Edmonton considers the value of sisters

Protocol office reviews what we get out of far-flung relationships


You may have heard that Edmonton has various “sister cities” around the world. But what does that really mean, and what could or should be done to benefit from those relationships?
It turns out that the city administration has been asking itself that very same question, and is in the process of looking into Edmonton’s various twinning relationships to determine why those bonds were formed and what should be done with them in the future.
For decades, different departments within the City of Edmonton dealt with various facets of its international relationships, which caused confusion as to who was responsible for maintaining and promoting them, says Kaet Corbould, military and protocol liaison with the City of Edmonton.
The city’s protocol office took full responsibility for the program earlier this year and it is now reviewing each relationship’s mandate. “Once we’ve researched each relationship’s original mandate, we will determine if we will be moving forward to promote those relationships more than they are currently being promoted,” says Brian Hlus, the director of external relations in the protocol office at the City of Edmonton.

Over the years, Edmonton has been considered a sister to four cities: Gatineau (formerly Hull), Que., in 1967; Harbin, China, in 1985; Nashville, Tenn., in 1990; and Wonju, South Korea, in 1998. It also has “bonds of friendship” with Bergen Op Zoom in the Netherlands and Ortona, Italy, two cities that were liberated during the war by troops stationed in Alberta.

Only one of those cities — Nashville — is still considered an official sister to Edmonton under Sister Cities International, an organization founded by U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956 to help repair post-WWII tensions and to create cultural exchanges.
The city that comes to mind for most Edmontonians when “sister city” is mentioned is Harbin, and it seems that relationship is still quite active, even though Sister Cities International no longer lists the two cities as official sisters.
When the relationship began in 1985, it was promoted as a way to increase trade between the two cities. The city of Harbin produces leather goods, textiles, metals and mineral products, household goods and farming equipment. In the late 1980s, Harbin flew construction workers over to Edmonton to construct the ornamental Harbin Gate in Chinatown. There were several visits to Harbin by invitation of their mayor, and a few high school exchange programs.

The cities signed a co-operative agreement on tourism and business in 2011. Mayor Don Iveson visited the city in 2016 to try to find more ways to collaborate with Asia as a whole, and Harbin in particular.
With the construction of the Valley Line LRT underway, the Harbin Gate in Chinatown has been dismantled, and the future of the landmark is unknown at this time.

Still, Edmonton and Harbin continue to collaborate. A delegation from Harbin visited Edmonton in May, and Bin Lau, strategic advisor to the mayor, made it clear in an Instagram post that Edmonton and Harbin still consider themselves sisters. “Among good friends ... our Chinese sister city Harbin's delegation head, Peter Cao, signs the mayor's office's guest book ahead of an 18-hour stopover in Edmonton,” he wrote.

Cao and the rest of the delegation were here “to discuss Edmonton’s Winter City initiative and gather ideas on how to implement similar initiatives in Harbin,” says Hlus.

No new twinning relationships have been adopted since the agreement between Edmonton and Wonju, South Korea, in 1998. After entering into that agreement, city council established a task force on sister city relations to create a process for dealing with future requests. A report from the city manager in 2007 (pdf) in response to a twinning request from Chappala, Mexico, indicated that council had decided in 1999 not to pursue any more twin or sisters, and concurred with that decision, saying, “The City of Edmonton does not appear to have realized significant tangible benefits by participating in twinning relationships.”
Now the office of protocol is examining the issue again. Hlus did not say when the review process will be complete.

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