Alex Wilson is running for Ward 13 councillor in Hamilton, Ontario. The diverse ward includes the quaint town of Dundas and Centre Flamborough, a sprawling expanse of farmland, older homes on large lots and charming hamlets. The demographics of these two neighbourhoods are divergent.
On a scorching August afternoon, Wilson spoke with rabble.ca about his vision for both his ward and the city of Hamilton.
“A lot of this campaign is about talking about local issues and contextualizing these big picture ideas locally,” Wilson said.
Wilson came to Hamilton a decade ago to attend the Integrated Science Program at McMaster University. The four-year program brings together 60 students to complete a variety of modules integrating physics, chemistry, and biology.
“I learned from the program I don’t want to continue in science – this isn’t my thing. But I do really like solving problems,” said Wilson.
While at McMaster, Wilson became involved in student politics specifically in the service sector. He worked with the Student Health Education Center, Identity-based Social Justice and Equity Services, and was the first director of Maccess.
The first of its kind, Maccess is a peer support advocacy and community center for students who experience disability, chronic illness, mental health concerns, or inaccessibility. It is staffed and run by students with disabilities and disabled students.
Wilson ran social media and advocacy campaigns to let people know about campus issues. In the process, they met other organizers and saw how people can work together to bring about change within institutions.
Wilson became involved with the local New Democratic Party (NDP) riding association and helped with MPP Sandy Shaw’s successful provincial campaign in 2018.
They were campaign manager for Sophie Geffros run in Ward 1 during the 2018 municipal election. This fall, Geffros is returning the favour by managing Wilson’s campaign.
For a year and a half, Wilson worked in Shaw’s constituency office before becoming her legislative assistant when she became the Environment, Conservation and Parks critic.
Wilson is on leave for the duration of the election.
Local activist Michelle Tom worked along side Wilson on the incredibly successful Stop Sprawl HamOnt (SSHO) campaign. She says, “Alex understands the concrete steps to make Hamilton a better place to live, is a great listener, and is a leader with many local Hamilton grassroots campaigns. We need change, we need Alex Wilson on Council representing Ward 13.”
Wilson loves connecting with people while working to come up with solutions for local problems. They also enjoy weaving together the tension between working within systems and working out of systems with community.
Wilson’s work with Hamilton 350 keeps him abreast of what is happening at the Hamilton Conservation Authority (HCA). City counsellors make up half of the HCA Board of Directors and also sit on the overlapping boards of the Grand River and Halton Conservation Authorities.
“I have worked closely with Alex in the Hamilton 350 Committee and especially in its Conservation Matters subgroup and webinars, and the Save our Streams Hamilton group. I’m extremely impressed by Alex’s broad knowledge, specific understanding of Hamilton issues and personal energy and commitment. Their wisdom is far beyond their age,” said Hamilton environmentalist Don McLean.
Advocating for tenant rights
Dundas is a community of seniors – many whom have never lived anywhere else. Many are renters on fixed incomes and vulnerable to extreme heat.
“Tenants across the city are asking for an extreme heat by-law to be put in place,” said Wilson. “I’m a renter, and it’s hot in this old house that’s never going to get retrofits because, even if we do have a city program, the city’s only talking about working with homeowners not with landlords in the first phases of the delivery of retrofits. So, it’s the most vulnerable being left for last.”
The Ontario Human Rights Commission issued a statement on extreme heat and air conditioning stating that people with disabilities, children under four, and older people are at particular risk for heat-related illness and death. This vulnerability is compounded by social isolation and poverty.
City staff say it’s difficult to include rentals because of the variety of configurations that qualify. So, there’s no plan to encourage landlords to make retrofits including air conditioning.
“It’s really disappointing that city council passes a climate plan that chose to leave renters behind until later. I do think we need more voices at the table because there is not currently a renter on city council,” Wilson said.
A focus on the climate
Wilson gets hopeful and excited talking about a just and equitable future that creates green jobs for the community.
“There are folks in our community who are actively imagining and working towards a resilient, a vibrant future for our community,” maintains Wilson. “But we need a city council that works with our community to make that future is the one that we’re on course for.”
Since moving to Dundas two years ago, Wilson has worked with several hundred people on a variety of campaigns and projects. Zoë Green co-founded the community climate action group, Action 13 with Wilson.
“Alex is never short of ideas and brings an excitement which encourages others to come onboard,” observed Green. “That is exactly what we need at City Hall right now – creative solutions to deal with the pile of issues that the Old Guard has let accumulate. Alex is a capable facilitator and they bring a lot to public service through both their professional background and community engagement.”
One of the first community events Wilson attended was a roundtable looking at ways the community wanted to respond to the city’s declaration of a climate emergency. Three years later, Hamilton still has no climate plan.
Wilson says an effective climate plan is more than the sum of specific policies, it’s a willingness to take action.
They cite and initiative in Austin, Texas that is merging economic development and waste department to create the department of resource recovery. It’s generating billions of dollars for the local economy through recycling, reusing, and composting.
The goal of this C40Cities member is to reduce city waste by 90 per cent by 2040 while implementing an economic plan that creates local jobs.
Economic development and recreation
In 2018, Hamilton council spent $250,000 on a failed bid to attract Amazon’s headquarters to the city. Wilson says that amount is almost double the current Parks and Recreation budget. They believe the money would have been better spent providing free drop-in recreation programs for kids at local parks across the city that would have created jobs for youth and university students.
Alternatively, the quarter million dollars could have been used to create green economic activity and jobs at the Airport Employment Growth District rather than paving over precious farmland and wetlands for a planned Amazon warehouse relying on trucked delivery that is really unsustainable and on its way out.
“I get really frustrated when our city council doesn’t look to the future we know we should be building. The future they’ve promised to try and build. And, are instead, still looking at what’s not working. Still looking at the solutions of the past. Really giving, in this case, money to the richest man, Jeff Bezos, who is not in need of any help from the city of Hamilton. But our local business owners are,” said Wilson.
Wilson went on to say that when it comes to economic development the city is absolutely not acting responsibly. It should be taking care of, and restoring the local environment.
They want a focus on ecosystem restoration with clear targets like those set out by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (UNCBD) which focuses on the biodiversity crisis.
The UNCBD is meeting in Montreal in December to ratify the post 2020 target framework for biodiversity including 21 targets that should be achieved by 2030.
Canada signed onto protecting 30 per cent of its land and waters by 2030. That leaves another 20 targets on the table. Wilson believes all are worth acting on and wants the city to acknowledge protecting 30 per cent of Hamilton’s lands and waters is really the bare minimum it could achieve.
Wilson would start by restoring degraded ecosystems like Cootes Paradise. Over 24 billion litres of raw sewage leaked into the local wetland between January 2014 and July 2018.
The significance of this wetland cannot be overstated. It surrounds old growth forests, is a preserve for plant biodiversity, an important migratory waterfowl habitat, and has been a fish sanctuary since 1874.
Wilson said Dundas residents felt disempowered and frustrated when they weren’t invited into the conversation or consulted about what restoration would look like.
An initial report said no remediation was necessary. However, the province ordered the city to restore Cootes Paradise. Dredging set to begin mid-August is temporarily on hold until members of the Haudenosaunee Development Institute are consulted.
VanderBeek also voted against funding climate staff for the Bay Area Climate Change Council.
Wilson wants to change that scenario to one where council listens to, and works collaboratively with, all citizens to reach climate solutions.
They want Hamilton to be ready when the federal government signs on to the 20 remaining UNCBD recommendations and downloads both the work and funding to local organizations.
As for Green, she wants Ward 13 residents to know, “We hear politicians say they’ll listen to the public, but as Councillor for Ward 13 Alex will genuinely ask you what you think and will hear what you say. We need the ideas and humanity that Alex will bring to City Council.”