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Yesterday, Peter Mercanti gave his presentation to council, pledging a $200 million casino/hotel/entertainment complex for the downtown core. RockHammer Inc., formed by the Carmen’s Group and LIUNA for the purpose of bringing a Hard Rock-franchised casino to Hamilton, is pledging to bring a Canadian Rock Museum/venue, a 280-room hotel and 1200 slot machines, as well as promising 1200 full-time, living wage jobs and a jointly sponsored gambling addiction treatment program with Mission Services.
If this deal does go through, I sincerely hope Council gets the jobs figure in writing. After decades of growth in precarious employment, particularly in the service sector, claims like that require a certain ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. Seriously – a $200 million investment being planned without part-time employees or wages much under $15/hour? In this labour market, where people line up to apply at $10.25? Harder to believe is that these conditions would last if they were implemented, instead of facing cutbacks at the first sign of hard times, or simply firing workers en-mass and re-hiring them at a much lower wage (as happened at the Sheraton). As much as I’d love to see 1200 new well-paying service sector jobs in the core, we’ve all heard promises like this before.
As for the treatment program, word at the moment (hopefully confirmed Thursday) is that Mission Services was somewhat surprised by this announcement.
These pledges, of course, are coming right after this weekend’s statement from the Rountable for Poverty Reduction opposing a downtown casino, focused largely around concerns of low wages and addictions. They’re the latest of many influential groups and individuals to sign onto the NO! campaign, including everyone from the Hamilton Arts Council to Redeemer University and the Pan-Orthodox Association. I’ve honestly never seen downtown so united over any issue, and frankly, only two people I know from the lower city have dared say otherwise (one is the mayor).
Mercanti, of course, took the opportunity to respond to criticism. Within hours, his quote had created yet another avalanche of social media mockery (see pictures). The elitist tone of his statement was amazingly telling: “they get almost all the same weight as the people who really count”. It shows the blatant hostility for civic engagement which has long been a part of our political process. If the Poverty Roundtable, Arts Council, Orthodox Church, Redeemer College and Sam Merulla don’t “count”, who does?
This is, again, a reminder that classist caricatures of dissent are usually bullshit. Who are these people? The Poverty Roundtable, among a lot of amazing community activists, includes on it’s board names such as Terry Cooke, Howard Elliot and Mark Chamberlain. Architect David Premi (who redesigned the Library/Farmers Market and is currently attempting to redevelop a block along King St.) is the current President of the Arts Council Board. Were I to make a list of “elites” in our city, they’d all make the cut.
What this suggests is that the usual in-crowd/old-boys stereotype of power in this city is a bit simplistic. Rather than one big conspiracy meeting around a table, our elites (like most) are comprised of many competing groups with their own spheres of influence. Mercanti and Mancinelli are very notable members from one of the most established of these groups, but they’re starting to learn that the economic and cultural revitalization which is sweeping downtown has changed the political terrain as well. Coupled with the rise of social media, this is severely complicating a proposal which likely would have sailed through council a decade ago.
When it comes to Hamilton’s political culture, I’d have to say that’s a positive development (pun intended).
The casino proposal struck a nerve downtown, and it’s provoking quite the reaction. Behind the (no longer) presumed consensus, we’re getting a startling look at how insular, indifferent and utterly cold-hearted Hamilton’s development process really is. While this is hardly the first proposal with life-shattering implications for people in the core (evictions, expropriations, etc), we don’t often have experts stating directly that deaths will result| from a business endeavor. Even if it’s defeated, it still points toward a glaring need to change the way these decisions are made. One need only look around the many concrete moonscapes of Main, King and Wilson to see the legacy of decisions made by “people who count”, and it doesn’t take a three-fingered four-year-old to count the number of successful downtown megaprojects so far. Instead, how about listening (for once) to those of us who actually live, work and spend our time downtown?
So far, I’ve stayed fairly quiet regarding Hamilton’s casino debate. This isn’t due to indifference – like most downtown, I have absolutely no desire to see a casino in our core, but I didn’t feel there was much I could add which others hadn’t. Opposition, so far, has been incredibly well organized, featuring an “everybody who is anybody” assortment of characters from downtown and the arts community, slick printed signs and a horrendous amount of legwork. Matt Jelly, Ned Nolan and others should be proud of the work they’ve done to put this all together, win or lose, they’ve fought a very good fight.
Hamilton does not need a casino. Hamilton needs to break the cycle of totally disregarding the social and environmental consequences of its projects then wondering why we have an “image problem”. Gambling fetishizes unearned wealth in a way which sickly mirrors capitalism, with the odds of success reversed. It thrives in the poorest communities not because they have money, but because there’s no other options. For many, it’s the only retirement plan they can imagine having access to. Cloak it in pseudo-socialist rhetoric about funding social programs if ya like, but we all know who the real winners will be, and PJ Mercanti isn’t exactly “poor”…
All of which brings me to the latest dust-up between our city’s leading opinionators. Yesterday, Matt Jelly put up a blog post calling Bill Kelly, Larry DiIanni and others on their “bullshit” for their attacks on the “CasiNO” activists and other “usual suspects”. I’m bringing this up both because these are absolutely standard responses to criticism from community members, and because, in this case, they’re hilariously misapplied.
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.
The comments in question are pretty routine, both for Hamilton’s lackluster tradition of “engagement” and from individuals like Kelly and DiIanni in particular. They include standard classist invectives, implying that opponents are unemployed, broke and live in their parents’ basements. They equate grassroots groups (with social media!) and paid lobbyists (like DiIanni). And, as usual, they throw around a lot of language like “usual suspects” and “vocal minority” in order to marginalize the movement.
Contrast this picture with my earlier description of CasiNO activists, “everybody who is anybody”. I’ve seen their meetings – lawyers, businesspeople, trend-setters, musicians, etc it’s the kind of crowd that makes an anarchist squirm. If people want to characterize this crowd as unemployed, I’m going to have to ‘call bullshit’ as well.
One has to ask, of course, why unemployment would disqualify somebody from free speech rights, especially on an issue which so obviously relates to poverty? Why take anything said by such bigots seriously?
As for the allegation that a “vocal minority” has undue influence on city politics, that’s true. It includes radio hosts like Bill Kelly and lobbyists like Larry DiIanni who sell their experience on council to the highest bidder, and are paid to chime in on almost every issue. They don’t have to worry, as most of us do, about balancing their day job and political involvement, since it is their day job.
That must be nice.
I won’t deny, of course, that some members of the public have a lot more influence than others. Over the last few years, the ‘James North’ artist community and associated groups/individuals have become one of the most prominent voices in public discussions, and they’ve made their share of enemies (even among activists). Class plays an important role here, too, and we should always cast a critical eye on the kinds of privilege which allow some voices to speak louder than others.
This wouldn’t be the first issue where pundits and trolls have feigned blue-collar sentiment in the hopes of portraying urban activists as “different” and “alien” from “ordinary” Hamiltonians. This plays on a lot of very real frustrations felt by those who, thanks to class and geography, almost never get that kind of voice. It’s hard to take though criticisms seriously, though, when they come along with shouts of “get a job”.
If I had seen anything resembling authentic, grassroots, local organizing in favour of a Casino I might be more sympathetic. Instead I’ve seen a familiar parade of old-guard elites. Most of the “yes” side Thursday night seemingly hailed from Carmen’s, a suburban banquet centre owned by PJ Mercanti, who’s seeking to build the casino in question. Carmen’s serves as one of the main meeting places for Hamilton’s upper crust, a crowd which makes James North gallery owners look like Labourready temps in comparison. Public support seems to come mainly from the suburbs at this point, which itself says worlds. On this issue, at least, I wouldn’t characterize the “usual suspects” as a vocal minority.
What’s being said about Hamilton’s “dissidents” absolutely pales in comparison to what’s now being said about Idle No More or Quebec’s striking students last year, but it reflects many of same strategies. Central to these schemes is portraying “activists” as different from the general public and as an unwelcome, outside influence on the proper functioning of the political system. Not that long ago, the word “foreign” was a standard part of this picture, which shows pretty blatantly what kind of picture they’re trying to paint. Now terms like “special interest”, “NIMBY” or “extremist” are used. Implied, is a unified “normal” public which totally supports those now in power – that’s “democracy”, and it has to be protected from free speech.
Frankly, I’ll take “rabble rousers”, “obstructionists”, “radicals”, and “extremists” over “pundits”, “trolls” or “shills” any day.
Within the past week, Canada witnessed an explosion of activism. While things have hardly been quiet for the past year or so, they’re now starting to snowball. Protests are now almost a daily occurrence in many parts of the country, and momentum on many issues is only continuing to grow.
Idle No More
Wednesday, indigenous protesters once again got the country’s attention with a national Day of Action held by Idle No More and others. Numerous roads and rail lines were shut down as a part of the growing protest movement. Actions took place at the Ambassador Bridge (Windsor-Detroit), Sault St. Marie border crossing, Westmoreland Bridge (Fredricton) Trans-Canada highway (Banff), Queen Elizabeth II highway (Calgary), Highway 400 (Barrie), Highway 117 (Quebec), rail blockades by Kingston, Portage la Prarie (by AIM!) and Gitwangak (BC), and rallies downtown in Toronto, Ottawa, Iqaluit and many others.
These actions mark a shift away from less disruptive spectacles like flash mobs and round dances which have characterized most of the Idle No More actions over the past month. They’ve evoked controversy both within and outside the movement. Finance Minister Flahrety, echoed by many editorials, has expressed concerns about possible threats to Canada’s economy. Meanwhile, Sylvia McAdam, one of the founding members of Idle No More, questions the use blockades for portraying “a message of aggressiveness”, which contradicts the movement’s peaceful character. Others, have responded that these actions have been, in fact, completely peaceful and that militancy has often played an incredibly important role in such social movements.
A busy week of demonstrations took place in Vancouver against Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline. The largest event was a night march with thousands, which even featured a small (~20 people) black bloc, which got a lot of attention despite not smashing or disrupting anything. In contrast, six young demonstrators, clad in colourful tee-shirts from a moderate environmental group, were arrested yesterday after briefly managing to sneak inside and disrupt meetings, yet received surprisingly little criticism for “militance”.
Closer to Home
Locally, around 70 people gathered Wednesday morning in Cayuga to support Theresa Toad Jaimeson, facing a court date relating to one of Gary McHale’s last forays onto the Reclamation Site in Caledonia, where a former development has been occupied since 2006.
In Hamilton itself the same morning, a crowd of around 30 community members held a picket outside Sir John A MacDonald Secondary in support of teachers in their labour dispute with the province. Briefly delaying traffic outside the parking lot, they handed out fliers explaining that “we’re here because teachers can’t be”.
Last night a large crowd descended on City Hall to voice their opposition to a Casino downtown (also, a small handfull of “yes” demonstrators). After rallying in the snow (complete with racehorces!) and hearing speeches, the crowd headed inside for the meeting, where a number of representatives spoke to council. This latest hair-brained “revitalization” scheme has drawn an incredible amount of fire from the downtown community, particularly James North, fearing the social effects of gambling addictions, because of the dismissive attitude toward downtown from proponents and out of fear for the fate of Flamborough Downs and it’s horses (currently OLG’s only permitted slots in the area).
The New Canada
Our country, it seems, has lost some of our innocence. After the G20, after Occupy, and especially after the Quebec Student Strike, we’re no longer quite as shocked by protests. As turnouts grow and issues multiply, so does the number of people involved. Protesting becomes less alien, and more accessible to a wider number of people, who now have a lot less trouble imagine themselves marching with a sign. Protest is once again becoming part of our culture and political process, and it’s about damn time.
In recent years, the decisions made by the Canadian government have become increasingly distant and disturbing. Harper alone has targeted First Peoples, workers, the environment, refugees, prisoners, pilots, railroaders, postal workers, the internet, NGOs, scientists and most recently, Mali. Our international reputation is in shambles. He may even have stolen the election, but nobody seems to want to talk about that. Just like there’s very little mention that Ontario has now been operating without a parliament for three months. Quebec’s government, it now turns out, was corrupt to its core, and even here, Mayors just keep coming up on “conflict of interest” charges. Then there’s the austerity schemes, the development plans and the total disregard for treaty commitments and democracy.
If these problems – the colonialism, the corruption, the grandiose but toxic boondoggle projects – show one thing, it’s that we’ve all been idle for far too long. Without the watchful (and occasionally wrathful) eye of the public, power will inevitably corrupt, and it has. This system cannot function, though, without the daily cooperation of tens of millions of people, something which is no longer guaranteed. The legendary patience and politeness of this land’s inhabitants have worn thin, but not our determination.
This is what democracy looks like.