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affordable housing, Alberta, architecture, de/colonization, Edmonton, home, identity, Indigeneity, Metis history, Pehonan, place, planning, poverty, racism, revitalization, Rossdale, space

‘Revitalization’ as colonialism

You know what? I have a bone to pick.

Revitalization. Regeneration. Gentrification.

These are rather mild and innocuous terms for what is, really, just a palatable way to express extant colonialism and oppression in a country built on the exploitation and theft of Indigenous lands.

My family, on my Dad’s side, has been continuously pushed out of spaces in conflicts that sought to make way for more ‘desirable’ occupants. Red River. Fort Pitt. St. Paul-des-Metis. Rossdale/pehonan. Even the townhouse my Dad lived in in Holyrood when I was in elementary school has been torn down for the hideous ‘Holyrood Boulevard’ condo development.

My Todd roots, then, are physically shallow because my Metis family has constantly found itself ‘in the way of development’. Though I fervently wish I could show you the houses my family lived in, the places where love and births and deaths and significant moments took place — I can’t. Because most of these places have been demolished in the name of ‘development’ and ‘revitalization’. I can only haunt the memories of these places. Trace them in chalk on the walls of the places that replaced them. Tell my shadow story in a city intent on re-inventing itself particle board by particle board.

In 2006, when I went to visit my Dad  at his Vancouver art studio — a collective located on Hastings and Cambie — I remember being delighted by the renovations of the Woodward’s Building across the street. “Ooh”, I thought, “this will be beautiful when it’s done”. When I visited again in 2009, things had shifted somewhat. Hastings had a few new cafes. But it had a familiar feel. Not too shiny. Still accessible. But when I visited in 2012, I actually got lost. I couldn’t locate myself. Amidst the hip eateries and the even hipper patrons, I had no moorings. By this time, the building my dad’s studio was in was up for sale: another condo building on the books, another community pushed out to make way for wealthy home-buyers.

I’ve been thinking about the inequities and traumas that arise as people my age start buying condos and establishing themselves in urban spaces across the country. I know a lot of ‘young professionals’ in Canada. People that cities salivate over — ‘how do we get young professionals to move here?’. But there is a seedy side to this discourse. Because in order to bring in young professionals, we’re erasing or shifting local realities. I think of it as a form of colonialism — in a country that is built on stealing land from and dispossessing Indigenous people, the fetish of catering our developments to young urbane lawyers, doctors, professors and engineers is not innocent in the least.

I cringe when people move to Edmonton and start lecturing myself and others on ‘how it’s done elsewhere’ — patronizing us with frequent references to sophisticated metropolises to the east or west. Or when prejudices about Alberta are migrated in with young professionals from bigger urban centres. Of course we all bring our hubris with us, none of us is innocent of this. And I’m not against new residents — diversity is important, and Edmonton itself is built on a long and important history of migration (of which my Mom’s family is a part). But it sticks in my craw when we work so hard to attract ‘young professionals’ to our cities at the expense of local people who are marginalized in city-building discourses. When the spaces these young, hip people are being encouraged to move into are already spaces of conflict and trauma for Indigenous peoples and others.

Downtown is a battle ground. And it is littered with the bodies of men and women who have frozen to death on our streets when they couldn’t access services. It is haunted by sexual and physical violence meted out to vulnerable citizens. It is shaped by thriving communities that are completely ignored by those who seek to re-configure it for profit. It is shaped, intimately, by the unpalatable politics of developers who, let’s face it, are just modern versions of the Scrip fraudsters and carpet baggers who hammered Edmonton into existence post-fur trade.

So yeah, ‘woot!’ that Corso32 is so popular and that the Mercer Tavern is a booming success and that people want to come downtown again after decades of avoiding it like the plague. But let’s also mourn, for a moment, the stories and memories of those who were displaced to make downtown more attractive to 24-48 year olds with disposable income. And those who will be further displaced as Rogers Dodger Place is built and the Quarters goes ahead and Chinatown is ignored. I am alarmed because very little of the discussion or conceptualization of our current ‘revitalization’ addresses the deeper inequalities and outright theft of lands that made the existence of the city possible, or the racist ideologies that make some forms of development desirable while others are not. Downtown is experiencing a ‘boom’ that is inherently linked to the settler colonial realities upon which Canada thrives.

I’m hopeful we can change this, and I see the discourses about our city shifting. This lightens my heart — we are making change. We are shaping new narratives of our city and how it came to be.

But I also feel a need to be a bit more blunt: we need less breathless chatter about how amaaaaaazing that latte place is and more considered and thoughtful discourse about how we’re living in a city built on injustice. That’s what I hope for.


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