In Depth

Zombie walls and candidate vetting: younger voters try to shape new council

On Oct. 21, Edmonton will have a new mayor and at least six new members of city council and younger voters see it as a chance to make their mark on local government.
Yuri Wuensch of Zombie Wall speaks to reporters outside Edmonton city hall on Sept. 23, nomination day for candidates running in the municipal election. (CBC)

On Oct. 21, Edmonton will have a new mayor and at least six new members of city council.

While some people have worried about how council will function with so many rookies, younger Edmontonians see the vacancies as a chance to make their mark on local government.

Zombie Wall, an anti-urban sprawl campaign fronted by Yuri Wuensch, and Local Good, a website that grew out of a networking event for local environmentalists, are covering the election alongside traditional media outlets by circulating and publishing candidate questionnaires online.

ActivatED has gone much further by endorsing candidates that share their views on transit, biking, sprawl, urban agriculture and campaign finance reform.

“This is an incredible opportunity in Edmonton to create a major systemic and ideological shift,” said Aliza Dadani, who formed ActivatED with four others as a way to get her peers involved in the 2013 election.  

“This is the opportunity to build the government we want.”

Only a wall could stop the sprawl

Zombie Wall originated from a running joke Wuensch had with a friend two years ago about how it would be the only way to stop unchecked development on city’s outskirts.

“What would make Edmonton build a wall?” Wuensch asked. “Logically, the answer to that is a looming, undead, apocalypse.”

This is the opportunity to build the government we want.- Aliza Dadani, ActivatED

It may have started as Zombie Wall, the joke. But soon it was Zombie Wall, the anti-urban sprawl website and social media campaign, in the spring of 2013.

Wuensch was inspired to take action after witnessing the city’s struggle to fill more than 600,000 potholes after a long winter that wreaked havoc on arterial and residential roads.

“To me, it was real evidence that perhaps Edmonton is outstripping its capacity to maintain its own infrastructure,” he said.

Wuensch chose zombies as a motif because it appeals to a younger crowd who are the least likely to go the polls on election day.

HIs site features humorous photos of blood-covered, dead-eyed zombies lurching through streets and clutching at buses. On nomination day, “Citizen Zombie” showed up at city hall to file his election papers but Wuensch jokes he was disqualified for not being alive.

Wuensch has also turned his site into a source for election information featuring candidates’ answers to his questionnaires. There’s even one from mayoral candidate Don Iveson.

“I’m very glad of that fact because the response of a single mayoral candidate has really helped legitimize the campaign and the questions,” Wuensch said.

Another group, The Local Good, is also relying on questionnaires to gauge the candidates’ positions on issues like development in mature neighbourhoods, local agriculture and public transit.

Team member Deborah Merriam says about 39 council candidates and half the mayoral candidates have sent back answers which have been posted to the site.

Local Good tries to stay non-partisan by not endorsing candidates and by keeping the questionnaires as neutral as possible.

“So that people from all sides of the political spectrum feel comfortable answering them,” Merriam explained.

“Really what we want is to encourage people to learn about their local candidates and think critically about the answers that they give.”

Cutting through the clutter

The 2010 election was dominated by questions over the closure of the City Centre Airport. This time, the narrative has been shaped by two competing views of city governance: using debt to finance projects for a growing city, or sticking to the basics to avoid debt and keep taxes low.

Dadani from ActivatED says many candidates have platforms that are similar, and a lack of party politics in local government can make it overwhelming for people to figure out who to support.

“One of the reasons we have endorsed individuals in this capacity is because we recognize this as being a barrier to why people may not be voting,” she said.

Instead of relying on questionnaires, the group vetted each of the six mayoral and 73 council candidates by reviewing voting records, campaign contributions and past involvement with community groups.

Once a candidate was selected, they underwent an interview before ActivatED gave them a stamp of approval. In three of the city’s 12 wards, the group couldn’t find a single candidate that met their criteria.

Dadani admits the vetting has been time-consuming. 

“I feel like I have been spending way more time on this than my regular day job,” Dadani said. “We’re exhilarated but we are definitely, definitely looking forward to Oct. 21.”

What influence the groups will have will ultimately be decided on election day. For his part, Wuensch is content that candidates and voters are talking about urban sprawl.

Merriam believes that Local Good’s efforts has been a way to contribute to the election discussion.

As for Dadani, the ActivatED project has made the whole crew feel more connected to Edmonton.

“We have gotten to know this city so much better than we did before.”


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