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When party planning, 200 is the loneliest number

This week on Market Squared, we have to talk about the surprising politics of planning a big birthday party
birthdaycake stock

In the plot of 1989’s Batman, the eternal struggle between the Caped Crusader and his nemesis Joker take place against the backdrop of Gotham City’s 200th birthday. Despite the rampant crime and criminality in Gotham, Mayor Borg’s number one priority is to hold a party in honour of a city that’s synonymous with societal decay.

All around Guelph people are asking, 'Where’s our Mayor Borg?'

Until very recently, it’s felt like the commemoration of Guelph’s bicentennial, now less than four years away, was purely a community effort. Questions about it got the 'relax, we’re working on it' prepared response, and until the most recent workshop meeting on the subject, it was not even mentioned in the Strategic Plan refresh.

It seems like last week’s Breezy Breakfast finally put the nose to the proverbial grindstone, and now there’s a section on the Have Your Say site dedicated to the topic. It asks Guelphites to tell the city about what kind of bicentennial event the survey taker wants to see, which sounds fine on the surface, but it implies the worst case scenario: The 200th birthday plans are still a blank sheet of paper.

Now I want to look cynically at this for a second. Unusual, I know, but bear with me.

Who cares? No, really, who gives a damn about Guelph being two centuries old?

Consider the overwhelming crises of housing, affordability, mental health and addictions, and add to that massive infrastructure projects, restraints and restrictions in governance, and top down pressures from the Feds and Province, and there’s more than enough serious work for city staff to do before planning a birthday party.

Honestly, I sometimes think that this bicentennial talk is merely for the realm of Guelph’s comfortably privileged. The people most worried about the 200th are the ones who have the free time to think about such things, the people to whom Guelph has been very good to and thus have cause to feel thankfully celebratory.

That gets us into the sticky world of reconciliation because how are we supposed to have a 200th birthday when the land that we now call Guelph existed long before some Scottish guy cut down a tree and then screwed up the plans for the city centre with another community’s (according to urban legend)?

Also, I would hate to see any bicentennial commemoration turn into some kind of pity me nostalgia fest where we lament all things that Guelph doesn’t have any more. We have too many Guelph Facebook pages about this stuff, so no crying about long-gone bookstores, street corners, or that silly crown that hung over St. George’s Square like we’re Jughead Jones over here!

So what does a bicentennial celebration look like in my estimation?

It needs to be accessible, and no I don’t mean open to people with a physical disability although that’s always a nice minimum level of inclusiveness. No, I mean open to everyone that now calls Guelph home. We’re very cliquey here, and though I’ve now lived in Guelph for 20 years, I still feel like an outsider sometimes. It’s no one’s fault in particular, but it’s a bias we have to be aware of going in.

We have to keep in mind that time only moves in one direction: forward. Looking at black and white pictures of beautiful old buildings 100 years ago and lamenting their loss is pointless. The real question is how we can incorporate what’s passed into the future, and how can we use the things still here in a way that holds on to character while embracing the possibilities of what may come in the next 100 years?

We need to accept when things were bad, and some of it not so long ago. It was a bit of a shock when a University of Guelph local history project dug up the fact that there were still minstrel shows happening in the Guelph area in the 1990s, but perhaps no more shocking that still, today, the headquarters for Black activism in Guelph is continually the target of racism and white supremacy.

Having said that, we can also tout the times Guelph has set the curve on social progress. Heritage Hall has a rich history that goes back over 100 years, there’s evidence that show’s the Ontario Reformatory had an Indigenous sweat lodge, and wave after wave of Irish and Italian immigrants found safety and community settling in the Ward.

Now how do we turn that into a party in less than four years? That’s a good question.

It’s strange that Heritage Guelph, the citizen advisory group charged with the protection of local history, is taking the month off when there’s so much to do. Not just when it comes to the 11th hour work on the bicentennial, but the more urgent work of protecting our old buildings under the Pendulum of Doom called Bill 23.

Look, I’m not telling city staff to drop everything to start the party planning, but in the interest of candor let me say this: If there’s too much going on, or if city hall’s workload is threatening to expand beyond its ability to control, don’t keep it to yourself. There’s a community that wants to help out, they’re eager to get started, and they are ready to serve if asked.

I understand being in the middle of something that’s due next week and then someone starts nagging at you about something completely different, especially when it’s months away from needing your urgent attention. But having said that, a proper bicentennial isn’t just something you can put together on Sunday night when its due Monday morning.

It may sound trite to phrase it like this, but time is running out, and, I fear, so is the patience of a community looking for direction and getting none.


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Adam A. Donaldson

About the Author: Adam A. Donaldson

In addition to writing his weekly political column for GuelphToday, Adam A. Donaldson writes and manages Guelph Politico, frequently writes for Nerd Bastards and sometimes has to do less cool things for a paycheque.
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