The loneliness of the short-distance runners

Val Ross November 10 1980

The loneliness of the short-distance runners

Val Ross November 10 1980

The loneliness of the short-distance runners

Val Ross

His Worship the mayor of Hamilton rockets into the Hamilton and District Home Builders’ Association luncheon. Propelled to the podium by backslaps, he touches down briefly to congratulate the assembly on its plans for a home show: “When the poor kids of Hamilton decide to do anything, they do it better than anyone!” No one asks whether “poor kids” are mots justes for developers; no one questions the same phrase when handsome Jack MacDonald, campaigning for return to office in the Ontario-wide municipal elections Nov. 10, uses it again while gladhanding his way through the mammoth Library-Farmers’ Market shopping complex. The brand new market’s cost overrun of $2.6 million under His Worship’s management plan is an embarrassment, but no matter. “The poor kids are paying twice the rents here and making more than twice the profits!” What aroma on earth resembles a politician’s right hand after he has shaken it warmly with fishmongers, salami sellers, cheese vendors and flower ladies? Jack MacDonald, dubbed the poor man’s Jean Drapeau, has caught his constituents’ self-deprecating image in one neat phrase, yoked it to his boosterism and hitched up his political wagon. His phrase rings bells with Hamilton’s 312,000 souls, who sense they are perpetually shadowed by nearby Toronto, by a pall of air pollution and by that unshakable Steel City image. Hamilton’s 125th anniversary book, a celebration of the city’s splendid parks, its Victorian mansions on streets up the side of the escarpment and its flourishing arts scene is entitled Pardon My Lunch Bucket. Jack MacDonald believes political victory lies in crowing that the poor kids need not apologize.

Autumn is when Canada goes province-by-province to the municipal polls. Or doesn’t. Hamilton’s expected 35-percent turnout of eligible voters is typical or better than most Canadian civic elections. Last month, Edmonton’s elections roused a meagre 20 per cent of the voters. Vancouver goes to the polls Nov. 15. Based on the last election’s 38-percent turnout, Vancouverites won’t be much more enthusiastic than the rest of the country. Local democracy is in a permanent crisis of apathy, almost on automatic pilot. A 1976 study by the Toronto-based Bureau of Municipal Research (BMR) suggests four reasons

why. The absence of party politics at the municipal level means that voters don’t generally know the candidates’ positions. City hall is perceived as powerless before the dictates of Ottawa and provincial governments. Voters have the sense that the garbage will be collected no matter who’s in power. Finally, the structure of municipal and regional government seems incomprehensible.

Hence, voter apathy—which is increasing. One sign, suggests Mary Lynch, executive director of the BMR, is that election by acclamation appears to be on the rise. Mississauga, Canada’s 10th-largest city, has just acclaimed its mayor, Hazel McCallion. So has Dundas, a satellite of Hamilton, to the sorrow of its mayor, Joe Bennett. “A bad business,” sighs he. “Now who am I accountable to?”

What makes Hamilton’s election of more than passing or provincial interest is that, as a reflection of the sorry reputation of municipal politics, such apathy could be a response to such riveting goings-on. Here is an incumbent, whose high-octane charms excite vio-

lent emotions. “You’ll either love Jack MacDonald or you’ll hate him,” advises a former senior civic employee. “Personally, I hate his guts.” Here are clearcut issues: His Worship’s dependably pro-development position and his bumptious bulldozer decision-making style. MacDonald has promised that an $80-million expressway will go through Red Hill Creek wilderness ravine. He has warned that Hamilton cannot afford the “luxury” of further environmental studies on garbage disposal. Meanwhile, one group of east-end middle-class Hamiltonians really are turning into poor kids. Their property values are sagging as the press reveal the content of the nearby Upper Ottawa

Street dump—PCBs, ammonia, lead and methane. As MacDonald sees it, however, the mayor of Hamilton’s $44,000a-year job is to “knock the tar out of the naysayers.”

The naysayers are led by a gentle, conciliatory 73-year-old challenger named Bill Powell, a veteran steelworker who used to catch red-hot bars with a pair of tongs. He went on to head the Hamilton Regional Conservation Authority. Initially, he had intended to throw his support behind one of the three other mayoralty challengers. At the last minute, all backed off. Fearing an acclamation in Hamilton, Powell filed his nomination just days before deadline. His campaign is a far cry from the chrysanthemums and hoopla the Mayor from Glad tosses the voters from atop his double-decker campaign bus.

So far, however, Powell’s campaign, emphasizing conservation and good working relations at city hall, has been “almost invisible,” says Henry Jacek, professor of political science at McMaster University. Asked why the contest hasn’t been hotter and the field more crowded, Jack MacDonald says candidly: “Not everyone would want my job.” Who could survive as he does on a sticky-sweet diet of developers’ rye with a twist of limelight, a bag of chocolates he shares while main-streeting, and the vacuous nourishment of public recognition? Who needs the aggravation?

Yet the causes cry out for someone to care. A new market-value property tax assessment system triggered tax increases of up to 1,000 per cent and a flood of appeals last spring. Housing scandals abound. It took a decade’s record of horror—a fire caused by faulty wiring which resulted in one child’s death; another fell through a rickety staircase; and last March a ceiling dropped on a tenant’s head, but it was last month before the demolition notice was finally served on the St. Matthews Avenue apartments’ landlords. Meanwhile, in spite of the mayor’s superhuman efforts to promote a real estate boom, the local market is sluggish. One real estate saleswoman turned to prostitution. Meanwhile, so many Hamilton lawyers who crashed with the end of the mortgage wave have been disbarred or are under investigation for mishandling clients’ funds that the Law Society of Upper Canada was rumored to be considering a city-wide audit. The Law Society will neither confirm nor deny.

Environment may be a provincial

concern, but Hamilton is drowning in problems of its own making. It would cost the city an estimated $500 million to update its antiquated sewage system, which in periods of overflow spills raw sewage from 27 different points into Burlington Bay. The bay, once 10 square miles of fish-filled waters, has been reduced by industrial landfill to seven square miles. That has slashed the bay’s capacity to regenerate itself; nowadays the bay is inhabited chiefly by a high concentration of fecal coliforms (bacteria that thrive on human excrement) and a mighty host of transparent red sludge worms at the bottom.

The bay is managed—and filled inon behalf of the city by the Hamilton Harbour Commission, which last year

announced plans to develop the area for “prestige industrial purposes.” The mayor backed the project, but council complained bitterly that it had been kept in the dark, that the decisions had been made in secret and that the plans conflicted with a proposed park. This September some councillors cheered revenge when the city took the commission to the Supreme Court of Ontario over Harbourgate, a long-standing, murky fraud and patronage scandal. Their triumph was short-lived. Aiderman Brian Hinkley now charges that the city backed off full prosecutiononly one commissioner has been successfully charged. “The mayor doesn’t want to make waves in the harbour,” complains Hinkley.

Corruption is not at issue in this year’s election, although another incumbent alderman is currently facing charges in connection with an insulation fraud led by Hamilton’s famous Papalia family. “Hamilton has a his-

tory of corruption,” explains Professor Jacek. “Small-scale conflicts of interest go unnoticed, like the common cold.” What then does it take to get Hamiltonians sufficiently interested to go to the polls? A paperback portrait of Hamilton, Their Town: The Media, The Mafia and The Party Machine, ranked only second on the city’s best-seller list last year. It was topped by a collection of Jim Unger cartoons. Unger’s morose poltroon of a hero, Herman, may not resonate with the poor kids aboard Jack MacDonald’s bandwagon, or those backing Bill Powell. But perhaps he offers representation to some—such as the suspicious Ward 3 housewife who answered a canvasser’s knock on her door and took the proferred campaign literature as if it were crawling with wildlife from Burlington Bay. “Election?” she snarled. “What election?”