You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘engagement’ tag.
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.
Recently, the City of Hamilton spent far too much money on an attempt to engage the public, and for once they succeeded. Monday, Dialogue Partners Inc., an Ottawa-based firm, began their new $376 000 “public engagement” campaign, “Our Voice, Our Hamilton” with a website and Twitter account, soliciting public input. By the next morning, their hashtag, “#TellOHeverything” became one of the most popular in Canada, though probably not in the way they intended. After asking what “HSR” meant from their Twitter account, people began to look more closely at the website, discovering that many of the pictures were in fact from places like Hamilton, Ohio or Hamilton, Washington, and started wondering if anybody from the campaign had ever even been to our city. As of Thursday, the website was “temporarily” taken down for “inaccurate and offensive content”.
It isn’t hard to see what inflamed people so quickly about this attempt at “engagement”. The website looks like something put together for a tenth-grade computer project (rectangles with rounded corners!). The name is painfully unoriginal (“Our City, Our Future”, “This is Our Hamilton” etc). There was virtually no local knowledge or content, and a well-demonstrated ignorance about Hamilton (Ontario) itself. From local volunteers, students, or even city staffers this might have been forgiveable. From a “professional” consulting firm, it came off like a sick joke.
What’s really infuriating, though, is that an out-of-town consultants hired in the first place. Civic engagement is not a product which we can buy or a franchise we can set set up. It’s a process which must grow, first and foremost, from those who are being engaged. Having the whole thing run by a bunch of bureaucrats from Ottawa (for an exorbitant price) doesn’t exactly inspire grassroots credibility.
There ARE efforts going on, organized at various grassroots levels, to foster “civic engagement”, and there have been for years. I’ve been a part of some, and know members of many more. There’s the Civic League, attempts at setting up Town Halls, there’s an explosion of interest into Neighbourhood Associations, the new Change By Us initiative and more social media efforts than I can count. Add in the explosion of activism and independent media, and it shouldn’t have been hard to find somebody who could at least give some advice…
It’s obvious, though, why the City didn’t. All of these groups have been known to take positions very critical of city policy, and that isn’t the kind of “engagement” that they want. This problem has plagued municipal “public consultations” for years – citizens have an awful habit of thinking for themselves. Bureaucrats, in turn, don’t take kindly to people walking in off the street and questioning their hard-wrought rules. This problem arises with nearly ever major municipal issue – from school closures, neighbourhood-level planing or Aerotropolis, few come away from these “consultations” feeling particularly consulted.
Criticism isn’t always easy to take, but it rarely gets nicer when people feel they’re being ignored. Years of frustrated attempts have bred an atmosphere of animosity which has left many on both sides reluctant to get involved. Building a true culture of engagement with the City means breaking this cycle. I’m sure “Our Voice, Our Hamilton” was meant to help by introducing an experienced and neutral third party. Unfortunately, they came off a lot more like disinterested middlemen, which felt entirely too much like dis-engagement on the part of the city.
Every organization, no matter how autocratic, needs information from its lowliest members to function. The modern world offers many models of complex and convoluted strategies for communicating that information without opening a meaningful dialogue. We’re bombarded with countless polls and surveys (some in disguise), but none seem interested in relating to us as any more than a statistic. Nowhere is found a human face who is responsible or accountable for their statements, just spokespeople who’re almost as replacable as we are. It’s true of “market research”, political pollsters and suggestion boxes everywhere. The data they gather may be notoriously unreliable, but accuracy has never been the main intention. Every act of communication between individuals and institutions is also a mediation of power between them. It doesn’t really matter whether we walk away feeling satisfied, frustrated or totally ignored as long as we’re reminded who’s in charge.
Real dialogue isn’t so hard – it’s something most of us do every day, with nearly everybody we meet. What makes “civic engagement” so difficult isn’t finding a way to communicate, it’s the implicitly political nature of the conversation. Direct, honest and open communications with the citizens of Hamilton would require treating us like equals. It would set a precedent, limiting their use of indirect, dishonest and opaque answers in the future. It would make it far harder to dismiss the complaints of concerned citizens or to operate out of the public view. Simply put, such engagement would limit the real-world power of the City of Hamilton over its citizens, which is exactly why we’re demanding it. For the City, that’s likely a terrifying thought, but one they’ll have to grapple with sooner or later.
If this whole ordeal has shown one thing, it’s that while social media alone can’t create meaningful engagement, it’s more than capable of making ya a national embarassment by this time tomorrow morning.