Usual suspect. Rabblerouser. The Vocal Minority. Nimby. Obstructionists. The Anti-everything crowd. This is the dogwhistle language of civic engagement in Hamilton, Ontario.
The first time you speak up, as a citizen, you’re rightly considered a concerned citizen. But if you then continue to pay attention, attend meetings, write councillors regularly or make citizen delegations to City Council, you’re branded by one of the above terms, or worse. While I’ve gotten used to this treatment and it doesn’t bother me, I do worry about uninitiated citizens who may be confronting it for the first time.
We often collectively complain about low voter turnout and our lack of engagement in the city. But we seem to have a media-driven political culture that not only resists civic engagement, but actively belittles and discourages civic engagement.
CHML 900’s Bill Kelly wrote recently about “The Usual Suspects”, a term favoured by Bill and other local pundits. It’s a clever phrase that implies both criminality and minimizes the public support or opposition of a proposal at City Hall.
Hamilton Mayor Bob Bratina recently wondered aloud at a meeting regarding lobbying at City Hall whether community and neighbourhood groups should be considered lobbyists- somehow blurring the line between a citizen or group of citizens volunteering their feedback on issues, and paid lobbyists working to advance commercial interests.
PJ Mercanti, a very visible proponent of the only known Hamilton Casino bid, stated that he believes “the social groups are lobbyists”. It is unclear who Mr. Mercanti would describe as “social groups”- perhaps referring to the citizens who have spoken up against the negative health and social impacts that an urban Casino would represent. When asked directly if he was a ‘paid lobbyist’, Mr. Mercanti emphatically responded that he was not. Within only two weeks, Mr. Mercanti publicly stepped forward with an intention to form a partnership to bid on the Casino- well before Council has completed a fulsome discussion and decision on whether a Casino is supported by the community.
In early December I sat down for coffee with Ward 8 Councillor Terry Whitehead to discuss the Casino issue, having gathered that he was a strong proponent of placing the Casino in the downtown, in a Ward he does not represent. As a resident of that Ward, I wanted to share my genuine concerns with him, as I have with my own councillor and others. He went on to inform me that the commercial area of the downtown core is not in anyone’s neighbourhood. He further reiterated these comments in emails to many residents.
I was amazed by this assertion, knowing that the downtown’s Ward 2 is the most dense group of residential neighbourhoods in the entire amalgamated City of Hamilton. There are not only large, dense residential neighbourhoods surrounding the downtown core business district, but large residential developments that reside exactly within the core business district, in large apartment towers and condos, single family homes, townhouses, housing co-ops, and seniors towers. There are over 37,000 people who live in Ward 2, and a density of residents close to 60 per acre, twice the residential density of the next most dense Ward.
I don’t point this out to suggest downtown is more important than any other Ward in the city by any means. I point this out because I find myself in the ridiculous position of having to explain that this dense residential neighbourhood even exists, and that residents should have considerable input on the proposal to place a Casino in their proximity.
Paul Godfrey, chair of the OLG, recently parroted Councillor Whitehead’s comments in a speech to the Toronto Board of Trade. In pursuit of a downtown Toronto Casino, suggested that he himself wouldn’t want a Casino in his own neighbourhood, which he describes as residential, made up of single family homes and townhouses. Mr Godfrey further suggested that downtown Toronto, where the OLG desperately wants to place a Casino, is not a residential neighbourhood. Considering Mr. Godfrey’s opposition to a Casino in his own neighbourhood, I don’t think anyone can fairly accuse anyone of being a “NIMBY” (Not in my backyard). It would seem the vast majority of Ontarians have no interest in living near a Casino, including some of the folks who are most in favour of building a Casino.
Former Mayor and pro-Casino activist Larry Di Ianni, speaking on CHCH in favour of a Casino in early December, claimed “there are a dozen activists who are saying we don’t even need to look at this opportunity”- a clear attempt to depict Casino opposition as just a small group of people with an agenda. Judging by the amount of people who have now spoken up, it would appear the former Mayor’s comments are wildly inaccurate. When asked by a local blog for his predictions for 2013, the former Mayor said “Downtown activists will continue to perpetuate a ghetto-like mentality for our core.”
Perhaps with no sense of irony, the former Mayor made this comment on the same day councillors received a report from Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, City of Hamilton Medical Officer of Health, which detailed the health and social impacts of gambling, and recommended a number of reasonable restrictions on any potential gambling facility, in the interest of at least somewhat mitigating some of the factors that lead to increased rates problem gambling. Some of these suggestions included limiting the hours that a Casino can be open, restricting access to alcohol on the gambling floor, and banning ATM’s within the facility to prevent compulsive gambling.
These restrictions were notably described as “ridiculous” by pro-Casino cable access pundit Loren Lieberman. Many have pointed out that these restrictions are not in place in current OLG facilities, and considering the OLG’s plan to privatize (they prefer the term ‘modernize’) Casino operations, it remains very unclear whether any of these reasonable suggestions will be enforced. Dr. David McKeown of Toronto Public Health has advised that the best thing from a public health standpoint is to have no Casino at all, and both officers of medical health advise that proximity to a Casino undoubtedly leads to increased rates of problem gambling.
At last night’s Public Consultation meeting at City Hall, a minority of attendees showed up with ‘YES’ signs- which of course is a misguided position they are entitled to hold. Many of the folks carrying ‘YES’ signs noticeably left the meeting as it proceeded. One of those who did remain yelled out that “the people on the ‘YES’ side have jobs to be at in the morning.” Again, with no sense of irony, this statement was yelled out just as local lawyer Ned Nolan was stepping down from the podium, having just delivered a passionate plea to councillors not to endanger lives in pursuit of profits and revenues.
Late last night, an anonymous commenter on the Hamilton Spectator’s website posted a comment directed at myself and others, proudly stating that some of the ‘YES’ supporters visited a downtown restaurant after the meeting, and went on to question why there were no Casino opponents at the establishment in question, and suggested that we went home to our ‘parents basements’.
I know what you might be thinking- by no means do I claim to be a perfect angel in the way I choose to communicate as an activist. Everyone who adds their voice to public debate will likely misspeak from time to time- in so many cases this is excusable, especially if the mistake is somehow corrected or retracted. However, in the context of this Casino debate, we have seen a number of rather shameful comments from pundits in local media, trying to restrict and castigate citizen engagement in this ongoing debate. I would prefer a debate that focuses on the merits, a serious discussion about all aspects of this proposal, a thorough examination and analysis of the expert opinions available to us.
To those in the media and in the public who are in support of a Casino, I would suggest that the proposal will not succeed if the predominant arguments include classist dogma, anti-democratic intimidation or by trying to deny the rights of average citizens to participate meaningfully, based on what they make, where they live, or how regularly they speak up on issues that matter to them.
As someone who wants to see the concept of a downtown Casino soundly rejected however, I would strongly advise casino proponents to please proceed with this ill-advised strategy.
It helps our effort enormously, and for that, I thank them.
For more information, please visit: www.yestohamilton.ca
Video by: Mark Van Noord