Ward 2 ready for a new approach to encampments, says Coun. Cameron Kroetsch

Cameron Kroetsch, elected as Hamilton’s Ward 2 councillor this fall, grew up in St. Catharines, in a family that didn’t always have secure housing.

Kroetsch campaigned on changing how the city approaches homelessness and policing

Close up shot of a guy smiling in front of a stone building.
Cameron Kroetsch is Hamilton's Ward 2 councillor as of the 2022 municipal election. (Cameron Kroetsch/Supplied)

Cameron Kroetsch, elected as Hamilton's Ward 2 councillor this fall, grew up in St. Catharines, in a family that didn't always have secure housing.

"We moved around a lot," Kroetsch told CBC Hamilton late last year. "It was a big part of my life."

That feeling of insecurity isn't something he's forgotten. It helped him relate to many of the downtown residents he spoke with while canvassing, he says, noting empathy for people living on the streets is common in a ward where many see their own housing situation as precarious. 

"When I began to tell people about what my life experiences were like… it resonated with almost every person I spoke to," said Kroetsch, who has been a vocal advocate for a new approach in how the city addresses encampment residents, along with other housing issues. "We can't be chasing people around, trying to make the problem invisible."

Kroetsch, 44, was elected as councillor of Ward 2 in October's municipal election, earning 49 per cent of the vote to three-term incumbent Jason Farr's 33 per cent. It was his second time running. He says he spent much of the time in between the campaigns getting more involved in the community, through volunteer gigs with the North End Breezes community newsletter and the Beautiful Alleys program in Durand, and by attending as many community meetings and events as he could.

"I think some people criticize me for 'campaigning' for the last four or five years, but I have been trying to be more involved in my community," said Kroetsch, who has been appointed to nearly 30 council committees and boards, including the Hamilton Police Service Board, the CityHousing Hamilton board of directors, Public Works committee and the Board of Health. "Last election, I realized there's so many things I don't know, [which meant] I guess I have more work to do."

'We weren't asking people to give up their day job'

Kroetsch lived in St. Catharines until he was 11, then moved with his family to Brampton, where he lived until his early 20s. He returned to St. Catharines to attend Brock University, where he studied classics, then got a bachelor of education degree at University of Toronto. He holds a masters degree in classics from Western University in London; after which he spent time at the University of Guelph on a Canadian contemporary poetry fellowship.

It was during his time at Guelph that Kroetsch got involved in the labour movement, becoming president of the union that represents university teaching assistants and sessional instructors, Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) local 3913. After that, he became a partner in a family business that staffed temporary workers in dental offices, but shut down that business at the end of last year.

He moved to Hamilton with his partner Derek in 2014 and lives in the Durand neighbourhood.

Kroetsch credits his campaign success to being a known entity in the community, and designing a campaign that allowed volunteers to participate on their terms – door-knocking in their own neighbourhoods, on a schedule decided in advance or through last-minute call-outs. 

"We weren't asking people to give up their day job to be part of the campaign," he said. "No one had to do that but me." 

He shared campaign resources, including volunteers and office space, with Ward 2 public school board candidate Sabreina Dahab, who was also elected.

'I am not there to uphold the status quo and neither is he'

Dahab says she and Kroetsch are planning to work collaboratively in their new roles as well. She says there are many issues on which the school board and city government should work together more closely, citing street safety and creating affordable housing among them. 

A woman sitting
Ward 2 trustee Sabreina Dahab is pictured at a Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board meeting in November. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

"At the door, we were talking about… how school board issues are city issues," Dahab told CBC Hamilton. "We were making those links for people, especially on housing as well, given that the school board is one of the largest owners of public property, and given that the school board does close down schools and has sold off property to developers."

She has high hopes for Kroetsch as a councillor, noting she's found him to be hard-working and committed to community needs. 

She also believes he will work to change city practices that aren't working for residents.

"I don't think Cameron is afraid to push back," she said. "I am not there to uphold the status quo and neither is he."

In these early days of the council term, Kroetsch has already shown he is willing to go against the grain. In December, he was the sole vote against the 2023 Hamilton Police budget – which recommends a $12-million increase – on the Police Service Board, speaking out against the budget itself as well as the process through which it was passed.

Kroetsch was open about his willingness to reduce the police budget in his campaign, and also spoke frequently about treating encampment residents with more compassion. In late December, when Hamiltonians criticized the city for the lack of warming centre options for people stuck outside, he said the status quo is "not ok." 

Both were stances that set him apart from previous Ward 2 councillor Jason Farr, a vocal police supporter who introduced a successful motion in March that led to tents being cleared more quickly from public space than they had been in the past.

'100 per cent respectful of the decision the voters made'

Farr says that after 12 years representing the ward, he's not about to start criticizing voters' choices now, and adds they've clearly elected someone who is "ambitious" and "a hard worker.

"I am sincerely 100 per cent respectful of the decision the voters made," Farr said. "The guy has lived, breathed and eaten being a downtown councillor for probably eight years. Good for him."

Ward 2 candidates Suresh Daljeet, Jason Farr and Cameron Kroetsch attend an election event during the 2018 municipal campaign. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

The way Farr sees it, the new council faces some daunting challenges: keeping the budget and tax increases in check, despite inflation of about 7 per cent over the past year that has made most of its line items cost more. In Ward 2, he worries that an ongoing trend toward working from home will further increase office vacancies, something city staff worked long and hard to build up over many years of decay in the downtown.

Kroetsch says some of his council goals include adopting a human rights-based approach to encampments, which includes revisiting Farr's motion; work to improve service levels for people downtown, including more access to grocery stores, garbage cans, green space and drinking fountains; and to be part of a vigorous pushback against the province when it comes to protecting Hamilton's urban boundary and the green space beyond it threatened by provincially-mandated expansion.

He'd also like to see the city adopt more transparent practices around homelessness and housing, saying there seems to be a disconnect between city staff who say there's enough shelter space for anyone who needs it, and social service providers who tell him that simply isn't the case.

"I really want to treat [homelessness] like the emergency that it is," he said. "When a water main freezes and explodes, we don't come in there with best practices and try to talk about how to make the street better. We treat it like an emergency."


Saira Peesker is a reporter with CBC Hamilton, with particular interests in climate, labour and local politics. She has previously worked with the Hamilton Spectator and CTV News, and is a regular contributor to the Globe and Mail, covering business and personal finance. Saira can be reached at saira.peesker@cbc.ca.