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Someone To Vote For

Brian McHattie, a genuine naturalist, environmentalist, and humanist, brings fresh air to the sprawl, mall, and pave-it-all mentality that permeates most elected offices, especially around here.

By Kevin Somers
Published October 20, 2006

As a politician, Ward 1 Councillor Brian McHattie sticks out like a throbbing thumb. You don't expect someone of his manner and ilk to enter and survive the political arena. HcHattie, a genuine naturalist, environmentalist, and humanist, brings fresh air to the sprawl, mall, and pave-it-all mentality that permeates most elected offices, especially around here.

Although new to the job, the mild mannered, ethical McHattie has made a name for himself as someone who will oppose plans and schemes he doesn't believe in. When a well-informed source was asked for an opinion of McHattie, this was the reply:

I think he's doing a great job. He gets the idea of sustainable urban development. He understands how zoning and land use policy influences how people decide to get around (i.e. make it easy to drive, and people will drive; make it easy to take the bus, and people will take the bus).

He's also an avid naturalist, and believes the best way to preserve wilderness is to build high quality density - rich, vibrant, diverse urban neighbourhoods - instead of low-density eco-sprawl, where you may have deer in the backyard but have to drive to get anywhere.

Brian is also a policy wonk, but in a good way. He reads the planning reports and attends the meetings, and when staff and development committees recommend unhealthy developments - strip plazas, big box stores, sprawl subdivisions - he can quote line and verse from our city's master planning documents on how these developments violate our own guidelines and policies.

An interview was arranged and I looked forward to meeting this rebel with good causes. We had agreed to meet at a community tree-planting in Ward 1, where both of us live. This was no photo-op; there wasn't anyone from the press and there weren't any suits wearing hardhats, posing with a shiny shovel, and dreaming of the front page.

Brian, his assistant, Dale Brown, a few volunteers, and a couple of guys from the city worked hard for an hour and a half and 200 trees went into the ground. After some honest work, Brian washed the mud off his jacket ("I'm going canvassing after this") and we talked about politics, life, and life in politics.

McHattie, who was selling safety equipment at the time, had a life altering experience in 1986 when he went whale watching on the St. Lawrence. "My life turned 180 degrees," he said of the event. He subsequently quit his job and got an undergraduate degree from the University of Waterloo in Environmental Studies.

From 1993 – 98, he was with Environment Canada working for the Canadian Wildlife Restoration of Habitat. In ‘98 McHattie went back to school, again, taking a Master's program in Rural Planning and International Development at Guelph University.

Much of his research was done in India, where he spent six and a half months. While there, he met with farm leaders and learned, amongst other things, of their opposition to, and strategies for resisting, genetically modified foods. He also developed an admiration of Mahatma Gandhi's philosophies and methods of passive resistance.

Although McHattie is firmly on the left, he is careful that he "doesn't go too crazy" because, as he says, it is easy to be dismissed as a wacky tree hugger or marginalized for representing only a small, squeaky part of the population. He works to find a balance between Brian McHattie, environmentalist, and Brian McHattie, politician.

He said, "I'm an environmentalist, certainly, but my first priority is the constituents." The hours are long (he gets upwards of 150 emails a day), the working week is seven full days, and the opposition to his ideas formidable, but McHattie said he is enjoying his first foray into politics. Quoting Gandhi, "The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others."

A lot of McHattie's actions are, indeed, reflective of Gandhi's teaching. Around Hamilton some of the most fertile land on earth is dug up and destroyed for "development" schemes, which McHattie has the courage to oppose. Gandhi could have been talking about Hamilton when he asked, "What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty and democracy?"

Gandhi also said, "There is more to life than simply increasing its speed," and McHattie, an opponent of the Red Hill Expressway, would rather build a hiking trail or bicycle path than another highway.

When I asked McHattie his biggest disappointment thus far, he said, "The way deals are put together behind closed doors; the lack of transparency and respect for the process." The scandals at City Hall are well documented and, again, Gandhi's words come to mind, "The moment there is suspicion about a person's motives, everything he does becomes tainted."

Canadian writer Malcolm Gladwell recently published a book, Blink, in which he argues that our first impressions are often more powerful and accurate than they're given credit for. From the moment I shook hands with Brian McHattie, I thought, This is someone I could vote for. Those sentiments became more profound as the conversation went on. I wish him well.

Kevin Somers is a Hamilton writer.

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