the continent. It must be a secret source of pride. I was a volunteer on the Winter City Committee, so a part of me wanted it to be true.
When we lived in France, in 2009 and 2010, the most interesting places to Europeans were in the north: Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland. Fascinating businesses, strange art and new ideas were coming out of these places. The north was dark, sexy, moody, modern, efficient: what an opportunity for Edmonton.
I was wrong.
Almost no one brought up northernness, unless we led them in that direction. Maybe in five years, when the winter city strategy has been activated, we’ll tell a story of the north. But it isn’t happening yet.
When people told us what they were most proud of in Edmonton, why they had stayed here, why they wanted to raise their kids here, they were saying something else. A general theme linked the honest and genuine stories people told about Edmonton — an Edmonton master story.