The year 2022 is slated to be a busy one for local politics across Canada, with many municipalities in British Colombia, Manitoba, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, the City of Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories holding their municipal elections. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are an opportunity to revive municipal ballot campaigns and bring sustainable development closer to the people.
In Manitoba’s capital of Winnipeg, for example, the two-term incumbent, Mayor Brian Bowman, has announced that he will not be seeking re-election. For the city’s sustainable development agenda, Bowman’s departure comes at a crucial time for the local integrity of the sustainable development movement. It opens the potential for a great leap forward, or significant backtracking, on existing efforts to make the community more sustainable and resilient. Although the movement is still growing in the City of Winnipeg, Brian Bowman has been a vocal supporter of sustainable development locally and elsewhere. In 2020, he announced the city’s adoption of the SDGs, and their inclusion in the OurWinnipeg 2045 Development Plan. The Plan localizes the SDGs by grouping them into six “manageable” themes reflecting Winnipeg’s sustainable development priorities.
The mayor’s departure from office has already sparked several interesting bids for the position, including a few seasoned candidates who did not succeed in past municipal elections against their incumbent contender. As of June 21st, 2022, ten registered candidates are vying for the position, ranging from current and former members of other political offices to prominent community leaders, academics, and businesspeople.
Within the community, adoption of the SDG framework has been slower on the ground, but the work has certainly been happening both in and outside the context of the SDGs. There are growing efforts to unite community leaders around the Sustainable Development Goals due to their interconnected and universal nature, as they offer a map upon which diverse movements can coalesce and combine forces for the sake of the wider community. The goals understand the complex nature of the problems we face and do not reduce or emphasize any one message over the other. And most importantly, they promote the need to take advantage of synergies between groups, as the effects of collective actions can have greater impact than through solo endeavours. The Peg project is a long-standing example of this type of synergy. Beginning in 2008 as a partnership beginning between United Way Winnipeg and the International Institute for Sustainable Development, the Peg team has been releasing data-focused reports on the city for several years, with their most recent report from early 2022 taking on the form of a Voluntary Local Review (VLR) of the city’s progress on the SDGs. The Voluntary Local Review uses data from community-chosen indicators with relevance to SDG targets and pairs the numbers with insightful community stories from civil society organizations to report on Winnipeg’s work towards the goals. The result is a compelling annual snapshot of where we stand on the SDGs and what more needs to be done to achieve them.
Without a doubt, the achievement of 17 goals and their combined 169 targets by the year 2030 is a daunting mission, but one we cannot afford to ignore, given the urgency of existential threats like climate change and ecosystem collapse. Research from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has shown that an estimated 65% of the 169 targets which make up the SDGs cannot be achieved without action from subnational governments, especially cities. How this is reflected in municipal elections across Canada remains to be seen, but we can expect a surge of candidates adopting the framework as leading community organizations push for their inclusion in municipal and local discussions. One example of such an organization is the SDG Cities project, focused on Guelph and London, ON, working on a toolkit to be released later this year which will help candidates and voters implement the SDGs in municipal policy in communities across Canada and will include guidance on a recurrent dilemma of how to communicate messages about interconnected issues to voters.
At the municipal level in Winnipeg, it is especially common to find candidates who align themselves with one or two issues close to their hearts. And while devotion to an issue is without a doubt an admirable characteristic, a narrowly focused campaign can limit a candidate’s chances for connecting more meaningfully with voters on a variety of different issues. This connection is what has been missing in Winnipeg for many years, as candidates’ messages regularly fail to resonate with residents enough to spur civic participation in the form of going out to vote. An uninspired voter is not likely to be a voter at all.
But, as any candidate competing for a position within municipal leadership knows, the local level of government has the greatest capacity to affect change in the daily lives of residents. Achievement of the SDGs globally will require local communities to get involved in the agenda at the individual and community level, but broader education and awareness on how the global goals affect local lives is one of the big challenges ahead for municipalities, including the City of Winnipeg. Local politics are an environment ripe for innovative and aspirational policies. All that is needed is an inspirational leader with bold, innovative policies to bring municipal departments and the community together on a variety of intersecting issues, and the will of the majority to see these multi-solving policies in action and make their voices heard at the ballot box.