For more than three decades, the MD of Lesser Slave River has lobbied the Government of Alberta to prioritize the replacement of an aging covered bridge spanning the Athabasca River. Although at the end of its engineered lifespan, the Smith Bridge is heavily utilized by public motorists and industry traffic alike.

In addition to costing taxpayers needless millions in stopgap repairs, the  design and condition of the bridge have resulted in a bottleneck to the activities of multiple thriving industrial sectors from which the Government of Alberta directly benefits.

We were engaged to shine a spotlight on a critical infrastructure matter that had been overlooked and deprioritized for three decades (and that in recent months had an additional ten years tacked onto its estimated lifespan by a provincial inspector).

The twin goals were to maximize local support for the Smith Bridge rebuild project, and persuade the Province to earmark the funding needed to build a new bridge within the shortest possible timespan. To achieve these goals, we had to find ways to make this particular bridge stand out from the multitude of critical infrastructure projects vying for provincial funding.

The Goals

  • Make a compelling case for replacing the Smith Bridge
  • Convey the value proposition from different perspectives
  • Gauge and gather public support for the undertaking
  • Compel the Province to commit to prioritized infrastructure funding

The Challenges

Time was not our friend on this campaign. Transportation Minister Devin Dreeshen gave the MD until February 20 to deliver the required proof-of-need to the Legislature. This gave us a little over one week to stand up a campaign, elicit letters of support from multiple groups, and collate the responses into a package for provincial decision makers to review.

The Approach

We held focused strategy sessions with MD Council and senior leadership to discuss realistic near-term objectives and deputize key staff members to help us meet them. From these sessions evolved one central truth: this was not about rebuilding an old bridge; it was about safeguarding a transportation corridor for the most lucrative oil play in North America. Without grasping — and then exploiting — this key piece of logic, our undertaking was not likely to resonate with provincial decision makers.

We reserved the vanity URL SmithBridge.ca and developed a microsite where users could submit freeform or templated support letters; complete public opinion surveys; and explore detailed information about the undertaking.

To ramp up the sense of urgency, we crafter video vignettes where Councillors made their arguments for a new bridge and encouraged citizens to do their part prior to the deadline. Posted to MD social media channels and shared with other community partners, these videos helped convey the social hardships and industrial bottlenecks posed by the present bridge, and underscored the importance of public participation in the support campaign.

We heavily promoted awareness of SmithBridge.ca via road signage; community posters; print and digital advertising; and word-of-mouth. To interrupt well-worn patterns, we replaced the MD’s standard design system with a coarse, industrial, in-your-face aesthetic. Across all touchpoints, we employed straightforward messaging and one simple call-to-action: have your say at SmithBridge.ca.

This was not about rebuilding an old bridge; it was about safeguarding a transportation corridor for the most lucrative oil play in North America.

In parallel to our awareness blitz and engagement activities, Lesser Slave River’s councillors and senior leadership team were reaching out to their respective contacts in oil & gas, agriculture, forestry and local government. It was all hands on deck as we raced toward the February 22 finish line.

Data Storytelling Elements
User-Select Letter Templates
Surveys and Public Sound Bites

“The Tangent Civic team was fundamental in driving this campaign home across our community and business sectors. This is proof positive that when we stand together, we have the power to effect real change.”

Murray Kerik
Reeve, Municipal District of Lesser Slave River

The Result

At the end of our week-long campaign, the SmithBridge.ca microsite garnered hundreds of submissions from community members, seasonal cottagers, oil & gas and forestry representatives, and neighbouring municipalities. Roughly 20 percent of the MD’s community members participated in our Smith Bridge support campaign by submitting letters of endorsement and taking the survey.

Penned by authors ranging in age from 6 to 80, the letters conveyed various fears about what would happen to the community if the bridge were no longer in service, and they contained aspirations for a thriving and connected community.

Many respondents were industry proponents who underscored the economic benefits of rebuilding the Smith Bridge. Other submissions were from local families whose livelihoods depend on unimpeded access to Slave Lake, Mitsue and Marten Hills. The simplest and arguably most compelling letters came from students of the Smith School who worried about losing access to friends and family members across the Athabasca River.

On February 22, 2023, a large package containing the curated letters of support and survey responses was hand delivered to Minister Dreeshen at the Edmonton Legislature.

In the first week of March, Minister of Transportation and Economic Corridors Devin Dreeshen advised MD Council that initial phases of the Smith Bridge rebuild project would be supported via $2.4 million in Strategic Transportation Infrastructure Program (STIP) funding. STIP is a provincially funded grant program that provides financial assistance to rural municipalities to develop and maintain key local transportation infrastructure.