First introduced by French urbanist Carlos Moreno at the global climate change conference COP21 in 2015, the idea of a 15-minute city, also known as a “pocket city”, has resurfaced as municipalities across Canada and around the world are looking to reduce road traffic, encourage walking, biking and public transit and ultimately reduce a municipality’s carbon footprint.
Conspiracy theorists all over have taken the idea in a different direction. Making the rounds on social media and getting a boost from influential voices, including Canadian psychologist and popular conservative contrarian Jordan Peterson, conspiracists are suggesting the United Nations and the World Economic Forum are pushing for a tyrannical reordering of society into easily repressible communes. The theory is closely linked to those in the ‘Freedom Convoy’ movement who believe public health measures like vaccines and lockdowns were means of government control.
The plan to create a more walkable city in Edmonton was met with protests, and a United Kingdom town also faced pushback for its efforts to restrict vehicle traffic.
Now Clarence-Rockland is facing similar questions from some residents.
It started with a tweet
Over the last few weeks, Mayor Mario Zanth and city officials received calls, emails and mentions in Facebook posts admonishing the municipality for trying to implement the 15-minute city program.
“At first I was confused because the email didn’t give any context and I hadn’t heard of [the conspiracy],” Zanth said.
The outreach started after a tweet from Olympic gold medalist ice skater Jaime Salé, who has joined the ranks of those pushing anti-vaccination conspiracy theories, calling vaccines “medical rape” and masks for children “child abuse”.
In the January 31 tweet, Salé claimed to provide a link to “an official government website listing all the participating cities in Canada for the WEF/UN 15-minute communities.”
The link led to the Infrastructure Canada Smart Cities Challenge initiative. The challenge, which started in 2017 and announced winners in 2019, called for applications for federal funding to support innovative technological approaches to improving a city’s environmental quality, economic opportunities, health, recreation and mobility.
Clarence-Rockland is listed as one of the cities that sought to take part in the initiative, having applied under former Mayor Guy Desjardins in 2016, but wasn’t chosen to receive funding. However, the city’s inclusion on the list was ‘proof’ the small municipality wanted to control its residents’ movements.
Zanth reiterates that the municipality has no intention of restricting residents, or taking part in a 15-minute city initiative. The mayor expressed some relief at Clarence-Rockland having not been chosen to participate in the Smart Cities Challenge given the extensive data-sharing requirements for that project.
“There is no truth to the claims,” said Zanth. “There is no mention of 15-minute city in the city’s Official Plan, and that’s where everyone should go to know exactly what the city is working on.”
An issue for all in the UCPR
One resident in Embrun, who has amassed a significant following on Facebook, called on his supporters to reach out to all levels of government officials for the United Counties of Prescott-Russell (UCPR) and express their opposition to the idea of a 15-minute city.
During a Facebook live event from somewhere in Florida, Daniel Piché, a real estate agent in Embrun, listed the names and contact information for MP Francis Drouin, MPP Stéphane Sarazin and Premier Doug Ford, including their office addresses. The video has garnered nearly 1000 views since it was posted on February 11.
Commenters during the livestream also provided phone numbers and email addresses for the mayors of Casselman, Alfred-Plantagenet Township, Champlain Township, Hawkesbury and East Hawkesbury Township.
Other comments in the chat spoke of politicians receiving brown envelopes, joked about COVID-19 vaccines causing unexpected deaths and even the coming of a civil war.
Claiming to have spoken directly with Russell Township Mayor Pierre Leroux, Piché claimed Leroux had informed him the township would look into it should it become more serious.
“I hope something will happen so he will stand up and face the music,” said Piché.
In an email to Édition André Paquette, Mayor Leroux said he received a call and an email from a resident, and reiterated that Russell Township never participated in the Smart Cities Challenge.
Other mayors within the UCPR have also received correspondence from residents, but wish not to comment on those interactions for the time being.
Zanth said he wishes people would realize how much it spreading these conspiracies costs the taxpayer. Regardless of how few or many comments they receive, when comments like these come in municipal employees have to stop whatever they are working on to put out the fire, the mayor said.
“That’s why it’s dangerous to just make these claims completely unfounded on anything,” he said.