Making Yellowknife Great Again: “Social Capital” and how we see the role of the union

LABOUR VIEWS: July 6, 2016

Written by: Todd Parsons, President of the Union of Northern Workers


As I write this column, we are on the cusp of another July 1 and July 4 when we take the time in North America to celebrate Canada Day and Independence Day. At this point in our history we are bombarded on both sides of the border with one peculiar presidential campaign message of “Make America Great Again.”

The title is important because it evokes the common idea that there was once a “golden era” in the United States and that the country must reverse the trend of cultural decline from a certain point in time. If for the sake of argument we agree with this premise, what was it that once made America great?  Can we identify similar sentiments in a Canadian and northern society?

One of the people who have tried to answer the cultural decline question is Robert Putnam in his 2000 classic “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.” Putnam uses a wide arrange of social science data to argue that there was a golden era in 1950s and 1960s America defined by greater civic participation and a collectivist ethic among many spectrums of American society. To Putnam, when people joined bridge clubs, service groups or bowling leagues in high numbers, this tangibly increased the value of society through what he called “social capital.”  People who wouldn’t normally associate with one another, he argued, would connect to better society as a whole.

In Yellowknife there is often the same rhetoric that there was once a better time in the city’s history when it came to the vibrancy or participation in the downtown. Often there is the complaint of disconnect between 9-to-5 government employees with the realities of private business or the increased presence of poverty-stricken street people. It is often argued in the press that there can be a lack of cohesiveness between businesses and other participants in the downtown.

While it is quite common for some elements of the city to attack the Union of Northern Workers for incentivizing an individual’s greed and disconnect from the reality of society by bettering a government worker’s position, in fact we are in many ways working for the bigger picture to improve “social capital.” It is true that the benefits from being in a union are identifiable such as improved dental and vision care benefits, paid sick leave, or maternity/parental leave. It is also true some workers may simply want to take their paychecks and go home at the end of the day. But beyond the obvious perks these benefits have for the individual, we also feel they set stable parameters in a worker’s life so they can have the ability to go beyond the workplace to participate in and build society.

This is why the union encourages its members to continue to fill civic space – join service clubs, volunteer for NWT Pride, attend downtown improvement meetings, or become more involved with your union local to improve the labour movement. This is also why we cross-promote social justice efforts by the LGBTQ, environmental, or women and indigenous rights communities; or support clustering likeminded labour groups like PSAC and NTFL in a single building to build off complementary ideas.

Should we buy into the Make Yellowknife Great Again argument? Maybe. But if we do, we suggest an ever improving, collective and participatory civil society – including within the union – must make it happen.