Opinion

Compromise Works Both Ways

It takes two to compromise or negotiate, but expressway supporters refused even to consider the many alternatives proposed by Friends of Red Hill and others.

By Don McLean
Published October 07, 2005

It is curious that Marvin Caplan, a former city councillor who supported the Red Hill Creek Expressway, now offers helpful advice to opponents of the project. Less surprising is that he thinks we should have "compromised" by abandoning our efforts to protect Hamilton's largest park in return for some concessions. His comments are problematic on a whole series of levels.

He claims that there were no alternatives to building the road, conveniently forgetting that David Crombie laid out a very detailed alternative in 1994, the year Mr. Caplan was elected to city council. Crombie was a former conservative cabinet minister appointed by the provincial government specifically to find a compromise. His proposal - a valley road without the six interchanges that will cut the greenspace into 30 pieces - was accepted by Friends of Red Hill Valley, but completely rejected by pro-expressway politicians and organizations.

This wasn't the only time that Friends of Red Hill and other expressway opponents sought a compromise. The provincial NDP government in 1990 offered funding for a north-south road outside the valley, but that was also rejected. More than one proposal for a modified Highway 20 met the same fate.

Mr. Caplan seems to forget that it takes two to negotiate or compromise. He offers not a single instance in which pro-expressway councillors or their backers in the development sector and the Chamber of Commerce gave the slightest indication of a willingness to talk. Indeed, all them took the position for nearly twenty years that "the debate is over" and refused even to discuss the issue, much less negotiate with opponents.

Mr. Caplan makes reference to the Council decision to call some hazard lands in upper Stoney Creek a replacement for the lost valley lands. He neglects to point out that this idea was first raised after the expressway construction began, and after Mr. Caplan was removed from council. His memory that "some members of council managed to wrest several major concessions on the construction and implementation of the Expressway" is news to me and, I expect, to everyone else who opposed the project.

What is most amazing, however, is that Mr. Caplan can suggest there was a possibility of negotiations or compromise given council's decision last fall to sue opponents of the road, and to sue more than 60 federal government employees for trying to do their job to ensure that Red Hill went through a proper environmental assessment.

Note that this decision took place a full year after the chainsaws and bulldozers had taken over the valley. Bill Dunphy of the Hamilton Spectator got it right when he described this as the city returning to the battlefield to shoot the wounded.

So I would suggest that Mr. Caplan's "solution" is neither practical nor honest. Nevertheless, it is very important to discuss why citizens ultimately failed to protect Red Hill Valley and what lessons that holds for other efforts to alter the developer-driven agenda at city hall.

In a backhanded sort of way, Mr. Caplan does offer one practical solution. Citizens can and should work hard to replace problematic councillors. That's what they did to Mr. Caplan in 2003 and that's what they need to do in many more wards in November of next year. Good candidates need to start knocking on doors in January, and residents who really care about change should be at their side.

A second lesson of the Red Hill struggle is that we must work to expand the media in Hamilton. When the only daily paper, the only news radio station, and the only television station all lined up in support of the expressway, the task of unravelling the spin and outright lies on Red Hill became extremely difficult.

No city of this size in Canada has so few mass media outlets. For example, Winnipeg and Quebec City each have four television stations. Hamilton's situation is made even worse by the fact that the weekly newspapers are have the same ownership as the Spectator. We must have more sources of information and opinion.

This lesson has been taken to heart as illustrated by the birth of Raise the Hammer, Mayday, H Magazine, and other efforts to enhance discussion about civic affairs in Hamilton.

I've put much of my recent efforts into CATCH, a group that monitors city meetings and tries to increase the flow of civic information to the public. This experience has also underlined a third answer to Ryan's question: if you want to change minds at city council, you need to get to know the councillors and the issues they are grappling with.

In any battle over a specific issue, it is easy to divide decision-makers into good guys and bad guys (with apologies to women politicians, of whom we need many more). That's also a good way to make sure no one's mind changes, to make sure no backward councillor learns anything, and to leave the "convincing" task to the other side.

Overall, I think there's also a very disturbing lesson for Hamiltonians from the Red Hill battle. Politics in this city is a winner-take-all game, or what Dana Robbins recently referred to as a "blood sport". The elite views all opposition as tantamount to revolution, and treats all opponents as sworn enemies. That's probably the main reason Hamilton is doing so poorly.

Leadership means serving everyone, not just your friends or those who agree with you.

Don McLean is chair of Friends of Red Hill Valley and coordinator of Citizens at City Hall, a volunteer group that has monitored city affairs since 2004 and distributes free news articles via email. The group can be contacted at info@hamiltoncatch.org.

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