Andy Kusi-Appiah: Council elections – Why municipal government matters

Andy Kusi-Appiah

Andy Kusi-Appiah

Andy Kusi-Appiah is the founder of SkillFocus, an Ottawa-based soccer development program for elite athletes, and has also served as head coach for elite teams in both Ontario and Quebec (1995-2010).  He is also the co-founder and CEO of the Canadian Education Management Agency.  Andy was the senior advisor on diversity issues to Mayor Bob Chiarelli, and has also served on numerous advisory committees and Task forces at the City of Ottawa. Andy is a professor at Carleton University.


“In Ottawa, it takes a community to shovel the snow…and

that is why municipal government matters”


Andy Kusi-Appiah

What Municipal Councils do

Another municipal election is here again and as usual, candidates are jockeying for position, each of them getting their strategies ready for the season to win a place for what I regard to be the most important decision making body in the governance of our land.  And I need not mention that what happens at city hall affects our lives more concretely than the other levels of government;

Section 224 of the Municipal Act, 2001 is a good starting point, as it outlines the role of the municipal council:

224  It is the role of council,

(a) to represent the public and to consider the well-being and interests of the municipality;

(b) to develop and evaluate the policies and programs of the municipality;

(c) to determine which services the municipality provides;

(d) to ensure that administrative policies, practices and procedures and controllership policies, practices and procedures are in place to implement the decisions of council;

(d.1) to ensure the accountability and transparency of the operations of the municipality, including the activities of the senior management of the municipality;

(e) to maintain the financial integrity of the municipality; and

(f) to carry out the duties of council under this or any other Act. 2001, c. 25, s. 224; 2006, c. 32, Sched. A, s. 99.

From the above, we can see that Municipal councils have a broad range of responsibilities and work load;

It is from here that the water we use for all our mundane activities (including the not-so-mundane ones) flow to and from homes. It is from here that the garbage engineer comes to collect our ‘garbage’.  It is from here that our roads are ploughed to make it royally possible for us to get out of our homes to ride the bus or bike to work (we cannot also forget that OC-Transpo is in the jurisdiction of the municipal government – the list is long).

In Ottawa, local government is a vital factor in the social, economic and political structure of our society. As portrayed above, city council remains closest to the people, both in proximity and in terms of the services it provides.  Most importantly, it is here that the scrutiny for accountability is sharpest (the proverbial ‘heat in the kitchen’).  When a local government is successful, it enjoys the confidence of the whole community; when something untoward happens, the community’s voice is heard – strongly!!

What it means to ‘run

At City Hall councilors (plus the Mayor) have their work ‘cut-out-for-them’ – it is literally a 24/7 vocation, and the margin for error is negligible. Candidates for the office must be prepared to virtually live in their ‘offices’ (City Hall and ward, that is) and I am very sure that all candidates have made this emotional commitment from the word go. Everyone who puts their name forward as a candidate and who casts a ballot makes a difference in their community.

From my very limited experience with municipal politics, three main things contribute to the electability of a candidate. They are as follows;

a)       Reaching-out

b)       Ready-made-electorate

c)       Ready & Willing volunteers


The other day, Eli El-Chantilry was a guest speaker in one of my courses at Algonquin College.  He spoke on: The role of the Police Services Board in Policing in Ottawa. In answer to a student’s question about how to find a job after school, Eli had this to say: “Getting a diploma helps, it is the first step to a successful life.  However, your diploma alone will not get you a job. Among other things, you need to understand the city you live in, and this means participating in the diverse sub-communities in this city”.   Coming from a ‘rural’ councillor who has been re-elected twice already in an area where the residents are predominantly of European ancestry, I had to agree.  People from West Carleton are so used to Eli now that it will be a real “coup” for any person from any of the identified communities within West Carleton to “oust” Eli from city council.  Here is the real truth – Eli has dedicated his entire adult life to public service in this rural area.  He has spent over 30 years of his life serving people in an unlikely area, and they have come to love him for his selfless service to them.  Eli’s community involvement is legendary, but also typical.  After immigrating to Canada from Lebanon at the age of 18 years with nothing, he embraced the wider community, opened a couple of businesses and started his now extensive community involvement.

Eli’s legacy is a life-long commitment to working with area residents and businesses to help in building West Carleton-March’s future within the amalgamated City of Ottawa. Eli is now in a very “comfortable place” in the minds of the majority of the West Carleton-March citizens, and this will linger on for a long time to come.  Eil’s message is simple: participating in communities in addition to one’s own is the building block to gaining access to the entire electorate. It refers to the conscientious and genuine workings at the microscopic social scale of neighbourhoods, fostering neighbourliness and good community relations, as well as participating in the daily life of institutions (schools, hospitals, workplaces, etc.) within a geographically defined area such as our city.


This brings me to my second point.  I refer to this as the art of thinking and acting outside the box and reaching out to other cultures out there for mutual benefit.  We live in a society where many and diverse cultures live side by side. Unlike places where there are only a few in‐migrating groups, Ottawa’s population comes from different parts of the globe, creating what Banting, Courchene and Seidle (2007)  call a “diverse diversity” – this city is made up of many ethnicities, races and religions. It is literally a mini United Nations.

Cultural and racial diversity is a fact of life in Ottawa, and this means that candidates for municipal office must be seen to be appealing to all facets of the Ottawa community and not just a section of it. It means that candidates must have a history of working with, and participating in activities unique to the community of Ottawa, as opposed to participating solely in an ethnic community outside of the Ottawa region.

The ideal candidate is the one who has imbibed Amartya Sen’s conception of social inclusion in society, where each individual participate meaningfully and actively, and has varied opportunities for joining in collective experiences. The individual must also believe that all citizens of Ottawa deserve to be treated with respect, regardless of his/her ethnicity, colour ,age, gender, educational background, religion or creed.  In order to foster respect and recognition, it is imperative that we strive to understand where “others” are coming from, in other words, recognizing and working with the “others” on an equal footing.

The principle of recognition, in the sense used by Charles Taylor and other philosophers, is part of what occurs in a situation where we genuinely experience other cultures and vice versa.  This practice of “reaching out” to other communities and participating in their activites/events, signifies that one has a pluralist mindset, which further implies sensitivity to ethno-cultural diversity (for lack of a better word) and the rejection of all forms of discrimination based on difference.

At the end of the day, one is left with a dedicated group of people (within and outside of one’s own ‘community) who are willing to vote for you and what you stand for.  Indeed as the saying goes, “people do not care how much you know until they know how much you care”.

When one reaches out from their comfort zone to places where they would not normally go, they pick up valuable friends. For example, I have made it my business to visit the Gurduara at least once every three months since 2005, and on some occasions, I go with people from other ‘communities’ running for public office.  I have also attended events held by other communities and contributed to their causes.

This is how to acquire a ‘ready-made-electorate’.  In answer to a question about the secret to his electoral success over the years (over 25 years that is), Hon. Robert Chiarelli jokingly quibbed; “I manufacture my own voters; I nurture my own parties”, referring to his large family and his ties to other community members whom he has nurtured over the course of 25 years of working in the community.

Willing & dedicated volunteers

This is what I call the “rubber-hitting-the-road” phase of politicking in Ottawa. In a real Ottawa election, if one does not have the volunteers who are willing to work for free and often, one might as well forget about the election. In many ways, getting votes is like “‘bean counting”, and it is a very time-consuming game, and it is the volunteers who win it for the candidate.  Dedication and perseverance are some of the traits needed to carry one through an election campaign, and only dedicated volunteers can hang on and stay with a candidate throughout the period of an electioneering campaign.

Dedicated volunteers are the ones who help in setting up an office for a successful campaign.

Dedicated volunteers are the ones who go about asking for donations to run a successful campaign.

Dedicated volunteers are the ones who fine- tune a campaign platform for a candidate;

Dedicated volunteers are the ones who donate, not only their time, but their resources for a campaign;

Dedicated volunteers bend-over backwards to “get the vote out” on voting day.

Dedicated volunteers are the ones who make the difference on voting day.

Above all, these volunteers are persistent in their “ask”, they are thorough and they win votes one person at a time.  I have to confess that this “bean counting” is not easy;  it is  the most tedious and frustrating piece of work one can ever attempt to do, but it needs to be done if one wishes to win an election.

A big chunk of what happens in an election depends on the volunteers working on that election.  Dedicated volunteers are priceless; they are people who, on the quiet, are ready to “pound the pavement’ with the candidate until the election is over.  The more diverse their backgrounds, the better one’s chances are in an election.

But the candidate MUST win over these volunteers if s/he wants to win an election.  It means that each and every candidate or would-be candidate must of necessity be able to REACH OUT to other communities and get those volunteers. The candidate wins over these people by participating in other cultures and or activities around her. As my good friend Alan Cutler puts it: “Integrity counts and it is your integrity that will move people to work hard for you….”

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