All together now

By Aaren Madden, April 2012

Shellie Gudgeon’s first concern is how we shift from “us and them” to “we”—and why we have to.

EVER SINCE SHE WAS A YOUNGSTER, Shellie Gudgeon’s 15-year-old daughter Isabella has got a kick out of Foul Bay Road. Whenever they drive or walk across it, she says, “Oh! I’m in Oak Bay! Hey! I’m in Victoria! Oak Bay now! Oh! Victoria again!” 

From a child’s point of view, it does seem absurd that a mere street separates two different cities. But by Victoria city councillor Gudgeon’s observation, the 13 solitudes that make up our region signify a dysfunction incised deeper than layers of asphalt and fill.

In her bright, colourful office a plate’s toss from Il Terrazzo, the restaurant she co-owns and operates with her husband, Mike, Gudgeon points both her index fingers and arranges them into a “v”. It’s a symbol of perpetual stalemate and blame. “Someone once told me this should be the symbol for the City of Victoria,” she says. “We have this culture of division.” She got a whiff of it when she printed her election signs with the slogan, “a voice for your neighbourhood, a voice for business,” and was subsequently told she’d never get elected: the B-word would turn too many people off. “We tend to be ‘us’ versus ‘them,’” she observes. “But we have the most generous, philanthropic business community [here] that we have to tap into and embrace. We need each other!” 

She knows from experience that’s the case. Having built a thriving business over 20 years in the city she grew up in, Gudgeon has learned that typically in a restaurant there will be tension, if not outright hostility, between kitchen and floor staff: “Our success has been bringing sides together to realize it’s in our best interests to work together.”

The same approach worked for the community-building work she has done in Quadra-Hillside. Amid calls to create a business improvement association and other community groups, Gudgeon figured, “that’s just more bodies we can point fingers at. Whereas if we can bring business and community and residents to the same table, which we have with our Quadra Village Day Committee model, we can hear what everyone has to say and provide a product that everyone buys into.” 

Generally, since taking office, she notices the opposite. At her second council meeting, a fellow stood up and introduced himself as representing the “such-and-such” community association. “I chuckled, because I knew he had created it the day before! In our city, that tends to hold weight. That is ingrained in the region. If you don’t like what it is, start your own. And we allow it,” she says, stymied. Fernwood’s dual (and sometimes duelling) community organizations are but one example. 

Gudgeon says, “We are modelling fragmentation at the municipal level.” The garbage pickup fiasco in February is a case in point. The City asked for and received input into various pickup options. Then they dutifully ignored it, embittering citizens and appearing to bow to CUPE in the process. All the while Victoria seems to have acted in a bubble. “Oak Bay did a huge pilot project two years ago with composting and green binning and everything. I don’t even think we took their data. Why wouldn’t we talk to Oak Bay?” she marvels—it’s just good business. “I steal stuff from restaurants all the time!” She’s not talking silverware; she learns and applies best practices, notes the details that make a difference. It’s common sense. “Saanich has side yard pickup. Works for seniors, everyone’s fine. And we didn’t even talk about side yard pickup,” she says. At the February 16 vote, Gudgeon proposed it, but wasn’t able to sway her fellow councillors. 

To add insult to injury, on the day we met, Gudgeon had just returned from the Local Government Leadership Academy in Vancouver, where she heard speakers say “imagine if we didn’t have shared services with our garbage in Metro Vancouver!” She sighs, saying, “We’re doing exactly what they wouldn’t even consider doing,” and then adds,“I am on the Water Commission, and thank God, at least the CRD is looking after our water.” 

Gudgeon says finding more ways to share was the original intent of the “Amalgamation Conversation,” an event she helped organize in February: “How we can finally reach out to each other and understand our commonalities and [find a] common approach.” Amalgamation was the label of choice in order to gain some media attention, but Gudgeon would not call herself pro-A. “I am pro-working together,” she clarifies. But when Gudgeon heard the notion repeated often during her campaigning last fall and noticed it on a Twitter feed, she proposed a lunch date where she, Mat Wright, Tamara Hernandez, Rod Phillips and Susan Jones planned the community forum. It brought about 200 people out to share ideas. 

Interestingly—and worryingly—Gudgeon noticed even further division amongst some attendees. When asked to write their home municipality along with their comments on post-it notes that were applied to a large comment board, people jotted, “Oak Bay North” or “Glanford.” She said the organizers were starting to joke about future municipalities to come. With six having incorporated in the last 28 years, anything is possible.

But in truth, by Gudgeon’s thinking, much less is possible. We give up more than we know by refusing to collaborate. She wonders out loud about the possibility of getting Community, Sport and Cultural Development Minister Ida Chong to sit down with at least three mayors to work out a plan for a world-class Inner Harbour that would act as a gateway to the region, not just Victoria. We would all benefit, but it won’t happen without a cohesive voice. “We have to show collaboration; we have to show strength for the provincial government to listen. Having said that, from my limited experience right now, I am not seeing a willingness to engage at all,” she laments.

Little wonder, when time and again, division pervades. When, during the municipal election, Gudgeon saw ads promoting “The Dean Team,” she was flabbergasted. “I thought, Dean, your whole council’s your team!” Among councillors, she hopes for a greater sense of collaboration while respecting different positions. “A healthy council is nine different voices. The more divergent the opinions, the better the decision. It’s finding something everyone can live with that addresses their concerns,” she says.

Within council, Gudgeon is guardedly confident the shift will come—slowly. In the meantime, she’s certain that, whether or not her daughter can still play the Foul Bay Road game in the future, the municipalities on either side won’t reach their full potential until the region shifts from a culture of division to one of collaboration. 

As the mother of two young children with vastly divergent viewpoints, Aaren Madden is constantly learning the importance of collaboration. And she, too, gets a kick out of Foul Bay Road. And Dominion Street. And…