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  • Sam Darling

The trouble with Edmonton

You’d think, with eight months of winter and -40 degree temperatures, my biggest problem with living in Alberta would have been the weather. It wasn’t. In fact, the brutally cold temperatures and blankets of snow have a stark beauty. I appreciated the alpine rabbits changing their fur from brown to white and the tiny red squirrels. Farming, rodeos, cross country skiing, and harvest festivals? Sure! Bring it on. We’ll adapt.

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[Backyard snow piles and -28 C, January. That’s outdoor play weather! Get your boots on!]

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[Blue skies help. Harvest Festival, October 2013. Edmonton, Alberta.]

The biggest problems I encountered in Edmonton were lack of shared public space and hostility towards children.

Before moving there, I had assumed that the bleak winters would have created a plethora of shared indoor space, such as museums, play centers, or friendly malls. Instead, the city has the least amount of shared public space I’ve ever experienced for a city of significant size (Edmonton has over 700,000 people). The malls generally do not have free seating areas, nor play areas for children. Even the famous West Edmonton Mall, one of the largest in North America, has nowhere to sit, creating an atmosphere where everyone is in constant motion, like a commercial version of a transit center. Port Authority but with a small amusement park in it. I also expected plenty of toddler playgroups, but instead found only one in my immediate neighborhood, which met only once a week. In fact, one of the local civic leaders started a weekly playgroup at the Oliver Community Centre while we were there and it was unique enough to warrant local news coverage! Here is the photo she lovingly shared to show her excitement for the new playgroup at the community center. Bless her for starting this group. The community really needs it.

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Another potential option in most cities is story time at the public library. There were two libraries “close” to us, meaning a thirty-minute bus ride. The downtown branch is widely accepted as a de facto daytime shelter space for people who are sleeping rough. There is a social worker on hand to try and reach homeless people who live at this library. In my search for shared space during the day I would frequently find myself surrounded by tired men, hunched over a cooling cup of coffee, killing time at the food court at a mall. Most days, they were the only people that spoke to me or my baby. When I spent time at the library I’d watch them be repeatedly woken by a security guard while they were trying to sneak a warm nap. Meanwhile, my baby was sleeping peacefully beside these guys, snug in her stroller. I thought it deeply unfair that there was nowhere safe for them to recover and be afforded the same basic human need to rest as my sleeping baby.

I learned that they open up the underground train stations during sub-zero weather so those sleeping rough don’t freeze to death. Small mercies.


[Exhibit, Royal Alberta Museum.]

I suspect that the other mothers in Edmonton think that they have chosen to stay at home when in reality, they have no other option. The locals would socialize with other friends and family in the area, whom they already know. I attempted to make new friends for my older daughter, sending card invitations for play dates to the kids she liked in her class. No one contacted me. Fellow parents seemed to go out of their way to avoid chit-chat when I saw them at school. The only other parents willing to talk to me were fellow immigrants who most often had little English-language skills and couldn’t chit-chat for very long, their new vocabulary quickly exhausted. Over time I realized that people weren’t unfriendly, they simply had no opportunity to practice the basic skills required to meet new people in shared public spaces.

What is the stay-at-home mother to do in a city that is so hostile to newcomers? I tried putting the baby in a day care center so she could see other children, but they had a one-year waiting list. So, I stayed at home and had staring contests with her.

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[Your antics grow stale, mother. Your games of peek-a-boo, predictable.]

I was able to join some groups and meet other people when I went out as an adult, but the moment I tried to engage the world with a stroller and baby in tow, the city shut its doors to me. Quite literally, as many businesses display “no minors” on their front doors. Children are not allowed in many restaurants. Apartment hunting was a nightmare as most listings specified “no children.” There are no anti-discrimination laws in Alberta and they discriminate against children plenty. It’s the only city in the world where I’ve gone into normal cafés with my older daughter, and the moment we sat down, the people sitting next to us visibly scowled and changed their table. We’ve been all over the world with this kid, she has been to ten nations and dozens of cities, and this “normal” North American city was the only place that was openly hostile to her just for being a child.

This leads me to feminism in a roundabout way. In my travels, I’ve noticed that the more child friendly a place is, the more it cares about women and treats them as equal to men. The better a place is at accommodating mothers with small children, the better it will be for women to live there overall.

After five grueling months of loneliness and desolation in Edmonton, we moved to a new Canadian city and the difference was immediate. Here, banks and other businesses have an area with a few games for the kids; the parents in my eldest child’s school held a “welcome” party with the class so we could all meet each other and she’s already had dozens of play dates; the malls have a play areas; the restaurants carry booster seats; other people smile at the kids instead of scowling at them.

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[Downtown Edmonton, October 2013. Taking advantage of every public event we can find.]

It’s not as though the neighborhoods were strikingly different in their socio-economic factors or immigration patterns. In fact, we gravitate toward similar neighborhoods everywhere we live. One major factor is that residential areas are built inwardly, so they face gardens and other homes, instead of busy roads. We had several near misses with kids and cars in Edmonton because it is so car-centric. But there is no plans for changing this basic infrastucture. Alberta is a place that is moving backwards, not forwards.

During my time in Edmonton, I worked with several young women who had interesting tattoos. Several had words on their hands like, “believe” and “hope.” Edmonton is so bleak their young people have to tattoo reminders to themselves not to give up on living.

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