people make the place….

Whilst it may be a clichéd title, it accurately reflects my experiences of the last 9 months. Early this year I traveled to a city on the other side of the planet, somewhere I have never visited, to research how the local community took a stand for social justice and environmental protection. I came to this city knowing not a single person, and with most references to the area (from people not from here) being largely negative. As I leave this place, I have formed my own view: it is one that differs from these negative references and reflective of the views of many of those working for positive change.

The city is Hamilton, Ontario (Canada), referred to as Hamilton’s steel city. My first entrance to the city was via the northwest entrance from Toronto. The first sight entering the city from here is of what is known as Cootes paradise. It is a very wondrous sight for an industrial city: a large expanse of forested green space surrounding a wetland/river system as far as can be seen from the highway. Given this I was unsure as to the negative references. It was not long, however, before I was to cross the Skyway Bridge that forms the northeast entrance. The view is of the industrial quagmire of the steel works, rampant pollution and the largely accurate basis for the negative references I had heard many times.

Given these two very contrasting entrances, the basis for the struggle I was hear to gain a sense of and consider was abundantly clear. People here had a sense of place, and they wanted to protect what green-space remained. It was a green corridor stretching form the Niagara Escarpment to Lake Ontario in the city’s (blue collar) east end that was the centre of the dispute – the Red Hill Valley. The dispute is of immense significance for environmental factors, the community struggle, and local and provincial politics. It was, up until the emergence of the linked dispute over nearby Caledonia and the Six Nations reclamation, the first direct and explicit white support for Six Nations in the struggle for justice over land.

It was through my exposure to the struggles, still ongoing at Caledonia, meeting those involved and learning from them that I, too, gained a sense of place for this area. Geographically it has many striking similarities to where I am from. Socially, it embodies much of the social-economic issues as well. The actions of communities in these two far removed locations – the fervent struggle for environmental protection and social justice in support of first peoples – is something that I have drawn immense inspiration from.

Like most places I have visited, it required a good six months before connecting with people on a deep level. As such, leaving becomes a challenge. Without going into detail – these reflections were/are not intended to be a personal account, rather a social analysis – this experience has once again illustrated to me that community is what makes a place. The strident struggle over places by those who know them – usually faced against impositions from those who don’t (corporate entities, governments, property speculators, etc) – is what makes a place. The people really do make the place…

There is a lasting legacy of the actions taken to protect the Red Hill Valley, and embodied in the support for the Caledonia land reclamation. It is something I foresee with continue to grow: people and the city will benefit and grow with and as a result of this. I hope to come back here, in a number of years to see the positive change.

To invoke a number of other clichés, the value of which, however, can be drawn form this: Local people taking local action; Struggle from the grass roots, community is local…

I leave this place inspired and knowing it is those who often struggle in their daily lives that really care about others.

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