OPIRG McMaster’s Global Citizenship Collective will host Councillors Matthew Green and Aidan Johnson of Wards 1 and 3 to the upcoming event, “Engaging City Hall: How and Why.”

GCC is inviting all students to attend the event, ask questions, speak out and begin the important conversations on how to engage our municipal government. To preface the event, OPIRG’s Erica Chan sat down with both Councillors to have a candid conversation about student engagement, the pressing issues in our local communities, and how to bring the two together to foster effective, and positive involvement.

Interviews and photos by Erica Chan

Councillor Aidan Johnson, Ward 1

Q: What are the pressing issues of Ward 1?

A: One of the ones closest to my heart is Cootes Paradise conservation. Ensuring that, as one of North America’s most biodiverse ecosystems, it is properly protected. Specifically, in terms of water quality, control of invasive species and the encouragement of native species. Tied into that, [protecting] green space in the ward, and water quality, including the part of the lake which Ward 1 physically touches upon. With that, I think there is an obligation to ensure the health of water that is going back to Lake Ontario.

Another very important issue is ensuring good understanding, cooperation, and community between students and non-students in the McMaster neighbourhood.

Q: Can you elaborate on what you mean by students and non-students?

A: Many non-students in Ainslie Wood and Westdale feel that there is a negative student takeover in those neighbourhoods. A lot of that has to do with the fact that we are not registering or licensing landlords. One way to create a better relationship is to license landlords and use that mechanism as a pressure on landlords to take better care of their properties. Once the properties are better taken care of, both the relationship between students and non-students, and the quality of life of the student tenants will improve.

Something I recently discovered knocking on doors in the last municipal campaigns is that, in general, it is low-income students that live in the derelict houses. The houses that are unhygienic, houses with fire code violations…often times, these students are also newcomer Canadians, or the first in their family to be attending post-secondary education. Whereas, higher-income students do not tend to live in these conditions. So, it is a poverty issue, a social justice issue, a community issue, and a fundamental legal issue in that, so many of these houses are by-law violating properties.

Q: Would it be pertinent to engage students in some form so that they know what their Landlord and Tenant rights are…?
A: Precisely correct. I think educating students about their Tenant Rights is of deep importance. We’ve been in conversations with the MSU in recent months to develop next steps on how to address this.

Q: Having lived in Ward 1 for a number of years, coming back here, I noticed one significant change in infrastructure: the abundance of SoBi bike racks. Can you speak a bit more about SoBi and commuting?

A: Ward 1 is the highest using SoBi ward – the McMaster racks are the most used in the city. Where we are sitting now, on Locke Street, is the 2nd highest uptake of SoBi racks. What happens is people living in this neighbourhood will take their SoBi bikes to McMaster. This spring, we are installing new racks on Melbourne. We do as much as we can to promote good biking, good walking, good driving and good HSR and future LRT use.

Q: Speaking of LRT, how is that going to change the landscape of the community?

A: Fundamentally. There are still some logistical details being worked out…we do know that it will be starting on Main West where the McMaster terminal is located, roughly outside of the hospital. There are broader questions…suffice to say, I am focusing on the Ward 1 logistics for now.

Q: The student demographic makes up a significant percentage of the population of Ward 1, how would they best reach City Hall and engage your office?

A: Something I’ve been working on, is creating better relations with my office and the MSU. I perceive the MSU as enjoying a lot of democratic legitimacy, simply because they are a democratically elected student government. Whereas there are a lot of diverse and sometimes opposing student constituencies that make up the student community as a whole, the MSU has an authority to speak as representatives of the student community. That’s not to say that they are the only voice of the community, at all!

However, I do feel comfortable going to the MSU president and vice president as democratically elected representatives. Any student who isn’t engaged with MSU politics, I think, should get involved. In that, at least in Ward 1, the city councillor is directly interacting with the MSU.

Q: Would the Students’ Union be a good platform to serve as a basis to then launch student
engagement into the community at large outside of McMaster?

A: I think it could and it should. I acknowledge that the leaders have a lot on their plates, but if there is an appetite for student involvement for city-wide issues, then, the MSU has could focus on that. If there is capacity permitting it, I would argue that while the MSU absolutely has the ability to impact provincial issues such as tuition costs, it also has a particular opportunity to make a deeper and more significant impact on municipal affairs because they are local. McMaster in the largest university in the Hamilton area, as an institution it has power that the MSU can capitalize on, if it chooses to.

Q: How do we channel student interest, passion, and energy into local politics?

A: I think it’s perfectly wonderful to be interested in international, national, and local issues. I don’t think it’s a question of subtracting from one energy category to another. We all just have to do more, truthfully.

What’s happening in Ward 1?

  • Participatory budget! March 25th was the deadline for Ward 1 residents to submit their ideas for infrastructure projects. For more information and to see past infrastructure projects, visit http://www.forward1.ca
  • Read up on SoBi and sign up if you’re not yet cycling around campus in one of those swanky blue bikes
  • Interested in LRT talks? There’s resources aplenty. Among them: Metrolinx, City of Hamilton. Check out the Hamilton Citizens’ Jury on Transit 

Matthew Green, Ward 3

Q: I like to think of Ward 3 as the underdog ward, meaning, I see that there is both a lot of charm and character, coupled with a lot of issues. What are the top issues of Ward 3 that students could appreciate knowing more about?

A: I often say that Ward 3 is to Hamilton what Hamilton is to the rest of the country. When people drive over the skyway over Burlington Street, they see post-industrial economy settled in, they think of pollution – a lot of the negative stereotypes of Hamilton. The old perceptions of our community, the complex issues of poverty, mental health, sex trade work, precarious housing, precarious employment, gangs, violence…that had been the narrative of our community for quite some time. What is emerging now is in direct response to that narrative. In 2010, the Hamilton Community Foundation sponsored a study called Vital Signs. It identified what became known as “Code Red Neighbourhoods,” in these priority neighbourhoods, they identified gaps in key health indicators for our residents, vis-a-vis residents in other places across the city. Borne out of this, was the Neighbourhood Action Strategy. Out of the city there were 11 Code Red Neighbourhoods, in Ward 3 there are 4. In recognizing the opportunity to work with residents, in an Asset Based Community Development model, we will work with what we have and build on what we know. Rather than focusing on the problems, we are shifting on investing on the people in Ward 3. There is an opportunity for people to identify with or connect with their community, rather than be stigmatized by their communities. On top of that, we are also being pressured by the real estate market driving the costs of living up, and displacing people in our community. Where we had a decaying, old stock of large Victorian-era homes that were often illegally subdivided into triplexes, five-plexes, eight-plexes…they are now being bought and refashioned into single family homes. In saying that, we have to recognise the complexity of those pressures, in that, often times those units were not dignified and concentrated a lot of social pressures into one neighbourhood. There had been some poor policy decisions or lack thereof, that concentrated those social pressures in our neighbourhood, that I have called in the past, quite critically, a policy of containment.

Q: Can you elaborate on what you mean by “policy of containment”?

A: It’s a Thursday at 1 o’clock, unfortunately, right now, Barton Street is the only place you can go see a sex trade worker or someone suffering addictions – this the only place where this is permissible and allowed. When you have sex work and addiction on the street level, that has a trickle effect in the community. Children and families are being exposed to things that they ought not be exposed to. In an asset based model, we recognize that everyone has value, place and belonging, but we also balance that with creating a healthy and safe environment. [the question is] How to maintain a compassionate, empathic community while maintaining a safe environment for kids and families? More than it being
binary, it is an issue that is complex. It is not a simple issue than can be addressed with a simple and fast response.

Q: Given the complexity of these issues, and taking on a student perspective, how would you approach this? What would you suggest to students who have the desire to get involved and make impactful changes?

A: Step one, burn the Ivory Tower. Step two, check your assumptions. Step three, be relational. Step
four, be present: understand what working with people vs. working on people looks like. Step five, start small, look for small wins. Transformation, social movements…these things happen in very incremental small wins. Maybe there is space for students to give voice to the community through an academic perspective. The other approach is to look at what are some of the symptoms that you can tackle. A very practical example in Ward 3: we spoke about drug and sex trade work, and its effects on our alley ways; we have an alley way clean up. A good way for students to understand the unintended the consequence of sex trade work and addictions would be participating the alley way clean up. Think of ways to reclaim public space with art and beautifying the community, but this means students must venture beyond Wellington Street.

Q: Going back to the ABCD model – how is that being implemented?

A: Let me preface by saying that when students read the ABCD model, they will be critical that we are looking through rose-coloured glasses. Everyone in Ward 3 already knows what the problems are, however, this model recognizes that everybody has value, and something to offer. One of the preliminary and practical steps is that we started with an asset map. The question is, “What does everybody bring to the table?” then, you look at how to leverage those gifts and those assets in a
collaborative way to move the needle on to something in the community. It is about reclaiming power, taking away victimization, reminding people of their abilities. The assets of Ward 3 are the people. Each person, from the multi-generational community individual who has lived here for decades, to the person who has just moved in last week. From a planning perspective, Ward 3, its urban design was the right choice. On almost all alternating streets, you can see that they designed a mixed-income community and created space for everybody. At the end of the day the kids are going to the same schools.

Q: How would you engage students to get involved in local politics and issues?

A: What I have been doing is being present and being allies with student-led initiatives. When students come to me for support, I provide it. I listen, engage and respond to what their needs are. They are all political. Social media has brought us in to the space of Politics 3.0, that is the old school Saul Alinsky and the new school Mark Zuckerberg, in this nexus where the tail is wagging the dog; social media decides what it on the headlines of mainstream media. Their [students’] power is huge.
What’s happening in Ward 3?

  • Interested in the alley way clean up? The Spring 2016 day is upcoming. Volunteer link 
  • Check out Hamilton Community Foundation’s city report, Vital Signs 
  • Learn more about the ABCD model

For latest updates in their wards and in the city, follow the councillors on Twitter: @aidan_johnson @MGreenWard3, or contact their office at City Hall.