Are We Ready for the Conversation?

Is Hamilton ready to have a serious discussion about the future of our city that doesn't resort to name-calling or dismissing whole neighbourhoods as an irredeemable write-off?

By Jason Allen
Published September 28, 2013

In August, I traveled to Calgary, the city in which I grew up, and thanks to a re-location of our various families, I had time to visit old friends I hadn't seen in a while.

Through a miracle of scheduling coincidence, I finally managed to sit down with my old grade-school/University friend Naheed Nenshi, now mayor of Calgary, and his chief of staff Chima Nkemdirim, also a friend from both University and High School.

As one does, when luncheoning with the most popular sitting Mayor in Canada, who swept to office on a wave of social media and voter engagement Calgary hadn't seen in a generation, I asked him: "How did you win?"

His answer revealed as much about a city in transition as it did about his tactical skill at elections.

Remarkable Achievement

When Naheed declared his candidacy in early 2010, he did so at a small rally of friends and supporters, during which he made one of his now famous speeches.

At that time, before smartphones were ubiquitous, a local community activist showed up at the speech with a handful of flip-cams and filmed the entire speech - all 14 minutes or so - and posted it to YouTube.

The campaign team watched the results closely, and saw that in a matter of weeks, it was up to 100,000 views.

More importantly, though, when they asked the person who had recorded the speech for his analytics, they revealed that virtually everyone was watching the entire 14 minute video.

In a world of sound-bite politics, it was a remarkable achievement.

It marked what Naheed credits as an important condition for his success: Calgary was ready for the conversation he had been waiting his whole professional life to have.

Ready for the Conversation

Calgary was ready for a conversation about urban planning, about limiting sprawl, about transit and cycling and walkability. Calgary was ready to have a lengthy, thoughtful discussion about where it was headed, and where its newly-engaged and passionate citizens wanted to take it.

In the months that followed, Naheed developed his Better Ideas - 12 platform planks for improving Calgary. Each policy statement contained a one-page summary, plus extensive briefing notes that in some cases ran to a dozen pages.

In the latter stages of the campaign, a member of the media analyzed the various campaigns' literature, and found that one of Naheed's briefings contained more pages of content than all of the other Mayoralty candidates' platforms combined.

Calgary was indeed ready for what Naheed had branded as 'Politics in Complete Sentences.'

Is Hamilton Ready?

This raises the question: Is Hamilton ready for the same discussion?

Citizens are engaged like never before on issues such as the Downtown Casino, school closures and complete streets.

Active participation has spread far beyond a small group of groundbreaking activists to a large, complex web of people engaging in projects and campaigns that they care about deeply, and to which they bring a diverse set of skills.

We have Canada's only crowd-funded journalist, and an influx of energetic residents who are not prepared to settle for the second-best to which many Hamiltonians seem to have become resigned. Their views are infectious.

Now a broad cross-section of Hamiltonians (both demographic and geographic) seems prepared to be uncharacteristically vocal about where they want their city to be headed, in a way that is clearly alarming to some long-serving Councillors.

Lingering Tension

But while the sense of optimism in what Graham Crawford has dubbed the New Hamilton is spreading, there are still large numbers of Hamiltonians who seem mired in old ways of doing things.

More concerned about travel times from Hwy 403 through Downtown than the safety of those who live there. More concerned about reducing taxes than building badly-needed infrastructure. More ready than ever to write off entire sections of the city as a cesspool that they would never have any reason to visit. As willing as ever to leave the detail-shmetail up to someone else.

A tension also exists between the urban and suburban, between the lower city and the rest of amalgamated Hamilton that continues to dominate the decision-making process at city hall.

It's a tension that has paralyzed Toronto, but due to the almost entirely suburban make-up of Calgary, doesn't factor as much into their situation.

So Are We Ready?

In Hamilton, though, this fundamental disagreement on how the city should be structured seems to impede every step forward that the progressive voices on Council try to take. Someone must be telling their councillors to vote this way.

We're left with the question: Is Hamilton ready to have a serious discussion about the future of our city? One that doesn't resort to name-calling or painting the proud neighbourhoods of tens of thousands of Hamiltonians as an irredeemable write-off?

And if so, who is our Naheed Nenshi?

First published on Jason's website.

Jason Allen is a chronic hive whacker in the Kirkendall Neighbourhood.


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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted September 28, 2013 at 10:17:35

Creating a livable core is the only way we will be able to reduce taxes. There must be a way to make this information digestible by those who see $100,000 spent downtown as waste while turning a blind eye to millions spent on roads out at the fringes...?

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By Mark-AlanWhittle (registered) - website | Posted September 28, 2013 at 10:31:51

Actually the only realistic way to reduce property taxes is to permanently reduce costs. We have more city employees now (7,200) than we had during Amalgamation. Every year, including the recession years, staffing increased. The city farms out more work than is actually done by city employees. We have 600 managers. Time to right-size, something we should have done ten years ago.

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted September 28, 2013 at 11:44:16

FWIW, here are popular vote shares for Hamilton’s last nine mayoral victories.

Bob Morrow, 1985: 59.03%
Bob Morrow, 1988: 90.87%
Bob Morrow, 1991: 87.3%
Bob Morrow, 1994: 87.3%
Bob Morrow, 1997: 75.1%
Robert Wade, 2000: 42.27%
Larry DiIanni, 2003: 50.92%
Fred Eisenberger, 2006: 43.21%
Bob Bratina. 2010: 37.32%

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By Lunchpail (anonymous) | Posted October 01, 2013 at 22:30:18 in reply to Comment 92738

Morrow was 36 when he was elected in 1982.

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted September 28, 2013 at 11:53:25

In 2010, Calgary's three-term mayor declined to run. Comparing Wikipedia’s 2007 and 2010 Calgary municipal election entries, four sitting aldermen also did not run in 2010. My suspicion is that would increase the odds of an attentive audience. It appears that of the 10 incumbent aldermanic candidates going into Calgary's 2010 election, only one lost (and lost badly, placing fourth in a field of six). A mayor still has to leverage votes from city council. If Nenshi’s aldermanic endorsements go south in next month’s elections, he may have a testy team dynamic.

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted September 28, 2013 at 11:55:10

I believe that there is considerable readiness of the voting public to engage in Wards 1 & 2 and to a certain extent 3-5, but that rosy picture is shaded by turnout: Ward 7 residents delivered about as many votes in the last city election as Wards 1 & 2 combined, and Ward 8 residents cast about as many votes in the last city election as Wards 3 & 4. If you were running for mayor, where would you spend your time campaigning?

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By Dm (anonymous) | Posted September 28, 2013 at 13:57:11

Are there statistics that show the route from 403 to those that live east of the core is anymore or less dangerous than other streets? I don't see that as an regular traveller but would love to see the statistics that show main and king to be more dangerous. Or is it a perception?

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By Noted (anonymous) | Posted September 28, 2013 at 14:29:35

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By mrjanitor (registered) | Posted September 28, 2013 at 15:38:16

Outstanding article. I wanted to keep reading.

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By Joshua (registered) | Posted September 28, 2013 at 15:44:08

Currently, according to the property tax information from the city at the residential tax rate is 1.71% whereas the multi-residential tax rate is 3.49%. Perhaps reducing the multi-residential tax rate so that it's at least equal to the residential rate would help take the tax burden from Hamiltonians in apartments. On the other end of the scale, raising development charges on industrial and commercial properties, especially for sewer and water use due to all the paved parking-lots, might help regain that lost revenue. The property taxes are taxes I don't mind paying at all, as long as they're supporting civic programmes with which I can agree.

While I don't agree with the unending support for heritage properties, as that seems to me to be a wealthy person's game, I would support the revision of those properties into affordable and non-profit housing. Perhaps the Threshold School of Building or Habitat for Humanity could partner with Mohawk College and other trade-schools to help with these changes. Sean, I agree with what you said: a livable core, in the literal and metaphorical sense, is the only way to reduce taxation; sharing the burden, too, is another way and anyone who's worn a back-pack unevenly knows that one shoulder tires more than the other. The way we treat and care for the weakest in our society shows our humanity and concern for one another and makes this city the best place to raise a child.

I had no idea that Joey Coleman (I assume it's he of whom you're speaking) was Canada's only crowd-funded journalist. That's downright awesome; his coverage of local politics and, recently, the Hamilton Police Services Board meeting, pre-Bratina's step-down, is remarkable. I'd like to continue to have a serious conversation about our city's future. I was born and raised in this town and we've nowhere else to go for we carry ourselves with us.

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By TnT (registered) | Posted September 28, 2013 at 23:13:02 in reply to Comment 92750

Not sure about the above comment: ....unending support of heritage properties.... Lately there has been a discussion, but no support.

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By Joshua (registered) | Posted September 29, 2013 at 06:49:34 in reply to Comment 92752

Sorry. I meant more support on this discussion site for heritage properties than in city council.

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By Mal (anonymous) | Posted September 28, 2013 at 16:39:40

Nenshi is a charismatic speaker and has policy gravitas. The fact that he hailed from outside of the established political order may have made him a phenomenon. Hard to imagine that a multi-term incumbent would generate as much spontaneous heat. Hamilton's tendency to draft talent from the ranks of council may dial down the excitement levels.

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By Groan (anonymous) | Posted September 30, 2013 at 01:03:07 in reply to Comment 92751

Hamilton's tendency to draft talent from the ranks of local broadcasters may dial down the talent levels.

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By Colin Ferguson (anonymous) | Posted September 29, 2013 at 10:12:18

Thanks for taking the time to post on an interesting matter.

I read the article with an open mind, as you asked, and hit a few quotes like this:
"In Hamilton, though, this fundamental disagreement on how the city should be structured seems to impede every step forward that the progressive voices on Council try to take. Someone must be telling their councillors to vote this way."

My takeaway is that you're saying, "we should have a debate, then people should convert to your progressive point of view?"

I hope you didn't mean that, as clearly that'd mean we are NOT ready for the conversation. Being open means you need to understand and be ready to be convinced by others. Hamilton is famous for our one way streets; our conversations shouldn't go that way as well.

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By hamiltonelection2014 (anonymous) | Posted September 30, 2013 at 23:20:37

Ward 1 Councillor Brian McHattie has announced that he will run for Mayor in the 2014 Hamilton municipal election:

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