Special Report: Light Rail

LRT Opposition and Fear of Change

How far are LRT opponents willing to go to turn their predictions of doom into self-fulfilling prophesies?

By Michael Nabert
Published September 28, 2016

Rendering: LRT alignment at King and Walnut
Rendering: LRT alignment at King and Walnut

A City Divided

I'm sure you know the folk saying: a house divided cannot stand. Hamilton is needlessly a city divided.

The light rail transit (LRT) project serves as a flashpoint for larger issues - like area rating for transit, which regularly pit one part of Hamilton against another, squandering the city's energies. We find ourselves locked in self-defeating internal struggles, like our left arm fighting our right one, instead of working together for mutual benefit.

This is a holdover from the city's forced amalgamation under Mike Harris, although the conflict is now as much ideological as geographical. I seem to see one group of citizens spreading a hopeful message of the whole city thriving, while another frames civic decisions in terms of narrow self-interest and speaks in a language of fear.

Some of that fear may be well-founded. For goodness' sake, half of the country is living paycheck to paycheck within $200 of a financial crisis, so some economic anxiety is just rational.

Streets under construction will mean fewer feet at the doorways of local businesses, and I'm sure some of them are barely surviving by shrinking margins as it is. I have great empathy for someone who has poured their lives for years into a business that feels threatened.

What's really jaw-dropping here, though, is not that there are business owners reacting out of fear, but the extent to which LRT opponents are willing to cross certain lines. When the heavy rail disaster in Lac-Megantic is invoked in reference to the LRT, we have definitely plunged off a cliff into the absurd.

Not only is it disrespectful to those who suffered from that tragedy, but the only way the LRT could explode downtown is if it's somehow filled up with ... explosive people? When your argument devolves into furiously delivered nonsense, it's Donald Trumpism. Surely we can do better than that.

Embrace Opportunity or Resist Change

Here's a lesser-known folk saying: There are two ways to catch a thrown knife - by the blade or by the handle. Any massive investment pretty much always comes with silver lining.

An LRT can open the door to smart urban intensification, including job and economic growth, when paired with smart development policy. That pairing is important. Embracing the opportunity is likelier to mean good news than looking a gift horse in the mouth so hard you kick its feet from under it.

This is why the tone of the anti-LRT sentiment is so troubling. It's not hard to find people announce, I'll never set foot in downtown or support any business there again if this thing happens statements from the No LRT crowd.

At that level, it's a bald, angry threat: do this thing I don't like, and I'll punish the city by doing what I can to make sure it fails and hurts downtown businesses.

Ultimately, the citizens of a city can make all kinds of circumstances work by pulling together and making the most of it. We also have the option of fighting tooth and nail against our own interests.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

We love to be proven right and hate admitting we got it wrong, particularly when we're emotionally engaged enough to be as angry as the No LRT crowd. This leads me to wonder whether this will be horrible for the city and/or me! is so important as a rallying cry that, consciously or otherwise, some of our citizens may turn it into a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Businesses that will see LRT construction happening right outside their windows have legitimate concerns. Some are working hard to understand the challenges of construction and strengthen customer relationships in the hope that we're going to keep shopping there despite the temporary inconvenience.

A few others are burning bridges with potential customers by pouring their energy into aggressive rhetoric, illegal spam emails, illegal postering, and public misinformation.

If their business suffers precisely the way they are predicting, I can't imagine that they'll ever consider any possibility that they shot themselves in the foot.

They're going to proclaim that they've been proven right and that everything that went wrong for them was the fault of everyone who wanted the LRT, and that festering resentment may provide the excuse for more anti-civic sentiment down the line.

Threatened by Change

Council has already voted on LRT literally dozens of times and gotten the sweetest deal the province has offered any municipality.

This vitriolic argument is not really a battle over LRT. It's a struggle between people determined to see us thrive by embracing change, and those who are so threatened by change they're willing to punish the city for it.

We can fight one another, or we can work together. If the people of Hamilton band together to help the downtown thrive, it will thrive. That's the power of living in a city of civically-engaged people.

A billion-dollar investment in our city from the province is worth making the most of. Even if it's not quite everything it's cracked up to be, there's no way we won't see a benefit from coming together to build our city up rather than listening to voices tearing it down.

At that point, we wouldn't just be a house that stands together, we can be a city that soars.

Writer Michael Nabert has been a dedicated environmentalist for three decades, won an environmentalist of the year award for it, and reached an audience of millions online. He doesn't care whether you believe him personally, but if you don't believe the consensus of the world's experts, you might want to ask yourself why that is.


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By JasonL (registered) | Posted September 28, 2016 at 08:05:48

I used to believe that any joe blow should be able to run for city council, but I've come full circle having watched what happens when those with zero expertise, training or education start to interfere with expert plans and monumental city-building projects.

Not sure what an appropriate minimum standard should be for a city councillor, but one only needs to look at the quality of ideas and initiative we grew accustomed too from Brian McHattie with his Masters degree in Planning vs. councillors whose previous life experience was working at movie rental stores, playing minor hockey in Northern Ontario and reading teleprompters.

yes, I know the response will be that we'll miss out on some good grassroots community builders, but the damage potentially being done by the councillors with the least amount of education, experience and qualifications to be overseeing a billion dollar corporation is too large a risk to take.

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By RobF (registered) | Posted September 28, 2016 at 12:21:04 in reply to Comment 120148

You should read about Ken Soble and Graham Emslie.

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By ergopepsi (registered) | Posted September 28, 2016 at 08:59:53 in reply to Comment 120148

It's interesting that Aristotle wasn't a big fan of democracy. He felt that without a largely involved middle class democratic rulers would resort to basing their decisions on emotion or personal opinion rather than being objective. Sound familiar? Not bad for a 2500 year old idea eh?

I think if we have to stick with democracy then certain levels of government should not have the ability to affect projects of a certain size or influence. Or, perhaps the size of the government should be taken into account. A city council the size of Toronto's for example would be able to make decisions on larger projects whereas the 15 people in Hamilton wouldn't have a hope in hell of influencing a long term 1 billion dollar project. That would be in the hands of the province.

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By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted September 28, 2016 at 08:17:54 in reply to Comment 120148

Not saying I like having to argue with trolls-in-power but what kind of democracy limits representation to a small subset of the population? You don't need a master's degree to be an effective leader and representative in government.

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By ergopepsi (registered) | Posted September 28, 2016 at 09:12:57 in reply to Comment 120150

That's an oligarchy, however JasonL is referring to aristocracy - 'rule of the best'. The biggest problem with aristocracy is that the word has been co-opted by warlords ( whose offspring are touring BC at the moment ) who are far from the best suited to rule. I think it would be interesting to come up with a set of qualifications for a city councilor. If we're going to fix our political systems - large and small - I'd rather start with small.

BTW, aristocracy is already in place to a large degree at the federal level. You don't go from working at Tim's to being Minister of Finance.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted September 28, 2016 at 09:17:02 in reply to Comment 120153

I think the correct term is actually "meritocracy" (promotion or government based on ability) or "technocracy" (government by experts).

An aristocracy is actually the opposite of what Jason meant: ability or expertise has no bearing, those governing are chosen based entirely on who their ancestors were regardless of their qualifications!

(Interestingly, one of Napoleon's innovations was to promote officers based on proven ability, rather than class. This was an innovation in Europe where officers were chosen based on class and family connections. Eventually all other armies followed suit and the idea of promotion based on ability, or meritocracy, became the standard everywhere from business to civil services.)

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2016-09-28 09:17:37

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By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted September 28, 2016 at 10:07:05 in reply to Comment 120154

The problem with meritocracy is that it favours those who benefit from privilege (i.e. white men). People who have the best access to education, connections and experiences that equip them to excel will rise to the top - in Canada that acess is not evenly distributed.

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By ergopepsi (registered) | Posted September 28, 2016 at 10:35:44 in reply to Comment 120157

'Meritocracy' is a term invented in the 50's by using the familiar method of picking a noun or adjective and appending 'ocracy' to it. Think 'gate'. There's actually a wikipedia page listing all of the '-gate' scandals. My favourite is 'Gategate'.

It started as the title of a sci-fi book 'Rise of the Meritocracy' which describes a dystopian society where those who are 'fit to lead' end up serving their own interests while disenfranchising the lower classes.

At the end of the day if people are selfish, greedy and/or stupid any political system will fail.

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By ergopepsi (registered) | Posted September 28, 2016 at 09:27:06 in reply to Comment 120154

Aristotle's definition of aristocracy is different to the common definition we understand today. Certainly the kings and queens of the Napoleonic era ( and much earlier ) decided that they were very aristocratic - and who would dare argue otherwise?

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted September 28, 2016 at 09:02:23 in reply to Comment 120150

I am strongly against setting any minimum formal qualifications for running for elected office.

However, the current municipal situation in Ontario where parties are not allowed (unlike BC) means that candidates win primarily on name recognition and incumbents are almost always re-elected for the same reason.

Moving to a system where candidates could compete on knowledge, platform and ability (and maybe even some specific relevant experience), rather than simple name recognition, would be much better than the current system. Many recent winners won primarily because they were local media personalities.

Having political parties, with a clear consistent platform, would also make it easier for people to vote based on the issues rather than pure personality. They would also know that a group of councillors would work together for the good of the city as a whole, rather than focus on parochial issues (or, bizarrely, focus on attacking the initiatives in other wards to play to the prejudices of their own ward, as is increasingly happening).

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted September 29, 2016 at 01:31:19 in reply to Comment 120152

However, the current municipal situation in Ontario where parties are not allowed...

Kevin's comment: This statement is simply untrue. We have a right to Freedom of Association. We have a constitutional right to form municipal political parties in Ontario and every other province in Canada.

Any group of like-minded people can come together, decide upon a common political platform and present themselves to the municipal voters as a team that will enact their policies if elected.

This is exactly what happened in Toronto, with Rob Ford, Doug Ford and Mike Ford presenting themselves as a team with common political policies. As a result, when Rob Ford got sick, Doug Ford was able to replace him on the mayoral ballot and the voters knew that they were voting for the same style of politics. I don't agree with that style of politics, or the Family Compact nature of their political team, but I do support their right of Freedom of Association.

Indeed, under the banner of Ford Nation they tried to expand the political association to achieve a majority on Toronto City Council, but this effort came to naught.

Comment edited by KevinLove on 2016-09-29 01:41:21

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted September 29, 2016 at 06:57:40 in reply to Comment 120172

Informal associations are allowed, but party names cannot appear on the ballot and candidates cannot pool financial resources and fundraising.

In other words, any party organization is weak and largely invisible to the electors. This is not at all the same situation as at the federal or provincial levels (or in other provinces). In fact, federal and provincial parties are prohibited from advertising or funding candidates at the municipal level.

See this attempt for the NDP to form a Toronto-level associated party for an attempt to form a sort of party at the municipal level:

Since there was no mechanism for parties to register or to operate officially on the municipal level, the NDP operation was largely informal. Local ward associations were set up to nominate candidates in a number of wards, particularly downtown wards, but no party name ever appeared on a ballot - and there was no mechanism for the Metro NDP to accept election donations.


Clearly, if official political parties (sharing resources and fielding a slate of candidates under party names) were allowed in Ontario we would have seen it by now!

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2016-09-29 06:58:11

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By JPDanko (registered) - website | Posted September 29, 2016 at 10:34:00 in reply to Comment 120173

Party organization at the municipal level is anything but weak.

All parties run municipal candidates with party supporter lists, party volunteers, party contacts for campaign materials and other party resources mobilized on behalf of their preferred candidate. I do agree that this is largely hidden from view - but the only real difference to an official party is that parties are not listed on the ballot. That and there is no nomination process - so parties can end up supporting multiple candidates.

Name recognition is difficult to overcome yes - but official political parties at the municipal level would create an even more entrenched system.

First - it would eliminate candidates who want to get involved just to make a difference, who don't have higher level political aspirations. Second - it forces candidates into representing the party's views not necessarily their constituents. Third - it would create an even bigger barrier for an independent candidate to win - or even enter the race - reinforcing the election of politicos.

Finally, qualifications can be an election issue - but its up to the candidates to make it into a ballot question.

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By RobF (registered) | Posted September 29, 2016 at 15:21:09 in reply to Comment 120176

I don't disagree with the gist of what you are saying, but party organization at the municipal level is weak. That's not to say political parties don't wield influence though the mechanisms you list, but to say that they are forced to do it indirectly and with much less direct control.

The race in Ward 7 had two "NDP" candidates ... with no formal nomination process that happens. That is what's meant by weak party organization.

You are 100% right about how the formal introduction of parties would impact independent candidates.

I would suggest that ultimately the question of qualifications falls to the voters ... they choose who they want to represent them. The problem in municipal elections is voter apathy.

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By JasonL (registered) | Posted September 28, 2016 at 13:55:25 in reply to Comment 120152

I like the sounds of this. Didn't mean to derail the purpose of this fine article, but am enjoying the comments. Certainly no intent to limit governance to the elite, but rather to those with ability and qualifications to lead a billion $ corporation. Where else on earth do we pick some random joe blow's with no credentials to make such massive decisions that will be felt for generations to come?

The idea of a board of control, like Hamilton used to have, seems to have merit. Councillors from all regions of the city given the mandate to make city-wide decisions. The current system is a total joke and puts us in positions like our current LRT 'debate', being driven by people without an ounce of credential or knowledge.

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By RobF (registered) | Posted September 28, 2016 at 15:38:10 in reply to Comment 120164

The board of control is no panacea ... it was designed to counter the graft and parochialism of alderman as ward bosses, but evolved into a stepping stone for politicians with aspirations for higher office.

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By JasonL (registered) | Posted September 28, 2016 at 20:10:23 in reply to Comment 120168

definitely no panacea, but could anything be worse than the current system? The rich suburban areas just oppose any and all investment in the old inner city, but except us to all feel honoured to continue paying for their Linc, Red Hill, 403 extensions, Hwy 6 widenings, cloverleafs, Red Hill and Linc widenings etc.......

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By RobF (registered) | Posted September 28, 2016 at 23:30:19 in reply to Comment 120169

I think you're asking the wrong question. At the very least you need to establish why any alternative would be better.

Boards of control fell out of favour for good reason. But more importantly there is no reason to believe given the current boundaries and distribution of voters in Hamilton that the Board of Control would be any different in terms of suburban areas standing in opposition to spending that is perceived to be counter to their interests. The only mitigating factor would be the influence of campaign donors.

What is really at issue is the balance of power on council and not the quality of the councillors, per se. That isn't to say I'm impressed by the antics of certain councillors ...

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By JasonL (registered) | Posted September 29, 2016 at 08:37:10 in reply to Comment 120170

true the balance of power is wonky, but a board of control where only 3 or 5 councillors are elected at large to represent the entire city seems to have more potential than this current abysmal system.

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By RobF (registered) | Posted September 29, 2016 at 14:51:40 in reply to Comment 120174

I follow your logic. My point is you need to consider more than just the flaws of the existing system. Political or governance systems can all be gamed ... changes the rules and the players adjust accordingly.

Rather than a board of control, I'd suggest that given Hamilton's geography we double the number of councillors (elect two per ward) and create community/sub-area committees that report to City Council.

The Toronto Council has a community council sub-structure. They still have many problems that flow from the legacy of amalgamation and other governance changes that took place in the Harris years, but the basic idea should be to ensure that local government is responsive to constituents, but is mindful of city-wide or metropolitan needs.

The board of control centralized oversight of municipal expenditures, but also tended to frustrate innovation.

Comment edited by RobF on 2016-09-29 15:07:38

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By LeeEdwardMcIlmoyle (registered) - website | Posted September 28, 2016 at 09:20:47

I'm not 100% convinced party lines would ameliorate that issue, but I DO agree that we need to get people voting on the issues instead of on name recognition alone. The loudest, most ever present public personage is rarely if ever the best person for making hard decisions about how to allocate and facilitate public spending. We've been inculcated in the cult of celebrity to such a degree, we can't imagine anyone being famous unless they know something we don't. On the face of it, it's obviously a fallacy, but we do it anyway, because looking deeper and keeping a scorecard is hard work that most of us aren't trained to do easily or well. Even smart people get it wrong with alarming frequency.

I'm a staunch believer in democracy, the more direct, the better. But we aren't leveraging our society's inherent engagement practices properly, so we're missing out on golden opportunities to really get the engagement we need to get better representation. We need to deliver infographic stories and videos to everyone within reach, so they can be informed without being overwhelmed by data and jargon they're ill equipped to handle. Engagement 101: Go where the people are, and talk to them in their language.

Comment edited by LeeEdwardMcIlmoyle on 2016-09-28 09:21:17

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted September 28, 2016 at 12:13:05 in reply to Comment 120155

Democracy only works if the public is informed. This is why the press is the Fourth Estate, and why cities government won't work unless there's local journalism (IE journalism that isn't talking about Trudeau and Trump all the time).

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By drb (registered) - website | Posted September 28, 2016 at 13:35:52

My thoughts are about alleviating the fears when change occurs (specifically regarding LRT in Hamilton), not so much about democracy: I would be very interested in seeing the city incentivize support for the businesses affected by the ongoing construction period of the project. Provide Construction rates for nearby and abutting city parking lots. Give businesses parking passes for customers to use at private lots and give the private lots tax rebates based on the returns of those passes. Begin a city and region wide ad campaign to support these incentives. Start construction tours with instructive info on the ongoing work and invite planning classes and infrastructure geeks to visit. Create interesting exhibits along the route of unique items or artifacts uncovered during construction. Just spit balling here..

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted September 28, 2016 at 13:45:01 in reply to Comment 120162

This is exactly the sort of thing the City and Metrolinx are planning to do. And Waterloo Region has had similar initiatives.

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By ergopepsi (registered) | Posted September 28, 2016 at 14:21:39 in reply to Comment 120163

That message needs to get out ASAP. Also I'm sure the businesses would like to know how long the road will be torn up in their area. Personally I think it'd be best to do it block by block. That way there won't be a huge dead area. Cars can park further down or on a side street and the customers would only have a short walk through the construction zone.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted September 28, 2016 at 14:25:50 in reply to Comment 120166

The construction will almost certainly be staged and the city will insist that two major intersections can't be shut down at the same time (the Metrolinx rep told me this at the PIC). However, unfortunately, the precise details of construction won't be known until the contract has been signed, which will likely be sometime in 2018.

The successful bidder will be responsible for the 70% remaining engineering design and for determining the details of the construction schedule.

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By drb (registered) - website | Posted September 28, 2016 at 13:58:07 in reply to Comment 120163

That's exactly what I needed to hear. Thanks Nicholas.

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted September 28, 2016 at 23:58:07

I'm sure you know the folk saying: a house divided cannot stand.

Kevin's comment: This is not a folk saying. It is a quote from Jesus, from Mark 3:25.

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By ScreamingViking (registered) | Posted September 29, 2016 at 20:25:32

It's not hard to find people announce, I'll never set foot in downtown or support any business there again if this thing happens statements from the No LRT crowd.

I wonder how many who make statements like that actually spend much time (never mind money) downtown.

Comment edited by ScreamingViking on 2016-09-29 20:27:20

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