Words are incredibly powerful entities, capable of rousing intense emotional sentiment amongst large groups of people or destroying worlds in mere strings of sentences.
One encounters so much language daily that sometimes the gravity of a statement is lost as the turning of the linguistic tide distracts with more words, more immediately pronounced.
To provide an example of how words can be increasingly dangerous, I refer to the well-documented growth of a recent Bill.
Perhaps some readers are aware of the haphazard journey of Bill 28, an act with the mandate of setting up boards within groups of municipalities to address shared needs of each municipal body.
The Bill came out swinging as the Modernizing Regional Governments Act, but is now known as the Enabling Regional Growth Boards Act. Along with the rebranding of the Act’s name to make it sound more helpful, proactive and cozy rather than imposing and cold (consider the feeling evoked by the differences in the words Modernizing versus Enabling, Governments versus Growth Boards) other changes in the language of the Bill were enacted to make it appear more voluntary and obliging at the local level of municipal politics.
The initial manifestation of Bill 28 was introduced right after municipal elections at the end of October, a sign that it was passed in the wake of much shift and change within local governments which – in essence – meant that there was so much new language of transition infusing municipal politics that the bill was a sideline to more immediate concerns.
As the language of the Bill became more well known, more insidious aspects of it’s mandate emerged. Talk of imposing Boards upon municipalities; talk of reducing power of municipal Boards to manage their own affairs; talk of jail time. It all seemed so bizarre, this talk of the Modernizing Regional Governments Act enabling individuals to be thrown in jail for up to a year or fined $10,000 if they refused to hand over information requested by the board.
To make plain, in the words of section 702.17(1) and (2) of Bill 28 itself: “The chief elected official of a participating municipality must, when required in writing by the growth management board to do so, provide the growth management board with information about the participating municipality that the growth management board requires… A person who contravenes subsection (1) is guilty of an offense and liable to a fine of $10 000 or to imprisonment for a term of not more than one year, or to both a fine and imprisonment.”
It is no real wonder why people began to get up in arms over these words. And it wasn’t long before the Alberta Government swept in to begin mopping up the damage in trust the Bill seemed to instill among many municipalities and the media, with Minister of Municipal Affairs Doug Griffiths travelling around the Province to discuss this Bill with municipalities in the wake of much anger and confusion.
He spoke at the Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties (AAMDC) conference on November 13 regarding all the “misinformation around Bill 28,” saying he owed the public an apology “for not communicating well enough what our intentions were for Bill 28.”
Reading the Bill – prior to it’s modifications following the public outcry – proves that ‘misinformation’ is a tactical use of language to say that somehow, those reading the bill were reading it incorrectly.
The definition of ‘misinformation’ is “false or inaccurate information,” however if this were indeed the case, the Bill would not have necessitated dramatic changes and ‘softening’ as Griffiths put it, for it would have merely been a case of clearing up rumor and inaccurate information.
Words in action
What transpired was not misinformation, it was not the media or the Municipalities misinterpreting fact – it was a bill that had language that was overtly dictatorial and people were reacting to it as such.
Additional examples of contested terms included in the original Bill, prior to it’s words being modified, were sections that said:
“The Lieutenant Governor in Council, on the recommendation of the Minister, may establish a growth management board by regulation.”
An unmodified section includes:
“Despite any other enactment, no participating municipality shall take any of the following actions that conflict or are inconsistent with a growth plan:
1. (a) undertake a public work, improvement, structure or other thing;
2. (b) adopt a statutory plan;
3. (c) make a bylaw or pass a resolution;
4. (d) enter into a municipal agreement.”
These are actual words, copied and pasted from the original Modernizing Regional Governments Act. The language of these sentences denote imposing powers that in no way imply there is any voluntary process and imply the degradation of municipal authority – something that the Government, during public relations cleanup measures, would like to have the public believe was a simple and basic misunderstanding.
Now that the new manifestation of the Bill has included information gleaned from much discourse with municipalities and the public more broadly, it has improved immensely the words contained within it’s pages. But language doesn’t lie and it cannot be glazed over so easily. The government may be immersed in the fine tactical value of objective-based language, but when words are formed and they are not benignly accepted at face value, they can do much more damage than good.