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Alberta community astonished to find itself at centre of national controversy

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St. Albert's Akinsdale neighbourhood

ST. ALBERT, Alberta

People who live in the Edmonton bedroom community of St. Albert -- where a controversy over a planned Habitat for Humanity project has been brewing for weeks -- were shocked to learn over the holiday weekend their local argument had become a national news story.

Residents of St. Albert’s modest Akinsdale neighbourhood were astonished to find themselves portrayed across Canada -- and as far away as the Middle East -- as a bunch of wealthy toffs who didn’t want ordinary working stiffs living on their street.

This was a shocker in large part because Akinsdale isn’t a particularly upscale neighbourhood. Whatever the pros and cons of the Habitat development proposed for 70 Arlington Drive may be, as of last weekend you could still buy a residence in Akinsdale for $142,000. By any reasonable Canadian yardstick, that’s a working class neighbourhood.

So when Akinsdale residents came home from work Thursday afternoon, looking forward to the long weekend, they knew about the community battle over the merits of a planned building project on a plot of land most of them had supposed was a park, its zoning notwithstanding.

But aside from their wish to retain a popular green space, most of the neighbours on Arlington Drive and nearby streets seem to have been motivated by concerns about parking in their neighbourhood, the number of units proposed for such a small space (58), and distrust of the developer’s motives.

However, by Saturday -- thanks to an eye-popping letter to the editor that appeared in that day’s edition of the twice-weekly St. Albert Gazette – the story had become a national issue. The residents of Akinsdale’s modest homes were being characterized from coast to coast as the heartless rich ready to fight off a working-class apocalypse in their midst.

In reality, most residents of this city of 60,000 surely choked on their breakfasts or spat coffee on the table Saturday morning when they opened their free copy of the Gazette to find the remarkable missive from Chris and Karleena Perry.

The Perrys live in St. Albert’s genuinely upscale new Kingswood neighbourhood -- a corner of town where three properties were listed last weekend at more than a million dollars. They live quite some distance from Akinsdale -- economically and geographically -- so one could argue they don’t have a dog in this fight.

Still, they were apparently happy to contribute their astonishing opinions -- to wit, by the sound of it, that people of ordinary means have no place in St. Albert.

As the oldest non-fortified community in the province, St. Albert has been home over the years to quite a few people, rich and poor alike. The Perrys, however, didn’t see things that way. “We moved to St. Albert because we can afford it and we deserve it,” they wrote in their now famous letter. “We feel comfortable joining in activities we would not have considered in Edmonton.”

“Like it or not, the children of St. Albert are high-standard children and have no place for low-income classmates,” they added at another point.

By expressing these views, they pushed one of St. Albert’s political hot buttons: the fear of many citizens of ordinary means, and especially seniors living on fixed incomes, that they are being pushed aside by residents of expensive new developments like Kingswood who don’t care how high local taxes go or how much it costs to use community facilities.

This may account in part for the large number of critical responses -- some extremely harsh -- that St. Albert residents left anywhere the story popped up.

In truth, many of us in St. Albert first thought the letter was an April Fool’s joke, accidentally run two days late. Apparently not. Well, if nothing else, those of us who have been in St. Albert for a while can credit these folks with charming naiveté if they truly believe our streets are free of crime and our schools without drugs. If only!

Sad to say, there is probably more than one person in St. Albert who shares the Perrys’ opinions -- although most of those who do have the good sense to keep it to themselves.

Unfortunately for St. Albert, the Perrys’ appalling epistle was soon Tweeted ’round the world. A link showed up on Maclean’s Magazine’s Website, and from there the story went national, and beyond.

As a result, St. Albertans must expect a certain amount of mockery and distain for our alleged “inhumanity.” (And this in an Alberta city that has the unusual distinction of having elected both NDP and Liberal MLAs!)

Well, so be it. This is a story with a little complexity, and mainstream media doesn’t do complexity. In the mean time, however, the letter has had one positive effect: St. Albertans are now talking and thinking seriously about poverty in our community.

David Climenhaga is a resident of St. Albert. An earlier version of this Rabble post -- which he imagined would be of interest only to a few people within the community -- is found on his blog, AlbertaDiary.ca. This item has received more visits than any post in the life of the blog, and includes some enlightening comments, as well as a few that are not so enlightening. It also includes several photos of the neighbourhood where the development is planned.

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