One voice? One Niagara?
One voice. One Niagara. Its the mantra we have been hearing for quite some time now. Its the credo that many see as the only means of economic survival for a region which has watched it's industrial base whither and die on the grape vine over the past couple of decades. One voice. One Niagara. To many in the business community it is the way forward. United and strong. To others it smacks of big government and a small town version of Orwell's 1984 (even though that watershed moment came and went 28 years ago). You have to admit, it does sound at bit authoritarian. One voice, one Niagara. What happens to the dissenting voices? What if, heaven forbid, you are growing up and your voice is changing?
In the debate that is breaking out across the region proponents of the one region model are quick to change the subject when faced with the word amalgamation but never quite distance themselves from it. We are told that a region of small communities, all pulling in separate directions, will never succeed.
When Ottawa doctor Jack Kitts did a review of health care in Niagara a few years back he held a number of town hall meetings to test the political and medical wind. I emceed two of the meetings and talked to him at length. He was shocked at the lack of any real cohesion in Niagara and not just about health care...about anything. He told me that Niagara would never progress unless it followed Ottawa's lead in silencing the small voices and speaking with the much larger one. One voice, one Niagara.
Obviously there is logic in that. There certainly is strength in numbers and there, certainly, is a need to compete in an increasingly global economy. The constant infighting over health care, governance and heaven knows what else will only create gridlock at the top and, while we fight, someone else will take our business away.
The trouble with that thinking, like most economic thinking, is that it doesn't take real life into account. It looks only at numbers and bottom lines. A one voice model relies on the power of the population. The most power lies with the most people. Therefore the one voice is, for the most part, St. Catharines and Niagara Falls because thats where most of the people are. Its logical but is it livable? There are still quite a few people who live in Welland, Pelham, Fort Erie, Port Colborne and Lincoln.
While business leaders and politicians point to the great moments of Niagara's future there are those who are not so sure. Its hard for Fort Erie to get excited about a bright shiny new spectator facility in St. Kitts and casino investment in the Falls while their horse racing facility and slot machines are packing up to leave. Its difficult for Port Colborne to be all a twitter about a multi million dollar arts complex in St, Catharines while their own Showboat Theatre has just shut its doors for good. The people of Welland are hard pressed to sing the praises of a huge new hospital in North Niagara while the hospital they have known all their lives, the one that is 5 minutes away, is slated for closure.
The same can be said for education with pure numbers dictating the future of schools and decisions on those schools being made, not by the parents and students involved, but by boards and committees with little or no emotional stake. Sometimes a little emotional involvement is a good thing...a much more realistic thing than a simple balance sheet.
We all know how we feel when the GTA is the focus of most provincial decisions because of it population base. We all know how the rest of Canada has felt about Ontario and Quebec, for years, because we were people (and vote) rich.
I wonder, sometimes, if we aren't seeing the same thing happening, in our own way, right here. Telling all the small communities and small interests to suck it up for the common good. I still wonder whether or not Two Voices, Two Niagaras isn't more to the point. And more realistic.