In some far off future, provided our species hasn’t found a creative means to shuffle itself off this mortal coil, historians will look back on the early 21st century as the age when the truth was forgotten.
This is the era of Trump. The epoch of #alternativefacts. An age when facts often have but the most tenuous connection to our politics.
You might say this isn’t exactly news. After all, politicians warping the truth goes back to the days when Themistocles lied to get his fellow Athenians to spend their silver on ships instead of themselves.
But that sort of political lie served a greater end. Today, untruths are used in a banal fashion exaggerate one’s achievements or excuse mistakes and blunders. It’s become accepted practice – among a certain species of politician at least – to say whatever serves them in the moment. As the moment changes, so does their narrative. Facts be damned.
American President Donald Trump is the avatar of this mode of politics. His is a presidency built on lies. Yet, he is just the most extreme example of the fact-adverse politician.
No community seems safe from this phenomenon these days, not even Niagara.
Back in May, during a marathon regional council meeting – which itself was part of the ongoing failure of this council to establish a meaningful code of conduct – regional chairman Alan Caslin made this startling claim for himself and his council:
“This morning when I was talking to the chamber of commerce in Niagara Falls, they asked the question in several different ways, ‘How do you stay focused on what’s important?’ And I said ‘This council is great. This council understands what’s important.’ And despite the distractions we all face from time to time in council, no matter what they are, and we all face a lot of them, we always have our eye on the distance and what’s important for Niagara. And I can cite several examples of that, and I did this morning, with respect to GO Train, with respect to the GE plant, with respect to inter-municipal transit.
There are so many great things that we have done in this term of council that are probably … we have probably done more in this term of council than has been done in all other terms of council put together.”
Consider the Trumpian hubris of the claim.
This is a council so marked by internal strife, bumbling, ethical lapses, and general meanness that at the same meeting Caslin made his proclamation, Welland Councillor Paul Grenier made an emotional plea for the end of the toxic politics of the chamber.
And yet Caslin wants us to believe this council is the greatest of them all?
But we need not delve into hyperbole here. What is specifically interesting about Caslin’s boast is its falsifiable nature. That is to say, it can be tested to determine if it is true or false.
First, let’s look at the three things Caslin offers up as evidence of this council’s, and by extension his own, greatness – GO Transit, the GE plant in Welland and inter-regional transit.
On GO Trains, council gets credit for carrying the baton as far as they have. Getting Niagara on the GO agenda was started by the previous council under the leadership of former chair Garry Burroughs and St. Catharines MPP Jim Bradley, but this council did a good job of keeping the political pressure on until Queen’s Park finally took notice.
But it is far too early to break out the champagne. The current timetable puts daily GO service six years away, and not one meter of track has been laid yet.
And there is at least one provincial election between now and then. The fate of this GO initiative will depend greatly on what happens in the 2018 provincial election.
The governing Liberals once again find themselves scandal-ridden and unpopular. There is no guarantee they will form the next provincial government (although you can bet Liberal candidates in Niagara will, like Caslin, use GO as a campaign carrot) and the Tories have been historically cool on GO expansion.
GO Trains would be an obvious benefit to Niagara, but it won’t take much to derail the plan. It will be up to the next regional council, and perhaps even the one that follows it, to help see the project to completion.
Similarly, inter-regional transit is a work-in-progress that began before this council was elected and won’t be finished until after the next trip to the ballot box.
A functionally useful regional transit system has been something of a holy grail for several iterations of council. Years ago, a transit committee lead by former regional chair Debbie Zimmerman nearly got a Niagara transit plan off the ground. It didn’t get past the finish line because of the Welland, St. Catharines and Niagara Falls transit commissions refused to give up their fiefdoms, and the notion has limped along ever since.
Now, those same three cities have an agreement in principle with the Region to finally, mercifully, get a transit plan together.
Even more than GO, a Niagara transit system is something the local economy badly needs. However, the system doesn’t exist yet, not even on paper. Everything is still in the planning phase, and while it is hard to imagine any of the three Niagara transit commissions bailing out now, the fact is that it will be the next council and the next iterations of St. Catharines, Welland and Niagara Falls councils, that complete the project.
Which brings us to General Electric.
In a rare bit of economic good news in Niagara, General Electric is building a plant in Welland and will hire about 220 people to work there.
In October 2016, a GE spokesman said the coordination of the Region, the City of Welland, the provincial government and other parties played a significant role in the company’s decision to build a plant in Welland. In other words, Niagara stopped bickering long enough to get something done.
The plant does not signal the return of the good old days of manufacturing in Niagara – and anyone who tells you otherwise probably wants to sell you some magic beans – but it is welcome news nonetheless.
The Region did what was necessary, and gets full marks for that. But it cannot claim the GE plant as a victory for itself. Without the other players, GE would not have set up shop here.
So Caslin’s metric for greatness is two work-in-progress projects this council won’t finish, and a third in which the Region played a part.
These are not failures by any stretch, but remember Caslin’s specific claim: this council has done more than all other councils combined.
Take a quick trip down memory lane, and you’ll find some political achievements by past councils that, given their impact on the lives of Niagara residents, eclipse anything the current council has attempted.
Perhaps most significant of these was the establishment of Niagara’s ambulance dispatch centre in 2005.
The effort took seven years and was completed during Zimmerman’s time as regional chair. Until 2005, ambulances were dispatched out of Hamilton, and there were long-standing concerns this had a deleterious impact on response times.
The project put ambulance dispatch into the hands of Niagara and, in the process, improved ambulance response times, which meant better medical treatment and lives saved. The ambulance dispatch centre is arguably the single most significant accomplishment of any regional council to date.
In 2002, regional council implemented a smoking bylaw that prevented smoking in public buildings. The bylaw survived court challenges, and although it has since been eclipsed by provincial regulations, Niagara was one of the first Ontario municipalities to have an effective smoking bylaw to protect the health of citizens.
In 2008, the Niagara Prosperity Initiative was founded at the Region to provide robust solutions to poverty issues in Niagara, improving the lives of those who need help the most.
Past councils also brought early years child centres to Niagara, funded a dental program to help those in poverty, laid the political groundwork for the expansion of Highway 406 to Welland, and passed land use regulations that permitted the construction of the Fallsview Casino and the new St. Catharines hospital.
Against all this work done by past councils, Caslin claims his council, with its handful of achievements and mountain of unfinished business, is greater than all previous councils combined.
Such a claim only has merit in the truth-adverse era of Trump.