stratford—In 2001, I took a carload of people to a reading by Chris Rickett, infamous resident and future political operator of Stratford, Ontario. We had dinner at a friend’s house—venison meat sauce over spaghetti, followed by tabs of acid and copious cans of beer. Finally, we wandered over to a packed café, where the Stratford counterculture awaited its rebel hero.
A punk band, Lungbutter, raised the tempo for the fervent crowd, until Rickett finally hit the stage for a vituperative rant about the frustrations of small-town radicalism. He had recently lost his first bid for city council by a narrow margin, and was being sued for publishing a photo of a busker’s buttocks on the cover of his independent magazine, What’s Up, Chuck?
Rickett attacked the town council and police for harassing him, and drew laughs when he noted that the suit against What’s Up, Chuck? named a local dog, the official “owner/publisher” of his peripatetic zine. By the end of the night, the party would rove across the city, a bed would be thrown down a stairwell, and several diehards would pay tribute to their leader by adorning local paths with sick.
These days, Stratford’s baddest bad boy spends most of his time amid the very people he used to rail against. Four years after that night of bed-smashing, Rickett, reformed gadfly-rebel, is halfway through a three-year term as a city councillor. As unlikely as it seems, this relatively affluent city of 30,000, bestknown for its staid Shakespeare festival, has elected a twenty-eight-year-old baby-faced anarchist. “On election night,” says Mayor Dan Mathieson, “there were a lot of people who had concerns that we would be a dysfunctional group. But Chris has worked hard to prove to people that he has the best interests of the community in mind.”
Rickett’s first task as a councillor was to face up to the invective he’d been spewing at his colleagues. Since starting up his zine in 1997, he had regularly lambasted council for its lack of vision and its pro-business, law-and-order agenda. Once, after being rejected for a position with Stratford’s youth committee, he singled out then-councillor Mathieson for criticism: “I had attended every meeting,” Rickett wrote, “which is more than can be said for other members of the committee, such as councillor Dan Mathieson. But I’m sure he’s a busy guy.”
“Water under the bridge now,” says a slightly sheepish Rickett. “We’ve been elected to work together to get business done. I apologized for some of the stuff I’ve written that went a bit too far. Me and the mayor get along great.”
“Chris had often lampooned me,” says the mayor, “and while some of the comments were very much satire, some of them were pretty personal. Chris and I have had lots of conversations about his comments; he’s apologized for them. You gotta move on; I’ve learned that in politics.”
Mathieson and Rickett are moving on in a big way. Between Rickett, his best friend Sam Dinicol, twenty-five, who was also elected in 2003, and the mayor, who is only thirty-four, Stratford has one of the youngest city councils in Canada. And contrary to what many predicted, the city continues to run smoothly, infused with new energy and fresh ideas.
Rickett alone sits on more than a dozen local committees. He has shepherded the creation of a skate park, initiated an experiment to run Stratford’s buses on biodiesel fuel, and successfully lobbied the city to agree to reduce greenhouse gases by 20 percent in ten years.
Which isn’t to say everything is perfect. The council includes local business people and councillors in their seventies, so there is bound to be debate. One particularly divisive argument looms concerning a proposed downtown Wal-Mart. Rickett would no doubt love to see Wal-Mart banned but he has come to learn the importance of compromise.
“The older guys on council respect anyone who’s willing to sit down and put the hours in,” he says. “You’re never going to agree on every issue, but you might need some support on the next vote, so you can’t let it get personal.”
Although those may sound more like the words of a seasoned politician than an underground publishing punk, Rickett stays true to his roots through his annual punk ball, which mixes formal attire with loud music and good causes.
“I myself am not a punk fan at all,” says the mayor, “but I’ve attended a couple of Chris’s fundraisers to show support. . . . It’s broadened my horizons.”
Rickett’s life—part farce, part political drama—seems made for Stratford. So what’s next? Mayor? In this city, they may have to crown the kid king.