Canada

Winnipeg's s Pride

Rae Corelli March 5 2001
Canada

Winnipeg's s Pride

Rae Corelli March 5 2001

A chill winter wind blows some candy wrappers across Winnipeg’s City Hall square while, in his office, Glen Murray talks about downtown redevelopment, free trade, city-power and the halfway point of his third year as the only gay mayor of a Canadian city. In a dark blue suit and open-necked shirt, he is amiable and garrulous, a 43-year-old left-wing easterner entrusted with the future of a historically socialist and aging city. The municipal issues he faces are formidable but contemporary; his sexual orientation, on the other hand, has challenged him since he became aware as a Montreal teenager that he was more attracted to boys than to girls. “I was terrified,” he recalls. “I played sports, soccer, hockey and so on, and I remember my father, when he found out I was gay, saying, ‘You can’t be gay, you play football’ ”

But his game of choice turned out to be politics. In 1985, Murray, by then open about his homosexuality, wound up in Winnipeg as a Canada Post communications officer. A short while later, appalled by the early and often unrecognized inroads of AIDS (“I had friends dying of diseases for which we didn’t yet have names”), he quit and went to work, first as an education co-ordinator and later as director, at the Village Clinic, a walk-in AIDS help centre that counselled those most at risk—young gay men, prostitutes and IV drug users. “I was the ‘condom guy,’ the guy who did condom education, that’s what I was famous for,” Murray says. “I used to go all over teaching safer sex, promoting personal responsibility in relationships.” On visits to Europe and Africa he studied community-based AIDS programs. Back home, he visited dying victims, supported young men when the moment came to tell their parents they had become infected, talked about fear and how to control infection. Says Murray: “There were endless discussions about shared toothbrushes, you name it.”

One night in 1987, he says, he had a conversation that probably set him on the path to politics. “I’d been volunteering, taking food to people, and I’d just met this guy, Jim Farley, who was in the last few weeks of his life. We used to talk and he would challenge me by saying things like, ‘Why are you alive?’ and ‘What are you going to do with your life?’ I said I didn’t know but that I really liked cities and governments, that I’d like to see legislation that protected gay and lesbian rights. So he said, ‘Well, why aren’t you doing it? When you die, what’ll they put on your tombstone? He worked for the post office?’ ”

Two years later, the city councillor in Murray’s ward announced his retirement, and Murray, long concerned with neighbourhood problems such as crime and preserving old homes and small shops, remembered Farley’s words. “I was scared to death when I announced I was running,” Murray says. “I’d tell myself that I couldn’t do it, that no one would vote for me. Who’s going to vote for a gay person in Winnipeg?” Thousands, as it turned out—he got about 40 per cent of the vote, defeating two prominent businessmen. His enthusiasm for the job was readily and often apparent; in 1996, he cycled 2,800 km from Winnipeg to Atlanta as part of a team for Habitat for Humanity, an organization championed by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter to help build homes for families in need.

Then, on Oct. 28,1998, opposed by the Christian right and The Winnipeg Free Press, he beat merchant Peter Kaufmann by more than 10,000 votes to become Winnipeg’s 41st mayor— and the only labour-endorsed one since 1942. (Free Press editor Nicholas Hirst says the newspaper would likely endorse Murray in a rematch.) Last October, the federal Liberals invited him to contest the riding of Winnipeg South Centre, held by retiring foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy, but Murray declined. “Winnipeggers made a remarkable commitment to me,” he says, “and I haven’t yet done the job they elected me to do.”

He inherited a daunting task. Winnipeg’s debt of $ 1 billion is the highest of any major city in the country. Eaton’s has gone and scores of retailers have abandoned the downtown streets for malls—underground and suburban. Blocks of boarded-up and derelict buildings share the inner city with some of the finest examples of century-old commercial architecture in Canada.

The city depends on commercial and residential property taxes for more than 60 per cent of its revenue—a figure not drastically out of line with most urban centres—but its housing prices are among the lowest in the nation. Unemployment is low, but the population has stayed about the same for most of the 1990s. Thirty years ago, Winnipeg was the country’s third largest city. Today, it ranks eighth with a population of 670,000. No matter, Murray says: “I’ve lived in Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Ottawa and no city gets under your skin like this one does.” Hirst takes a less romantic view. “This is an old city, and for university graduates it’s like, well, there’s a bright blue yonder out there, let’s leave,” he says. “Winnipeg is the place that everybody’s famous for coming from, not going to.”

Murray was an exception to that rule—he got famous by coming, not going, and he insists that things are starting to look up for Winnipeg. He has persuaded a divided city council to put a freeze on borrowing and recruited business leaders to join in a downtown redevelopment program that will offer tax breaks to investors in historic buildings. Property taxes will be cut by two per cent a year for the next three years, and Murray is backing plans for an entertainment and retail complex in the old Eaton's flagship building. In early November, he announced that the city and the Manitoba government would collaborate on building a $30-million downtown campus for Red River Community College that will accommodate 2,000 students. “Among Winnipeggers,” says Murray, “we’ve gone from being the least popular of the three levels of government to the most popular.”

Still more ambitious is his vision of the city’s future. The number of information technology companies in Winnipeg has tripled since the mid-1990s, and Murray envisages the city becoming a kind of Internet crossroads, anchored by Can West Global Communications Corp., the broadcasting and publishing giant, and powered by Manitoba Telecom, which announced in September that it would spend $300 million to create the fastest Internet service in the country.

As the hinge between the westbound Trans-Canada Highway and the north-south interstates of the U.S. Midwest, says Murray, Winnipeg has benefited from a five-fold increase in trade since the North American Free Trade Agreement, most of it with the United States. “That really positions us to be a global city,” he says. “By the year 2010 we will be the greenest, leanest, most profitable, most prosperous city on this continent.”

But even prophecy sometimes has a downside. Murray’s critics on city council and in the provincial government say they wish he would be less visionary and more practical, that he pushes too hard, that his agenda is seemingly limitless, that he is difficult to deal with and gets low marks as an implementer. “I like to start and create things and make changes and see them through to their conclusion, but I’m not into maintenance,” the mayor admits candidly. “Part of the problem in municipal politics is that it gets a little boring.”

It may be about to liven up. Murray has invited the mayors of Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver to meet in Winnipeg in mid-May to talk about strategies for wresting greater power from the federal and provincial governments. U.S. cities, says Murray, have far more autonomy and access to revenues such as sales taxes. “We have to rewrite the entire authority of cities,” he says. “We’re going to talk about charter cities really seriously. Wouldn’t it be nice if cities were as protected from provincial interference in their affairs as the provinces are from the federal government?”

As it is, Murray says, “if I want to change the way we enforce bylaws or put red-light cameras at intersections, I have to go to the provincial legislature. Provincial governments always love to change things. They monkey around with cities every time they want to distract the voters.” Yet that kind of confrontation is not the worst part of politics, Murray says. “The worst thing is politicians who aren’t fun. We’re a bit in the entertainment business. Whoever called this stuff political science was never involved in it, because it’s an art, not a science.” ED