City & Politics, City Hall

The top Prairie political gaffes of 2012

As we begin 2013 with all the multitudinous possibilities a new year portends, it’s important to hearken back and reflect on the year just past. As part of the Spectator Tribune‘s series of Top 10 lists, I present my thoughts on the worst political gaffes foisted on the public by foolish Prairie politicians and political staffers in 2012.

1) The corrupt bumbling of mayor Sam Katz

It is difficult to know precisely where to begin when discussing the disastrous proportions of Winnipeg mayor Sam Katz’s eighth year in office. The list of shadowy dealings, blatant obfuscations and policy flubs is enough to fill a National Lampoon’s satire–or a season of HBO’s The Wire.

First, the legion allegations of corruption: the bizarre fire hall land swap saga that precipitated an expansive real estate audit and later a cabinet revolt; the purchase of an Arizona shell company for $1 from the city’s chief administrative officer; the purchase of an Arizona home by the mayor—in cash—from the sister-in-law of Sandy Shindleman, head of the same firm (Shindico) implicated in the fire hall land swap blunder; and finally the pending conflict of interest lawsuit from a Winnipeg restaurateur due to the mayor’s insistence on using public funds to pay for holiday dinners at a restaurant he owns.

Second, the policy hiccups: the water park deal that went nowhere after Katz’s allies attempted to side-step normal processes and after the mayor’s confusion over whether or not to recuse himself from the vote; and the 20 cent transit fare hike that was passed on a whim one afternoon in order to “pay for rapid transit” (and which was later rejected by the provincial government).

It was a bad year for Winnipeg’s mayor.

2) Alison Redford’s PC cronyism

I’ve written elsewhere of Alberta premier Alison Redford’s considerable talent (check it out: here), as a provincial premier and a national leader capable of building bridges in our heavily divisive federation. I also argued that the leadership strengths she demonstrates on the national (even international) level are often outweighed by her local miscalculations. Too often she gives in to old-style Progressive Conservative cronyism and borderline corruption, opening herself up to Wildrose Alliance criticisms.

This year, she did not act fast enough to quash the “no-meet committee” that paid huge dividends to committee members who hadn’t sat in a room together since 2008, nor did she force them to re-pay those dividends in time to fully kill the political fallout. It was a major campaign sticking point, and one which kept the 2012 election dangerously close in the polls. As of September, Redford was in the process of reimbursing MLAs for part of their dividend re-payments, much to the chagrin of Wildrose.

More recently, the premier has come under vociferous fire for allegedly–as justice minister under former premier Ed Stalmach–intervening to have a massively lucrative legal contract awarded to her ex-husband’s law firm.

3) Manitoba Children’s advocate reaction to Phoenix Sinclair inquiry (and NDP complicity) 

Roughly six months before Winnipeg Sun readers sympathetically named Phoenix Sinclair the 2012 Newsmaker of the Year due to the public inquiry into the Manitoba Child and Family Services system that failed to save her life, independent Manitoba children’s advocate Darlene MacDonald was calling the costs of the inquiry “wasteful.”

In her later explanation, she claimed her comments had been taken out of context. The $4.7 million (at that time) price tag of the inquiry should have been invested in implementing the over 200 recommendations made through independent reviews of CFS that her office was involved in. Yet she would not deny that a public inquiry would shed far more light on CFS than those internally conducted reviews (and carefully worded reports) could, and instead masked her insensitivity in “independent” professionalism.

And the Manitoba NDP defended her and refused to dismiss her, even after a petition was tabled in the legislative assembly–signed by three grand chiefs–calling for her immediate dismissal.

For shame.

4) Danielle Smith’s climate change lunacy

Despite gaffe-prone local candidates with a tendency to utter racially-charged foolishness and other half-truths, Danielle Smith’s Wildrose Alliance was running a tight campaign ship and was preparing to enter majority government territory as the party neared the end of the 2012 Alberta election campaign. And then, during an April 19 leader’s debate hosted by the CBC, Smith was met with booing and jeering as she openly questioned the validity of climate science.

Alison Redford’s adept (and obvious) retort spelled the death knell of the Wildrose campaign: “When I go to Washington, and I talk to people in the White House, on Capitol Hill, and I’m trying to talk to them about why we need Keystone, they don’t want to hear that I don’t believe in climate change.”

To the average voter, Alison Redford was ready to lead the Alberta economy while Danielle Smith appeared immersed in dangerous, back-woods populism. Set to the backdrop of other radical Wildrose gaffes, it ensured a major groundswell of support for the Progressive Conservatives as typically progressive Albertans  moved to the PC’s en masse to stop an unthinkable Wildrose majority.

5) The search for Tanya Nepinak’s body

The inordinate number of missing and murdered Aboriginal women from Manitoba remains an international tragedy and national embarrassment too easily overlooked by the province’s comfortably complacent populace. But the issue refuses to go away and it came to a head in 2012 with the discovery of 18-year-old Lorna Blacksmith’s body in Winnipeg’s West End and three second degree murder charges laid against alleged serial killer Shawn Lamb.

One of Lamb’s alleged victims, 31-year-old Tanya Nepinak, is believed to be buried somewhere among the trash heaps of the Brady Road Landfill–an unimaginable, disgusting indignity. The Winnipeg Police Service–led at the time by chief Keith McCaskill–announced they would search the dump for her remains, in order to provide closure to the Nepinak family, but it is clear in hindsight they had little to no prospect of success and were ultimately placating the family.

Instead of actual scientific evidence and proper police work scouting out an appropriate area (there was virtually no appropriate area better than any other, based on the evidence), they relied on the advice of a spiritual elder to dictate the parameters of the search. Conducted in early October, the search was aborted after just six days, much to the vocal disappointment and understandable sadness of the Nepinak family.

As former cop and blogger Menno Zacharias wrote in an excellent post on this issue: “The actual search was a token search, an act of going through the motions in the hope that the victim’s family and aboriginal leaders would be mollified. How insulting.”


This is just a sampling of the most egregious political gaffes perpetrated by Prairie politicians and public officials in 2012, and I believe there is much to learn from the five listed above.

Ultimately, good governance requires a balance of strong principle, intelligence, pragmatism, transparency and sensitivity. When these foundational qualities break down, the result is typically a political disaster (in the case of Danielle Smith and Sam Katz) or a colossal insult (in the case of the Manitoba children’s advocate and the Tanya Nepinak search). Even good politicians (and there are a few) can succumb to their worst impulses to dole out patronage and placate the masses with lukewarm bullshit.

They must be held accountable for doing so.

Now, dear reader, what am I missing from this list? And what lessons can our politicians learn in 2013?


Ethan Cabel writes for the Spectator Tribune.

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