Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Legacy of Bill Norrie

There is no doubt that Bill Norrie was well liked and generally regarded as a decent man. There is no doubt that he wanted to serve the people of his community.

As befitting of his service as second longest serving mayor for the city of Winnipeg from 1979 to 1992, there has been a rush of praise for the man. I have no problem with that. However, it is also the duty of the press to recall some of the darker moments of that tenure as well.

First elected to council in 1971 and endorsed by the Independent Citizens Election Committee, a right of center political party of Liberals and Conservatives founded in 1921, Norrie was present when the city amalgamated with the surrounding communities to form Unicity. The super council of 50 part time elected officials was carefully guided by the ICEC often in closed door meetings where policy was decided.

It was at this time that Norrie along with his like minded councillors began negotiating a deal for Trizec, a major property developer, to build a tower at Portage and Main. At the time, Norrie was elected councillor, he was present for expropriation of property at the southwest corner that climbed into the milliions by the time it was done.

The ICEC pushed through the Trizec development, the concourse and parkade in numerous closed door meetings and in 1979, shortly before Norrie became mayor, pedestrian traffic was banned from the street in a very long deal with the developers.

The Trizec Building stood thereafter as an example of how not to do things to this day. In the year that Norrie was sworn in, the development was largely unoccupied and had many darkened floors. It also had one of the sweetest city tax deals in the history of the city.

One year into mayor Bill Norrie's term, Winnipeg experienced the most crushing recession in its post war history. The Winnipeg Tribune, Swift's and Canada Packers all shuttered their doors in 1980. The citizens of Winnipeg watched cities like Calgary and Edmonton zip past us in population with Ottawa, Quebec City and Hamilton in quick succession after. Winnipeg experienced and exodus of population the likes of which we had never seen before.

In short, economic prospects were terrible, debt was increasing and borrowing was out of control. Suburban growth was funded with increases on property taxes based on a creaky assessment system. The city was sprawling like never before and the downtown was de-populating and was beginning to resemble a donut.

To top it off, the city was engaged in a language debate that started when a unilingual parking ticket of $5 was challenged by George Forest in 1975. Even a Supreme Court ruling in 1979 affirming language rights was not enough to spur the province and city to translate laws with any haste. For many years, some of the nastiest and vitriolic comments were at municipal and provincial levels and nothing was done. In 1980, another city traffic ticket was challenged and back to the Supreme Court it went.

While the French aspect of Winnipeg of the city was under great pressure from a hostile city response, the First Nations community was near ready to boil over. It is hard to fathom an examination of city politics and Bill Norrie without talking about the shooting of J.J. Harper in 1988.

The chief of police, Herb Stephen, cleared the officer almost immediately. This rather hasty move exposed the city to criticism of racism, police misconduct and cover-up. A raw wound of aboriginal relations was revealed for all to see.

Moreover, criminal police activity in 1981 with the arrests of officers Jerry Stolar and Barry Nielson for murder was still fresh in everyone's minds.

The lack of police reforms and how the chief was selected lay at the feet of Bill Norrie and the council.

The inquiry that followed revealed that the police association challenged the right of anyone to see police notebooks in regards to the shooting. The court disagreed and ordered verified copies be produced.

All through this sad state of affairs, true police reforms were sadly lacking and what should be remembered is that when Norrie left office in 1992, Winnipeg was without a full time police chief when Stephen stepped down in 1991. Outsider Dale Henry was named chief in 1992.

All in all...this period with Norrie as mayor was an extremely difficult time for the city.

There are plenty of kudos that should be listed along with Norrie's tenure as mayor. He did help bring the pandas to Winnipeg (all the while as the Winnipeg Zoo whithered from lack of other investment). He helped bring the Grey Cup game to the city.

And during his various terms, he was involved in tri-lateral work to restore downtown Winnipeg. The highs were The Forks, the lows Portage Place.

Bill Norrie was a genial and hard working councillor and mayor. When a person dies, there is generally a rush to focus on the positive things. However, when he left, the city was in debt, had declined in national standings in population, had no police chief and was in the middle of a biker war. The dissatisfaction with the ICEC and Liberal/Conservative coalition had bubbled over and Win into the 90s was well established and broke the back of one of the longest running civic parties in Canada. When Norrie stepped down in 1992, there was a movement afoot to challenge him at every turn.

It could very well be that if Norrie had wanted to, he could have been in office to his death. Few things can push a sitting mayor out of Winnipeg office. To that end, it is the province that is to blame for that. For some reason, the NDP government believes putting up an NDP affiliated mayor each election will change that.

It won't. What will break the logjam is to allow councillors to run for mayor without resigning their seat unless they win higher office. It is my opinion that if the law was challenged, it would not stand up to constitutional scrutiny.

There is little doubt that Bill Norrie wanted to serve his city and community. He certainly left some legacies to that end. For that, he should be thanked.


The View from Seven said...

Part of the situation in Manitoba between 1979 and 1992 was beyond the control of either Council or the provincial government. Winnipeg's economy tends to be sensitive to interest rates, which were punishingly high in the early '80s and again in the early '90s as the federal government fought to keep inflation under control. Winnipeg's declining prestige was also tied to the decline of the Winnipeg-centered agricultural economy from the driver of the prairie economy that it once was to the afterthought that it is today, and its replacement with the energy economy which made Calgary the natural business hub of the prairies. Even a more forceful mayor and council would have presided over a stagnant city because they had neither the tools nor the influence nor the preparation time to make a difference.

But some of Winnipeg's wounds were also self-inflicted. Aside from The Forks, which is more closely linked to St. Boniface than to Downtown, the Norrie years were a disaster for the Core Area. Portage Place, efforts to speed up traffic and the contruction of the skywalk system not only stripped Downtown of its charm, but also started a vicious circle: fewer people on the streets increased the sense on danger, which meant even fewer people on the streets as people voted with their feet for suburban malls, which made the streets feel even more menacing still... and on it went.

The opening up of new subdivisions in a city whose population was barely growing also gave inner city homeowners little incentive to invest in their aging, low-value homes, and gave homebuyers no incentive to look at the Core Area when they could live in a quiet suburb for just as much money and still be home from work by 5:45 p.m. thanks to an easy commute.

Bill Norrie's time as mayor won't be remembered as a golden age for Winnipeg. But Winnipeggers themselves had few ideas how to get the city out of the malaise it was in -- especially after the Lyon government's swing to the right and the Pawley government's swing to the left both failed to produce satisfactory results. In the meantime, they settled for a mayor who was more of a facilitator than a visionary leader, but courtly and honest.

There are far worse things a person could be remembered as.

John Dobbin said...

Seven: I agree that interest rates were a national and transnational disaster bur deficit spending and taxing was owned by City Hall. They borrowed money hand over fist, expropriated buildings to subsidize multi-building developments that ultimately were unsuccessful in their objectives.

But as I mentioned, one of the worst aspects of that time was what happening to the police during and out and out biker war. That was completely within the mayor's domain and the fact that we had no full time chief for so long created factions within the force.