Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Municipalities face new challenges

Shifts in technology enable citizen activism

  • Print

The City of Winnipeg likely wasn't surprised when reporters and citizens wanted to know why their fire and paramedic chief disappeared off the civic payroll recently. After all, Reid Douglas was a veteran employee and tied up in an audit of fire-hall construction and land deals that link higher up the civic ladder.

Those are the makings of a controversy likely to bring even sane people to the keyboard to add their opinions to the online comments section of media outlets.

But what was far more interesting -- and part of a growing trend -- is what happened a couple of weeks earlier and an hour north in the tiny Village of Dunnottar near Winnipeg Beach.

The beach community (population 700 in the winter) pulled out 200 people to protest the province's plan to amalgamate municipalities with populations under 1,000. And the community won -- the province backed down.

The planned legislation would have forced Dunnottar to merge with the rural municipality of St. Andrews. Residents -- not local politicians -- led the charge and argued the forced merger didn't take into account that in the summer their community swells to between 2,000 and 4,000 cottagers.

But what the legislators really didn't take into account is a growing trend of community activism in rural and small municipalities unlike anything the local village reeves and town councillors have seen before.

In the past, a municipal politician in a small community knew he was in trouble if his house phone rang five time on the same issue with calls from the local butcher, baker, neighbour and volunteer fire chief. Now, he and his fellow councillors may not even know opposition is serious until a website pops up opposed to their latest initiative or they are flooded with angry emails from people they've never heard of before.

This new experience is a clue to what the future will look like for any entrepreneurs wanting to do business in small communities. If you're thinking of building or expanding in rural areas, where in the past you found getting a zoning variance was smooth sailing, then read on. Times are a-changing.

Four things are making the scrutiny seem more heightened than what elected officials or developers in smaller communities may be used to:

1. The most obvious change is the availability and convenience of electronic communication tools that move information further and faster then ever before -- with no guarantee of its accuracy.

When anyone can create a website, Facebook and Twitter account quickly and when everyone has hundreds of email addresses at their fingertips, it doesn't take long for a member of the public to create an opposition campaign overnight.

2. The second factor is a shift in demographics that sees more and more baby boomers retiring. They're educated and spent most of their careers working with technology. They are retired CEOs, accountants, lawyers and journalists, with a lot of time on their hands.

It's probably most surprising for reeves in cottage country -- such as Dunnottar. The city folks that came out for a few weeks every year are now making their cottages their home and making council motions their business.

3. The third challenge is most municipal governments are woefully behind the times when it comes to using communication tools. They often fail to see the connection between getting citizen support for a major initiative and having informed the community of that initiative well in advance. Nowadays, if there is a vacuum in information, it gets filled faster than a rumour circulates at the town coffee shop.

4. And, if a local government once felt fine just ignoring pleas for information, the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) has made that position a lot more uncomfortable. Most citizen groups are aware of FIPPA and know how to use it.

Anecdotally, the Manitoba ombudsman's office has noticed a difference as more and more citizens and their lawyers use FIPPA to access municipal documents. The ombudsman actually investigated 12 municipalities last year on how well they used or abused their duties under the legislation.

In fact, the ombudsman's office has even created a very nicely detailed road map specifically for municipalities on how to stay on the right side of the FIPPA legislation.

Not surprisingly, the Handbook on Fairness for Manitoba Municipal Leaders echoes what a good public relations person would advise. In short, communicate early and often.

Shirley Muir makes her home in a small Manitoba city and is president of the PRHouse.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 5, 2013 B9

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Bowman wants more than 'nuggets' for city in 2015 provincial budget

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • Geese take cover in long grass in the Tuxedo Business Park near Route 90 Wednesday- Day 28– June 27, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • A young gosling prepares to eat dandelions on King Edward St Thursday morning-See Bryksa 30 Day goose challenge- Day 17- bonus - May 24, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos


What should the new royal baby be named?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google