New wards should reflect Hamilton's complexity

No reason why wards not be reconfigured to include parts of Mountain and downtown

Final Wards 1931 - 1949.jpg

First Appeared in the Hamilton Spectator, February 12, 2016, Opinions, pp A15.

From what I have been told, 1985 was a fairly interesting year. That was the year the Liberals and New Democrats formed an accord at Queen's Park - ousting 42 years of rule by the Progressive Conservatives - the first Super Mario Brothers game was released, and Bob Ballard found the wreck of the Titanic. As interesting as those events were, I would be remiss if I did not mention that 1985 was also the year my parents were married.

Of civic importance, 1985 was the last time the boundaries of the original eight wards of Hamilton were changed. Now, in 2016, the city is finally conducting a ward boundary review that will make recommendations for the future of Hamilton's electoral map. Throughout the month of February, public meetings will be held to allow residents an opportunity to see proposed changes and express their own opinions on the process.

As we head into this next stage of the ward boundary review, it might be helpful to better understand the history of Hamilton's wards and where we might go from here.

When Hamilton was incorporated in 1846, city council consisted of 11 men. Eligible male voters would elect two aldermen from the city's five wards who would, in turn, elect the mayor. At the time, Hamilton stretched from Paradise Road in the west to Emerald Street in the east. Unevenly divided, the city was split along King Street into five wards: St. George in the southwest, St. Patrick in the southeast, St. Lawrence over the Beasley neighbourhood, St. Andrew covering James Street North and St. Mary in the northwest.

The city's population grew steadily in the years prior to the First World War, with city limits pushing to the east and west. By 1910, the names had been dropped as the number of wards had increased to eight. That number would not increase again until amalgamation over 90 years later.

Over the next 20 years, the city boomed, necessitating substantial changes to ward boundaries. Wards 1, 2 and 3 ran east-to-west and were tucked between King Street and the escarpment. Wards 1 and 2 expanded to include new development on the Mountain in the 1930s while Ward 3 grew to include Ainslie Wood. Wards 4 to 8 ran west-to-east from King Street north to Cootes Paradise and the harbour. Ward 4 shifted to accommodate Westdale while Wards 5 and 6 covered the city's ever-changing downtown.

Wards 7 and 8 were Hamilton's industrial heart. From 1931 to 1949, Ward 7 ran from Sherman Avenue to Ottawa Street, while Ward 8 stretched from Ottawa Street to the city's eastern boundary, Strathearne Avenue.

During those years, Wards 7 and 8 were the bastions of organized labour. The predecessor to today's New Democratic Party, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, ran many successful campaigns to elect party members in those east-end wards. A far cry from the suburban west Mountain ward it is today, Ward 8 was represented through the 1940s by Harry Hunter and Helen Anderson, who were elected as Communists.

From 1949 to 1985, ward boundaries were updated every few years to keep up with the city's changing population. Despite regular re-examination of Hamilton's electoral map, the city's wards soon began to resemble their current incarnations. Today's Ward 1 boundaries were established in 1960 and, since then, have not changed. Aside from moving a tiny sliver between Upper James and Upper Wellington, north of Mohawk Road, the boundaries of Ward 8 have been the same since 1971.

Though there have been changes in the names, locations, and political leanings of Hamilton's wards over the past 170 years, there has not been enough modern updates. As we look to change now, it should not be outside the realm of possibility for our wards to cross traditional community boundaries, incorporate a diverse mix of residents, or number more than 15.

Wards that stretch across the escarpment can help alleviate the downtown/Mountain conflict on council. Mixing industry, creative enterprises and new businesses throughout wards will encourage councillors to accept multiple viewpoints and concerns when making decisions. Grouping neighbourhoods in dire need of assistance and neighbourhoods with a strong and stable foundations can draw people together and draw attention to pressing concerns.

Hamilton is a city of many distinct neighbourhoods, strong opinions, and diverse communities. Ultimately, our electoral geography should reflect the beautiful complexity that makes this city so amazing and so unique.