a-mal-ga-ma-tion (noun): the result of combining things

By: Nicole Rallis (This is Hamilton)

I live in a residential area on Main St West where Main turns into Osler. When I moved to Hamilton a year ago I chose this location because of its proximity to McMaster University. Knowing very little about the city prior to my arrival, I did not realize that the geographical area I was moving to centered along the invisible fault line between once distinct political, cultural, and economic communities. If I turn right out of my apartments driveway, I am a 10 minute bus ride to Ancaster, if I turn left I am a 15 minute walk to Dundas.  I am also only 20 minutes by bus to the downtown core.

It does not take a life long Hamiltonian to notice the very different atmosphere and aesthetics to Hamilton’s post-suburban communities like Dundas and Ancaster, for example. One could even go as far to use the phrase, “the grass is always greener.” On the surface, these communities are very aesthetically pleasing and seem less ‘gritty’ versus the downtown core. They also do not show visible signs of economic recession and abject poverty like other areas of the city, such as neighborhoods along Barton Street or Beasley neighbourhood, for example. While seemingly still distinct from urban Hamilton, the reality of the word ‘post’ in post-suburban is that suburb communities are now part of the city sharing with urban residents, taxes, services, and more.

During the months of our documentary filming Layla and I did not get a lot of time to explore the issue of amalgamation in Hamilton, which officially transformed the borders of the city on January 1, 2001. Issues of gentrification in the downtown core, poverty, and the work of local grassroots activism surrounding some of Hamilton’s largest social injustices were examined and discussed in the documentary interviews with several local residents, workers, academics, and activists. In each discussion there were important reminders of the power that government and policy continue to play in shaping Hamiltonian’s daily lives.

Policy & Politics

 “The federal government has the money, the province has all the responsibility, and the municipality has to deal with all the problems. You either hope you have a progressive group of city councilors or you run into a difficult situation.” – Tom Cooper (Chair of the HRPR)

 In many ways, Tom Cooper’s sentiments regarding government’s role in shaping Hamilton’s cultural, political, and economic on-the-ground realities also represent the tensions and cleavages that still exist in the city eleven years after amalgamation.

Former constituent municipalities known as Hamilton, Stoney Creek, Ancaster, Flamborough, Dundas, and Glanbrook now make up the ‘mega city’ of Hamilton-Wentworth. While these geographical areas still have rich, distinct cultural histories, their uniqueness, or political independence from the former city of Hamilton (the urban core, Wards 1 through 8) are diminished. As a result of amalgamation, Hamilton is now considered the tenth largest city in Canada with a population of more than 500,000.

For many years various Hamilton journalists, activists and residents have written about the tension surrounding amalgamation. In 2007, Ryan McGreal from the online newspaper raisethehammer wrote of the woes of rising transit fares, rising property taxes, sprawl, and the issue of representation on city council. He noted that, “the suburbs hate amalgamation because their taxes keep going up without tangible service improvements” and that the, ”downtown hates amalgamation because the political center of gravity has moved to the geographic periphery”.

In a follow up 2011 report, McGreal reaffirmed the very important point that in the current amalgamated city, the suburban wards have far more voting power than those in the urban wards. This greatly effects the way issues of gentrification, housing, and social services in general are framed and then enacted upon.

Layla and I had the opportunity this summer to speak with former MP for Hamilton East and former MPP for Hamilton Centre, Sheila Copps. When asked about pressing issues surrounding equality among residents in the city she replied:

Well I think Ancaster and Dundas view Hamilton as the enemy. When amalgamation came to Hamilton it came at a cost (both literally and figuratively), so naturally people were upset. It meant having the burden of a downtown core, but it also meant having a fabulous art gallery, a state-of-the-art public library…all the amenities that come with being [a city] are shared with all its population.

While amenities are shared, they are also sometimes split in favour towards certain wards, councilors, and urban/suburban political agendas. This can be noted when looking at the very controversial topic of area rating for transit, recreation and emergency services that took place during Hamilton’s “merger mania”.  Many citizens felt that area rating preserved an allocation of resources in favour of high-cost suburban expansion, while draining the urban core. McGreal notes that area rating “creates geographic conflicts between urban neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and suburban ratepayers who feel they have to ‘subsidize poor people downtown’”.

City enactments such as area rating unfortunately tend to ignore some of Hamilton’s most marginalized residents. Issues surrounding rental housing or secure emergency and social services to the core may seem less important to taxpayers in the post-suburban wards, but are absolutely essential to address if the city is to move forward towards becoming a more equitable and democratic Hamilton. It should be noted that the issue of area rating was thankfully addressed and ‘fixed’ this spring.

The “Big Picture”: Provincial downsizing and neoliberal agendas

Localized policies, news reports, stories and discussions around amalgamation amongst Hamilton residents have, at times, blurred the realities of federal and provincial power structures that still hold a great deal of responsibility for the woes surrounding amalgamation.

While the discussion surrounding local mind frames is indeed one of the core issues in understanding how to move forward with an amalgamated Hamilton, it also seems important to examine the “bigger picture” tensions surrounding provincial downsizing to the municipal level that has greatly transformed life on-the-ground in the city. As urban scholars Roger Keil and Douglas Young note, “current forms of post-suburban development are engaged in a complex multi-rhythmic dance with the governance of city-region politics (Keil, 2012)”.

The idea of an amalgamated Hamilton came to fruition during the Harris provincial government of the late 1990s. During the June 1999 Ontario provincial election, discussions around amalgamation by Conservative representatives was very minimal. As UWO scholar Andrew Sancton notes in his 2001 book Merger Mania, “in the Conservatives election platform, Blueprint, there was only one reference to the subject”.

Within months after the June election, however, the Ontario legislature had established a new single tier amalgamated municipalities act to take affect on January 1, 2001.  The main cities effected by these federal downsizes were Hamilton, Ottawa, and Sudbury. By December 6, 1999, Bill 25: Fewer Municipal Politicians Act for the forced amalgamation of Hamilton-Wentworth was released.

As intricate and often confusing as the issue around amalgamation is, perhaps the most effective and appropriate way to understand the topic is to look at the “bigger picture” provincial governance structures that have shaped Hamilton (and other Ontario cities) post-2001. In a 2011 reflective piece on amalgamation and Hamilton, Ryan McGreal aptly noted that, “the Harris government wanted to cobble together a big enough municipal tax base to download social services costs to the municipal level.” To reiterate Tom Cooper’s earlier point, at times municipal politics are left at the mercy of provincial agendas.

Moving Forward

Although it has been over a decade since amalgamation, the debate regarding its legacy and future continues. The current Hamilton City Council has approved a strategy that will begin a review of the city’s ward boundaries. It is expected to cost $200,000 to begin, which will include hiring a consultant to oversee the strategy. A final report is scheduled to be presented to council by March 2013. Any decision that changes the city’s ward boundaries need to be completed by December 2013 in time for the 2014 municipal election.

During this time of reflection it is important that residents, activists and city councilors understand the complexities of amalgamation, including the challenges and pressures that continue to dominate through “policy from above”. Political intricacies aside, amalgamation also looms over the urban and post- suburban imagination. While discussions around de-amalgamation are still a possibility, as many Canadian cities (albeit larger) like Montreal have successfully de-amalgamated, it seems necessary to try to work past narratives of difference and exclusion. If Hamilton is to work in solidarity for its improvement both socially and economically, Hamiltonians need to self reflectively reassess what constitutes as community and belonging in the city.

Keil and Young (2012), although not speaking specifically towards Hamilton’s amalgamation issue, put forth the idea of recognizing tensions between amalgamated suburban and urban areas as in-betweeness: “a metaphor which signifies that no fixed boundaries may exist to separate collective and individual identities in ‘essential’ or ‘natural ways’”. They continue their explanation of in-betweenness referring to the work of post-structural and post-colonial theorist Homi K. Bhabha (1994):

It is in these less than determined spaces ‘in-between’ where urbanizing societies also develop the social spaces in which hybridity is cultivated through a mix of (exclusionary) state or corporate practices and (liberating or accommodating) popular activities.

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