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From taxation to tap water: A brief history of plebiscites in Calgary

Calgarians have a long history of exercising direct democracy via plebiscite votes.

In December 1912, the city’s nearly 44,000 citizens were first called to vote on a plebiscite on the election of commissioners. Calgarians could say whether they were in favour of an election by the vote of the people or an appointment by city council. That vote went nearly 10-to-1 in favour of the vote of the people for commissioners.

Calgarians have gone to the polls more than 150 times over the years for things like daylight saving time (five times), fluoridation (seven times), the ward system (at least four times), the transit system (seven times) the hours firefighters work (five times), and the building of infrastructure like bridges, libraries, swimming pools and hospitals.

Provincial and federal plebiscites on which Calgarians voted have included topics ranging from conscription to prohibition, and the Charlottetown Accord.

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A number of specific topics also went to plebiscite votes in the 112 years since that first one.

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Taxation of church property was voted on in December 1914, which saw 55 per cent of Calgarians in opposition.

Two years later, a vote on “proportional representation” had two-thirds of voters in favour of it.

In 1918, nearly 72 per cent of voters were in favour of closing retail stores at 9 p.m. on Saturdays.

In 1920, 60 per cent of Calgary voters were in favour of a curfew.

The following year, the same per cent of Calgarian voters were against a “public bath house.”

In 1949, the Mewata Stadium grandstand, with an estimated price tag of $75,000, failed with only 46 per cent of the 9,086 ballots cast in favour of it.

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Recent high profile plebiscites include whether the city should ask the province to remove video lottery terminals (VLTs) in 1998, with 58 per cent of voters not in favour of the move.

In November 2018, a plebiscite was conducted on whether Calgary should bid to host the 2026 Olympic Winter Games, which lost after 56 per cent of voters opted, “No.”

And in the most recent municipal election, nearly 62 per cent of voters were in favour of reintroducing fluoride to tap water.

By decade, the 1920s had the highest number of issues going to plebiscite in the southern Alberta city, numbering 46 in total. The number of plebiscites has declined every decade since.

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