Winnipeg's mayor sees no harm in Portage and Main referendum question

While Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman says opening Portage and Main to pedestrians is in the public interest, he said Wednesday he will support adding a question to the next municipal election ballot on the issue.

Plebiscite was first floated by councillors Browaty and Lukes in June

Pedestrian barriers at Portage and Main at twilight. Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman supports the call to have a referendum question on the issue. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman wants the people to decide whether Portage and Main should be opened to pedestrians.

At a land blessing ceremony for Red River College's new Innovation Centre downtown, Bowman told reporters Wednesday he continues to support the idea of reopening Portage and Main to foot traffic but believes voters should have a say first whether the barricades come down.

"What I've heard from Winnipeggers, especially those that oppose [opening the intersection] is they don't want it imposed upon them," said Bowman.

"I don't see the harm in allowing Winnipeggers and allowing their voices to be heard on an issue that, without question, is galvanizing the discussions around kitchen tables and coffee shops."

A motion to add a yes or no question on reopening Portage and Main was put forward by North Kildonan Coun. Jeff Browaty in June. It was seconded by South Winnipeg-St. Norbert Coun. Janice Lukes.

Council will vote on the motion during Thursday's council meeting.

There is no cost associated with adding a question to the municipal election ballot Oct. 24 because ballots have not been printed yet.

While results would be non-binding, Bowman said he would respect the people's wishes regardless of the outcome. 

Rival against plebiscite, opening intersection

Opening the intersection has already been an election issue in the early days of the campaign.

On Tuesday, Jenny Motkaluk, who is running for mayor and wants to keep the intersection off-limits to pedestrians, accused Bowman of being "sneaky" by using a portion of the city's road renewal budget to pay consultants to redesign the intersection. 

Motkaluk is against holding a plebiscite on opening the intersection, saying it's a distraction away from pressing issues like public safety and repairing roads. 

After the mayor came out in support of the referendum, Motkaluk raised additional concerns about whether the plebiscite will allow candidates to flout election spending limits. Third-party organizations could conceivably raise money to promote a yes or no response on the ballot and benefit whichever candidate aligns with their cause, she said.

"If council does decide to move forward with the plebiscite I strongly encourage them to provide very clear direction to the clerk's office about regulating that spending," she said Wednesday. 

Opening the intersection has already been an election issue in the early days of the campaign. 1:42

"When we have no rules on what kind of spending can take place there could be groups on both sides of the issue that come from all over the place, not just Winnipeg. We could see spending going on by all kinds of American-style super PACs [political action committees]."

Bowman said he hopes all candidates respect election financing rules and said it's up to the clerk's office to set limits on third-party spending.

"I'm going to be following the rules and right now mayoral candidates and councillor candidates need to ensure that all their expenses and all the benefits from third party expenditures are appropriately … captured in their expense limits."

Some concerns are valid, says prof

Aaron Moore, an associate professor of political science at the University of Winnipeg, said there is some justification to concerns around third-party spending around an ballot question — in part, because ballot questions are so rare in Canada and there is a lack of regulation around the issue.

The last time Winnipeg voters decided on a ballot question was in 1983 when two questions were included on the municipal ballot.

The first asked Winnipeggers whether they support the idea of allowing a case to proceed to the Supreme Court with regards to Manitoba's English-only language laws and the second asked voters if they support global nuclear disarmament. Both questions were supported with resounding majorities. 

"For a specific issue like this, there is I think a very real possibility that particularly the proponents, the downtown businesses, will be spending money to support the opening of Portage and Main," said Moore.

"I would definitely think that it would be worthwhile for the people who oversee elections to consider what would be appropriate spending rules."

City spokesperson David Driedger said while third-parties are not allowed to directly promote a candidate by name they do not have to adhere to any spending limits.

A promise to reopen the intersection to pedestrians was part of Bowman's first mayoral campaign in 2014. The intersection has been closed to foot traffic since 1979.

The city plans to open the first of four pedestrian crossings at Portage and Main within 18 months.

About the Author

Laura Glowacki

Reporter

Laura Glowacki is based in Winnipeg. Reach her at laura.glowacki@cbc.ca and find her on Twitter @glowackiCBC.

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