Earlier this year the Oliver Community League voted in a whole slate of new members at its annual general meeting. We met with a few of them to find out what they love most about their community and what they hope for Oliver’s future.
Name: Tim Mallandaine, Director at Large Occupation: Voice coach and owner of Songkraft Studio Years in Oliver: 7 Why did you join the board? I joined to create a role for OCL in the arts. I want to begin a dialogue to discover what the arts mean in Oliver and build on that. What do you love most about Oliver? You can’t go a day without meeting someone new. What would you change overnight if you could? I’d create a greater awareness of and connection between artists and Oliver, with the hopes of greater opportunities and benefits for both.
Name: Majorie Henderson, Director of Communications Occupation: Communications specialist at the University of Alberta Years in Oliver: 4 Why did you join the board? I feel proud to call Oliver my home and I wanted to give back by putting my skills to use and creating a positive change. What do you love most about Oliver? Our community is one of the densest neighbourhoods in Alberta, but I also think we have the most diversity and hidden gems. I love our old trees, the Bubble Houses and the 124 Grand Market. I often use #OliverProud on my Instagram. What would you change overnight if you could? I’d have more affordable family- friendly housing and an updated rec centre with a library.
Name: Anika Gee, Make Something Oliver Director Occupation: Volunteer and program coordinator at Sorrentino’s Compassion House Years in Oliver: 5 Why did you join the board? It’s my way of giving my best effort to make sure our piece of Edmonton is the best it can be. What do you love most about Oliver? The people. They’re friendly, caring and have a pride in Oliver. The sense of community we’ve managed to foster in such a high- density neighbourhood is impressive. What would you change overnight if you could? We’d all wake up to a beautiful new hall with more space for ongoing programs and maybe even a library!
When my husband and I adopted a puppy early this year, I expected housetraining accidents, chewed shoes and muddy paw prints. I was correct in all these predictions. But I wasn’t expecting Winston to change how I interacted with my downtown neighbours.
I had always considered my neighbours to be friendly, but we rarely had reasons to talk. With a puppy by my side, I find myself striking up conversations with many more passersby. “What’s his name?” is just a starting point for conversations that often turn to discussions of local news or a new restaurant recommendation.
Dogs get people talking. And research shows that when people talk, even briefly, it strengthens their interpersonal bond and plants the seeds for a myriad of benefits. They feel safer and more connected to their community. They’re more likely to give time and energy to helping neighbours. In turn, this sense of connection benefits individuals, helping them deal with stress and anxiety, while encouraging their well-being by fostering a sense of belonging. In these ways, dog-friendly spaces can strengthen community and quality of life.
Public spaces have always served as a fulcrum for humans to meet, interact and strengthen their community experiences. People want to form relationships organically, but they often hesitate, either in accordance to some unwritten social rule or because they simply don’t know where to begin. A dog is a catalyst that makes conversations, and relationships, easier to start.
Although the core has no shortage of dog-friendly sidewalks, it is sadly lacking in designated dog parks. Downtown Edmonton and Oliver remain two of the only neighbourhoods in the city without off-leash parks—but not for long. When it’s completed next year, Alex Decoteau Park at 105 St. and 102 Ave. is sure to change the experiences of dog-owners throughout the core. It will fill a void by giving us a safe place to exercise our dogs—without a leash. But it will also become a gathering point for neighbourhood residents, dog-owners and non-dog-owners alike.
We might meet there because of our dogs, but we’ll keep going back because of each other.
I’ll never forget the bitterly cold November night in 2008 when I traipsed off to city hall to a public hearing of an early version of the 30-year municipal development plan, The Way We Grow. Despite a broad grassroots lobby, there was neither mention of a food policy nor a food security agenda for Edmonton. A speaker that night cautioned that it was like a home renovation plan that did away with the kitchen. I was just one of the 550 people who crowded the council chambers and overflow rooms that evening. I was in my late 30s, and this was my first citizen act of activism.
At first, my interest in urban agriculture was focused on how much and what types of food could grow in cities. I soon learned, however, that urban farms, backyard chickens, rooftop beehives and community gardens are about so much more than the food they produce. Streets come back to life. Families emerge from their homes. Strangers become friends while discussing tomatoes and basil. What begins as an impulse to get our hands in the dirt and grow a few strawberries ends up as an accessible and effective tool for citizens to change the look, feel and smell of our neighbourhoods.
When you build a city on rich, deep soil—as we did and are still doing in Edmonton—it’s no surprise that gardens spring up. Urban gardening is just so (pardon the pun) shovel ready that it seems to constantly reinvent itself based on the needs of the community. Early settling Chinese market gardeners grew crops in the rich alluvial soil of the river valley, as did Scottish-born Donald Ross even before Edmonton was a city. Wartime food shortages led to a flourishing of some 4,000 “vacant lot” plots rented out to locals each year—let alone the food gardens being grown in private yards in the city of 100,000 people. Community gardening roared back to existence in the 2000s when our global supply-chain food seemed starved of flavour, freshness and nutrition. There are now some 90 community gardens in the Capital Region, and plots are still in demand.
So what’s the current need in our city that growing green beans and rosemary can help fix?
Right now, I’m particularly interested in how community gardens can help with newcomers.
What if Edmonton also created community gardens that were not just accessible, but had places reserved for our newest citizens—a type of “companion gardening,” if you will?
Existing services outfit them with winter- ready apparel and aide with the transition to a new country, new cultural mix and new careers. Yet studies show it can take up to 10 years before Canadian immigrants feel truly “at home” and able to participate socially and contribute economically. Even then, it is often the Canadian-born generation that has the agency and confidence for the kinds of intercultural exchanges that we pride ourselves on.
This is often true of community gardens. The coveted spots are snapped up by citizens who feel entitled and sure of their place here. Yet, we all know the power of food to help us express our identity, and perhaps soothe the aches of adjustment from missing home to making our way in a new one.
There’s a community garden project in Vancouver’s downtown peninsula called the Downtown Intercultural Gardeners Society, or DIGS. It reserves 40 percent of its plots for gardeners born outside Canada, a statistic that reflects the demographics of the inner city neighbourhoods around it. Sign-up sheets and gardeners guides are printed in Mandarin, Spanish, Russian and Farsi. The garden’s rules also require each gardener to take in sessions on intercultural communications, diversity and antiracism training. Similarly, Toronto has a community food nonprofit called The Stop. One of its gardens has eight plots planted with foods from the city’s eight most populous ethnicities. Elders from these cultural communities do the teaching and directing; youth do the digging, weeding and heavy lifting. These intergenerational teams garden, socialize and cook together.
There’s a gardening technique known as “companion planting.” If you plant thyme near strawberries, they get plumper and grow more quickly. Beans fix nitrogen in dirt, which corn then greedily takes up, making it more robust and productive. It’s a savvy gardener’s way of making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. What if Edmonton also created community gardens that were not just accessible, but had places reserved for our newest citizens—a type of companion gardening, if you will? Not only might it help them feel at home sooner, but we’d get to know one another over conversations around the global unifier that is food. I for one am looking forward to a few more flavours added to our city’s culinary smorgasbord.
Where’s my nearest community garden?
Peace Garden Park (10259 120 St.)
Our Urban Eden Garden (9910 Bellamy Hill Rd.)
COMING SOON: Alex Decoteau Park (105 St. & 102 Ave.; if you’re interested in joining the garden committee email firstname.lastname@example.org)
“I want the city to encourage development that makes streets more walkable and pedestrian-friendly. Tokyo, where I’m from, is very walkable. I’d love to see more pedestrian-only spaces, like what they are doing in the summer for the 104 St. market. But I’d like to see more downtown streets closed to traffic, maybe once a week in the evening, or Sunday mornings. It encourages people to walk out and discover their community.”
Carmen Chalut 13-Year-Old Born and Raised in Oliver
“It’s pretty cool living downtown but there aren’t a lot of other teenagers around, so it’s tough to meet people my age. I usually have to leave downtown. I’d like to see more places where teenagers can hang out and meet one another. More recreational or organized programs for teens at the library or even at a cafe—teen nights, every Friday.”
Darryl Mork Dog Owner and Oliver Resident
“I’d like one or two dog parks that are fenced off. They are everywhere in Los Angeles. There, dog-owners sit on benches and chat with one another while their dogs play. We know that owning a pet can improve a person’s health, but I’m certain that there are other benefits of meeting dog-owners in your neighbourhood. If you know your neighbours, then you’re more likely to look out for each other, look out for each other’s safety. Plus, it feels good knowing the people who live around you.”
Kelly Dyers Manager of Audrey’s Books
“We’re seeing more people downtown and that’s something we’re very excited about as we move into the new year. It used to be unheard of to see so many people walking downtown after 6pm and on weekends. We hope that the ‘shop local’ philosophy that’s been growing is not just a passing trend, and that people see the importance and value in building and supporting their community.”
I want to believe Mayor Don Iveson’s commitment to Truth and Reconciliation. I want to believe that, as an “Honorary Witness,” he will be responsible “along with [his] fellow leaders to be the keepers of history.”
I want to believe his words. But more than believing, I want to see this commitment in the redevelopment of an area with vital links to Edmonton’s Indigenous history.
Since as far back as 8,000 C.E., Rossdale Flats has been a gathering site for the Blackfoot, Assiniboine, Cree and Metis. Here, they traded, practised rituals, performed the Goose Dance and the Sun Dance. Here, they assembled themselves for easy access to the North Saskatchewan River.
Rossdale has a rich history as evidenced by the Rossdale Flats Aboriginal Oral Histories Project, a study, completed in 2004, that revealed a living memory of Edmonton’s lesser-known and lesser-celebrated Indigenous history.
Indigenous Peoples, vital to the fur trade, frequently camped just outside the walls of Fort Edmonton. The Metis called it Fort-des-Prairies; the Cree, Amiskwaskahegan (Beaver Hills House). Fort Augustus II and Edmonton House II, both critical fur trading posts, were part of Rossdale at one time. After the floods of 1830, the fort was relocated to higher ground near the site of the present day Alberta Legislature. However, Indigenous Peoples continued to live in Rossdale trading furs, building York boats and transporting whitefish to the fort. Remnants of Red River cart trails are present today, in the tangle of streets through the river valley.
Some of those early inhabitants of the Flats are buried in the Rossdale Cemetery (also known as Old Fort Edmonton Cemetery), and some of their descendants still reside in Edmonton. I am one. Senior Gabriel Dumont, my Metis ancestor, who worked as a free trader and guide with the Hudson’s Bay Co. and North West Company, camped on the flats before guiding missionary M. L’abbé Jean-Baptiste Thibault to the first Catholic mission in Western Canada (Lac. Ste. Anne).
Many descendants of the Papaschase Band, who illegally surrendered their reserve and were forcefully transferred to other bands such as Enoch and Saddle Lake, are also keenly aware of their ancestors buried there. Joy Sinclair, founder of the Sun and Moon Visionaries Gallery in the old Donald Ross School in Rossdale, has several generations of family who were instrumental in establishing the fort buried here too.
Until last May, when Sun and Moon Visionaries was effectively defunded and closed, I gathered with world-class ceramic artists, crafters, painters, dancers, musicians and writers there, offering art workshops to Indigenous Peoples. We lamented having to leave Rossdale and our ancestors behind. Now I wonder what the future holds without the presence of another aboriginal community hub.
Indigenous history is dependent on the awareness and goodwill of an industry that has the power to further wipe it out with the very instruments that colonized Edmonton.
Through its Aboriginal Relations office, the City cites “ongoing consultation and engagement with First Nations and Metis communities.” But who can claim representation of these communities when few Indigenous Peoples and no organizations actually reside in these gentrified areas, and when they don’t have a stake in the shape, design and vision of Rossdale?
Back in 2011, Calder Bateman, on behalf of the City, made a laudable effort to engage 100 invited Aboriginal participants for feedback on the Epcor site’s future. It’s also commendable of the West Rossdale Urban Design Plan to cite as one of its strategic priorities “[to] commemorate and respect thousands of years of history, with the designation of historical places and structures.”
But how influential can Indigenous Peoples be without economic claim and land ownership in the neighbourhood? Without economic leverage, Indigenous history is dependent on the awareness and goodwill of an industry that has the power to further wipe it out with the very instruments that colonized Edmonton.
Instead of a tourist-seeking canal that’s been proposed by some in the private sector and celebrated by high-profile boosters, I want a culturally appropriate facility for local Indigenous Peoples to gather here and continue the tradition of sharing knowledge, language and arts. A place on land significant to not only Indigenous history, but to the very origins of this city.
I hope in their wisdom, the community advisory committee and design planners take a wider view of history than the pervasive Canadian narrative that forgets Indigenous use and occupation.
Marilyn Dumont authored The Pemmican Eaters. A nationally acclaimed poet, she’s served as a writer- in-residence at numerous institutions, including the Edmonton Public Library. She lives in McCauley.
Oliver hasn’t always been LGBTQ’s chosen part of town. It owes its place as Edmonton’s “gaybourhood” to the 1970s and ’80s, when the gay-owned Flashback Nite Club on 104 St. and 104 Ave. was the city’s “in place.” In fact, Billboard once named it one of the 10 Best Clubs in North America. Paired with the Roost, another gay bar across the street, the roots of our community were forming in nearby Oliver as more LGBTQ started moving into its many walkup apartments. The only question about where to live was, “So J” (South of Jasper) or “No J” (North of Jasper)?
Today, Oliver is home to the majority of Edmonton’s gay establishments, but they are few compared to those transformative years, as social networking, acceptance and tolerance has diminished their need. But in the ’90s, we needed them as politicians both provincial and municipal stoked homophobic flames and dismissed us as lesser-thans. That only helped our community organize and thrive.
We often mobilized in a little coffeeshop called Boystown, located in a building on 124 St. and Jasper, with Woody’s night club upstairs and Edmonton Pride Centre in the basement. We had our successes, like in 1998, when we convinced the city to hold Pride Parade on Jasper, letting it roll down the high street before ending in Oliver Park, not far from the afterparty. Despite this significant milestone, we had a ways to go: Gay people could legally be denied housing; employers could legally fire them; and the then-named Alberta Individual Rights Protection Act still didn’t include sexual orientation in legislation. So we faxed, we postered, we petitioned, we protested. Being such a short stroll from the legislative grounds was handy.
One of our first protests on the legislature’s steps, in 1991, was after my friend Delwin Vriend was fired from King’s University College after telling his family and church he had a boyfriend. Allies raised money and awareness, and, sadly, had to force our own province to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1998—and we won! Alberta was ordered to include sexual orientation in its human rights protection laws. Little did we know the profound impact it would have, not just in our city but across Canada and beyond; it’s since become a studied human rights case in law schools worldwide.
The momentum continued when, four years later, former mayor Bill Smith refused to proclaim Edmonton Pride celebrations. Boystown cleverly confronted the mayor, adorning its front windows with a huge protest sign right on Jasper. Once newspapers took notice, the mayor had found himself on the wrong side of the fight. City lawyers advised him to sign the proclamation and not a year has since passed without this simple but important mayoral gesture— avalidation of diversity.
Our fabulous LGBTQ community and allies have come a long way from when we were reputed to be the Redneck Centre of Canada. Just as last spring we successfully fought against an egregious version of Bill 10, in order to protect our youngest with Gay-Straight Alliances in their schools, we continue to stand up for equality. It’s made us feel a bit safer in our awesome little gaybourhood, but it’s also solidified beautiful Oliver as the place to build and grow a vibrant community like ours.
So, won’t you be my neighbour?
INNER VOICES FEATURES THE OPINION OF A CENTRAL EDMONTON RESIDENT. EMAIL QUERIES TO EDITOR@THEYARDSYEG.CA.
Mental illness is not a crime. Not a moral failing. Not the result of weak character, cowardice or lazy streak. Not a teary fiction foisted upon society by sissy liberals.
That’s why I’ve made mental illness my city councillor initiative, and its first proposal is a managed alcohol facility for chronic street alcoholics. The idea is harm reduction. So you provide a home for these people, with all the professional supports you’d find in other facilities, and a drink every hour or so.
What does alcohol have to do with mental illness? Clinical research reveals an alcoholic brain is wired differently. Sober, it does not provide enough of the happy or calming chemicals that the “normal” brain gives to protect and uplift people from a challenging life. Thus, the alcoholic drinks to feel better. Unfortunately, the use of alcohol, a depressant, unleashes a downward spiral of lonely, obsessive self-medicating. There might be a genetic component, but research now points to trauma or neglect in childhood as a cause of skewed brain development.
I grew up in an alcoholic’s home. My dad was the sweetest man, with underlying depression and anxiety issues he “treated” with alcohol. His descent and then resurrection through Alcoholics Anonymous is the greatest story I know, but it doesn’t work for everyone. There’s a need for something different.
Alcoholics come from all over the spectrum. But alcoholism’s precursor—a traumatic, abusive or neglectful childhood—is more common with generational poverty. Canada’s residential school system introduced neglect, trauma and abuse into aboriginal communities, whose descendants remain infected with these shameful, trickle-down effects.
Imagine a child living in squalor, whose parents are neglectful and abusive. Imagine that child crying on his walk to school, hungry and unwashed.
Now imagine that child 20 or 30 years later, staggering drunk and dirty, in front of the Stanley Milner Library. What is our reaction?
Sadness and empathy? Or sanctimony, and disgust?
We can do better by these damaged, vulnerable street alcoholics, whose lives are third world at best. Our fellow citizens need our help.
I’m not a bleeding heart. I believe in personal responsibility and citizenship. So in my vision of an Edmonton facility, residents will not be able to drink outside of it, or cause any sort of crime or disorder.
Managed alcohol facilities exist in other cities across Canada. The best of them make significant and positive impacts on the lives of their residents, as well as the downtown community.
Make no mistake—street alcoholics live horrific lives. They are often desperate enough to drink hand sanitizer or alcohol-laced cleaning products. If they can get a bottle of booze, they might drink it as fast as possible, so as to not have it stolen or seized by police. So they pass out on public streets. Paramedics are called.
Often, they’re taken to an emergency room and may stay in the hospital for a few days. According to the Edmonton Homeless Commission, one chronic street alcoholic can cost the system $100,000 a year. We can do better. We can save money, free up police and paramedics for other priorities. We can remove much of the social disorder from our streets. We can protect vulnerable men and women, who were once sad little boys and girls, from pathetic lives of misery.