Accidental Activist

Digging Through the Custard (Pt. I)

At the start of another new year, it seems like a good idea to look back on my first year as a Hamilton activist.

By Ben Bull
Published January 14, 2005

As I dug around in my Christmas pud last month, it occurred to me how some traditions never lose their luster. Ever since I still believed in Santa my Mum would bury little sixpences in the Yuletide dessert and stand well back as her little flock of monsters set to work digging around in the brandy-flavoured custard and mush, looking for that little sparkle of buried treasure.

Today, I'm digging around in a mush of a different kind. At the start of another new year, it seems like a good idea to look back on my first year as a Hamilton activist, and see what little sixpences I can find among the layers of lumpy custard that are my memories of 2004.

Roller Coaster

The first half of the year was a blast. The roller coaster ride that had begun with my letter to The Hamilton Spectator in October 2003 was still rollicking along. As reaction to my charges that Hamilton was "dying" and failed to compare to Toronto as a "proper town" came pouring onto the letters pages, I found myself courted by Spec columnists like Jeff Mahoney and Paul Wilson, and CHML radio host Roy Green.

By the end of November, I had already been invited onto the radio (twice), spoken to the Mayor several times, asked to endorse his campaign, endorsed someone else's campaign, and generally watched my name thrown around in The Spec as some kind of symbol of everything 'not right' with Hamilton.

The icing came when Roy Green – CHML host with a flair for the newsworthy and controversial – asked me to help set up a citizens' panel to appear on the radio every month and chat about municipal issues. Cool.

And so the exuberant and idealistic Green Berets were formed, ready (or so we thought) to take on the sleaze and the slime of Hamilton city politics. There was a lot of excitement in those early days.

Green Berets

We – the Green Berets - really felt that we had something a little bit different to offer. We came from a broad range of backgrounds and experiences, sat on both sides of the Red Hill, and voted for all different candidates in the municipal, provincial and federal elections. We felt that, as far as Hamilton activist groups went, we were different.

And, of course, we had our secret weapon – Roy. Being broadcast on the CHML airwaves once a month was a huge boost for us. What other activist groups could do this?

We spent these early months forming, storming and norming; setting a mandate; and generally having fun with it all. We started meeting monthly at the Art Gallery on Main, where we would generally sit and complain about everybody being late, and then complain about why June hadn't bothered to buy any milk or coffee, and then complain about which of her art pieces we did or didn't like.

Eventually we'd get down to the real business of complaining about local politics.

By the summer, we had a great bunch of people in the group. There was a 'hard core' of about six of us and four or five other folks who would float in and out at various times. This was both annoying and understandable. One thing I realized early on was that activism is both time consuming and emotionally draining. It's like being angry for fun, but being angry is not fun! Especially if you know damned well that there is very little you can do about it.

Most of us were career people, family people, Mums and Dads, business owners – people with busy lives and other priorities outside of our little activism experiment. An early problem we had was providing the group with a focus.

Losing Focus

We had always wanted to become a downtown champion sort of group. We had a firm grasp on the issues and solutions and importance of downtown revitalization, and we felt we knew where council was dropping the ball – but this didn't fit with the make-up of the radio show, which was intended to cover a broader range of issues.

In hindsight, we should, perhaps, have separated the two aspects there and then, but instead we kept a broad mandate and concentrated on putting together 'good shows'. We quickly found that there was virtually no rhyme or reason as to what would make a good show.

Sometimes we would be on the back foot and throw something together at the last minute – and have a great show. Other times, our meticulous planning would result in a tedious half-hour, with Roy effectively giving us the chop, on account of us talking crap and losing our thread.

I recall an early show about transit. We knew this was a critical issue, but as the show began, I remember thinking, "What am I doing sitting here talking about buses?" Evidently, the CHML audience felt the same way. Nobody called in.

Of course, transit is important. So are trees and sprawl and many other critical Hamilton issues. Nevertheless, we soon realized that there were some things that listeners just don't want to contemplate at 11 O'clock in the morning.

Activist Rage

It wasn't long before I experienced an emotion that I'm sure is common to most activists: rage! But not just any old rage: Activist Rage. Activist Rage is not simply anger, or frustration, or both. It is something I believe is unique to people who immerse themselves in the activist experience. It is a conundrum of emotions jumbled together in the mind of a starry-eyed twit who still thinks he can make a difference in the world.

It's like the one-year-old child who wants a drink but can't talk, so he bangs his fists while his befuddled parents change his diaper for the fifth time that hour. Perhaps activists are nothing but thirsty babies in very clean diapers...

I soon realized that Activist Rage was common to many of us. If there was one defining moment for me in 2004 – one especially shiny sixpence - it would be the day I attended an inter-activists meeting at the Environment Hamilton offices, in early 2004. The meeting was called to share ideas and concerns following the municipal election.

The roundtable introductions were like a who's who of Spec letter writers and Hamilton activists. After the introductions, there was a free exchange of, well – complaints. We all took it in turns to complain about Hamilton. Sometimes the complaints were the same. Sometimes they were almost the same – perhaps a different angle on the same compliant.

"I'm sick of the doughnut effect in Hamilton," one person said. "Our hollow core is simply a byproduct of sprawl and poor growth management."

"Yes, well said. But I think urban sprawl is more of an issue."

"No, no, you are both wrong. Smart growth is our biggest challenge – and failure. We need intensification and careful planning to reduce the sprawl."

"But what's the difference? Isn't that what she just said?"

"Did somebody say doughnuts?"

It was great. For a whole hour, we let all those activist frustrations out. But then - nothing else happened. When it came time to discuss pro-active measures and solutions, it was just blank looks all round. When someone asked, "Apart from complaining – what can we do?" there was silence.

So I thought I would speak up. Perhaps, I thought to myself, Hamilton's newest activist could lead the charge. After all – I do have a radio show and I'm not like these 'other' activists...

I put up my hand to say something meaningful about how there really were no big, easy, anarchistic solutions, just a need for everyone to go out and 'spread the word' in as many ways as possible. I felt a surge of anticipation as my hand was acknowledged, like this was my big moment to break onto the activist scene.

"We need to work together," I began calmly. "We need to talk about the issues! And we need to make people think about the issues!" I paused. "And we need to take action!"

Strange Times

As the months rolled by, we put more and more effort into preparing the radio shows.

We lost Sohail Bhatti in the early part of the year, and this was a blow to the group dynamic. In April, I was asked by my boss to stop doing the show. I was asked in the same way that my parents used to ask me to clean my room. Nobody said, "Or else," but you knew that's what they meant.

These were strange times for us. We got the growing sense that The Green Berets were having an effect. Our goal all along had been to create consequences for city council – to let them know that while we would support their best efforts, we would also be watching them very closely, and reporting back to CHML listeners on what we saw and thought.

Mayor Di Ianni accepted an invitation to meet with us and chat. This was our third meeting with him in six months. (Some) councillors readily returned our emails and we started to develop cordial relationships and find common ground with several journalists, business people and politicians. Many of them had heard us coming. But it was hard for us to tell just how effective we were being.

The radio shows were always great fun. Roy's approach to the show was always - by his own request – completely hands off. We were a little skeptical of this at first – why would a host of his experience simply give up a whole hour to a bunch of yahoos to do with whatever they wanted?

But he did. We had absolute control. So we tried everything – sometimes all at once. We had guests, updates, commentaries, points to ponder, hell - Sohail even dispensed snippets of Chinese wisdom on air (although the rest of us never had the slightest clue what they meant).

Following Mudie's Leeds

Another little sixpence appeared when I got on the phone with the ex-leader of Leeds (my home town in the UK) City Council. George Mudie MP is a legend in UK city politics. After mustering up the courage to call him up for quotes on a Spec article I was putting together, he began to chat away about how Leeds had revitalized itself.

He spoke quickly and enthusiastically and imparted many sparks of wisdom along the way. The only problem was that I missed most of them. Young first-time freelancer Benny Bull did not think to hook up a tape recorder and so he found himself furiously scribbling down the bits and pieces of sentences that came down the phone.

I probably missed some good quotes but all was well when The Spec printed my article in the Focus section in April. You may have missed it. It was tucked away nicely behind the umpteenth episode of "The Sniper."

The Last Sixpence

As the year wore on, the pudding dried up. My heart began to sink as I realized that all the sixpences had been found. Activism became a source of endless frustration. It invaded my everyday life. I would find myself cursing the Red Hill catastrophe in my sleep, bleating about the budget at the breakfast table and bemoaning the Tivoli collapse with my bangers and mash.

My wife learned when to avoid me – which was most of the time. Things came to a head when I decided to skip out on a soccer game one weekend. I was so exhausted for no apparent reason that I simply failed to show up. This was a big deal for me. I had never ever missed a weekend soccer game - other than with a serious illness of some kind - for years. Two years earlier, I had removed a bag of frozen peas from my jock strap and gingerly jogged onto the pitch a day after my vasectomy. And now I was skipping out because I was "too tired?"

Something had to give, and I think that now, as I write this, it probably has. But more on that next week. For now, let me wish everybody a Happy New Year.

The best little sixpence of 2004 has been the response of Hamiltonians to the tsunami disaster. What a great town this is. While we look up to our world leaders – just as we did after 9/11 – we find them, once again, at a loss for words and lacking in leadership. It's comforting to know that ordinary people like us understand instinctively what is important, and what we need to do to make the world a better place.

(Next Month: Losing It, Learning, and Moving On.)

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.


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