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OPINION: The true test of Saskatchewan's democratic spirit awaits in 2024

Saskatchewan is on the brink of a significant juncture, poised to embark on the challenging journey of municipal elections in the coming year.

With 774 municipalities - Yes, you read that right. A province of 1.1 million people has 774 municipalities (and here is a more staggering number the province of Saskatchewan has 4,284 politicians just at the local level) - gearing up for this consequential event, the very fabric of local governance is up for potential transformation. However, lurking behind the excitement and anticipation is a disconcerting reality that demands our attention and introspection. As the unofficial start of the next municipal elections for cities, towns, villages, and the election of reeves and councillors representing odd-numbered divisions in rural municipalities looms closer, it is imperative to acknowledge the critical issues at hand.

Saskatchewan, renowned for its diverse and sprawling municipal network, is bracing for an electoral spectacle that may witness an influx of candidates who lack a fundamental understanding of the intricate municipal structures and the multifaceted challenges faced by these local administrative bodies.

While I refrain from claiming absolute knowledge of the province's municipal intricacies, my interactions with various municipal leaders over the past ten months have shed light on the critical predicaments these municipalities confront.

At the crossroads of their trajectories, Saskatchewan municipalities find themselves grappling with a range of challenges, including the burden of aging infrastructure, escalating service demands, and the shifting dynamics of responsibilities stemming from provincial and federal mandates. The future appears obscured by a haze that muddles the balancing act between the aspirations of the residents and the pragmatic constraints that the communities confront. How can these municipalities forge a path forward that navigates this intricate labyrinth of demands and limitations?

As we delve deeper into the broader context of municipal governance in Canada, a concerning trend emerges. The prevalence of acclaimed positions in various municipal elections across the nation raises questions about the vitality of local democracy. Last year, the Association of Municipalities of Ontario reported an alarming statistic, revealing that 2,860 elected offices in the 2022 Ontario municipal elections were uncontested, which translates to approximately 19% of the total elected positions in the province. Delving further, the fact that 32 municipalities in Ontario did not even witness a competitive election process underscores a worrying trend that potentially undermines the democratic essence of local governance.

Let us ponder the implications of a similar scenario unfolding in Saskatchewan next year. If 8% of the municipalities were to witness uncontested elections, it would translate into a staggering 62 municipalities continuing to operate without experiencing the invigorating spirit of democratic competition. This prospect is not just disheartening; it is an outright threat to the essence of participatory democracy that should underpin the very fabric of our local governance systems.

I published the original opinion post on Thursday night since then a friendly voice from Saskatchewan sent me the "General Municipal Elections Report Election Cycle 2018-2020" put together by the Province of Saskatchewan. In the report, it outlines that 57 percent of councillors in 2020 were acclaimed to their positions. That means 2,001 of the current 3,527 councillors just needed a stroke of a pen to keep their job. Hold your hats for a second, 62 percent of the current crop of Mayors didn't need to potentially knock on one door to continue in their role as Mayor. As for Reeve, that number jumps to 74 percent or 215 of the current 290 Reeves who were acclaimed.

In the midst of these contemplations lies a crucial query: are the citizens of Saskatchewan truly invested in the vitality of municipal politics, or has apathy seeped into the core of our collective consciousness? Conversations with a former councillor in Saskatoon earlier this year shed light on the prevailing sentiment that municipal affairs often fail to captivate the attention of the masses. The mundane nature of discussions around municipal policies, be it about the Municipal Planning Strategy or a seemingly inconspicuous zoning bylaw alteration, often fails to strike a chord with the public.

Yet, the vitality of these seemingly mundane matters is the cornerstone of a well-functioning and progressive municipality. However, the reality remains that municipal council meetings, once considered the pulse of local decision-making, struggle to garner substantial public engagement, as indicated by the modest viewership numbers even when these meetings are accessible via online streaming platforms. Unless an issue of monumental significance captures the public eye, municipal affairs often remain relegated to the sidelines of public discourse, fostering an environment where the nuances of local governance become lost in the shuffle of broader political debates.

The future demands a different approach. If Saskatchewan aspires to foster a truly robust and participatory democratic process in 2024, a proactive shift is imperative. Municipalities cannot serve as mere training grounds for novices; the challenges confronting them over the next four years are of a magnitude that necessitates astute leadership. The decisions made in the upcoming elections will be pivotal, shaping the trajectory of Saskatchewan's municipalities, and failure to elect councils that are equipped to navigate the tough choices ahead can potentially lead to an irreversible downward spiral, catapulting the province towards an abyss of municipal calamity.

The challenges ahead are undeniable, but the solutions lie within our grasp. A concerted effort to engage the public, to communicate the gravity of municipal issues, and to foster a spirit of active participation is the need of the hour. Municipalities need leaders who possess a comprehensive understanding of the intricate municipal landscape, and who are committed to steering communities through the murky waters of infrastructure development, service provisioning, and effective governance.

Only through collective vigilance and engagement can Saskatchewan's municipalities safeguard their future and thrive amidst the evolving dynamics of the 21st century. As the countdown to the upcoming municipal elections begins, the true test of Saskatchewan's democratic spirit awaits, beckoning an active and informed community ready to embrace the challenges and opportunities of the future.


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