Hamilton city hall watch dog's 20 years of activism

Activist Don McLean has been at the centre of many major battles in Hamilton in the last 20 years.
Don McLean, in his upstairs office in Stoney Creek, often sends out two or three email reports per week on what city hall is doing. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

It's a small second-storey home office with shelves crammed with file folders and booklets, and it's the centre of Don McLean's world.

There are folders from when the 65-year-old activist fought a long, bitter battle against the Red Hill Valley Parkway, a battle with still-fresh scars on both sides. There are files related to various projects he took on as a founding board member of Environment Hamilton.

There are files about the Enbridge pipeline controversy brewing now in Flamborough. Files outlining development charges. Files dating back so far that their pages are yellowed, and their edges well thumbed.

There are files he has used to write more than 1,000 email reports since 2001 for Citizens at City Hall (CATCH), making him Hamilton's original and probably most prolific independent political blogger.

Don McLean sits in his backyard garden in Stoney Creek. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

For more than 20 years, the Stoney Creek resident has been one of the city's top rabble-rousers, and it all starts in this office.

"I regularly describe myself as a shit disturber," McLean said. "I think that's much of what I do."

McLean has been a familiar face in many of the Hamilton issues spanning the last 20 years. Currently, he co-ordinates the Hamilton 350 committee, which is fighting the reversal of Enbridge Line 9B that runs through Flamborough.

Through Environment Hamilton, he participated in the recent Ontario Municipal Board hearing regarding the Aerotropolis plan to expand Hamilton's urban boundary.

He writes at least one or two email reports per week for CATCH's some 1,100 subscribers, which includes politicians, activists and local media. CATCH uses staff reports and meeting transcripts to shine a light on selected civic issues, particularly development and environmental related ones. McLean reports on councillors' voting habits, and their conflicts of interest. In recent years, he has even reported when councillors got up and wandered away from the council table instead of listening to delegations.

"Information actually changes things more than opinion pieces," McLean said. "Opinion pieces don't change things because the person reading it says 'That's your view.' But if you provide information, then you start to have an impact."

McLean was born in Port Elgin, where his father worked at the local broom factory. The young McLean spent much of his childhood outdoors, and often returned home with frogs in his pockets. One of his early pivotal political memories is watching the first televised debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

Background in student newspapers

He went on to study political science at the University of Guelph, where he wrote for the student newspaper and protested the Viet Nam War.

McLean worked as typesetter in the printing industry when he arrived in Hamilton in 1977, running in three local elections for the Marxist-Leninist Party of Canada. In the late 1980s, he joined the conservation committee of the local naturalist club, where he met Brian McHattie.

McHattie, now a city councillor, remembers McLean and his late wife Betty becoming a force in the club "within days."

McLean looks out on the Red Hill Valley Parkway, a project he fought for years to prevent. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

"He came to one of our committee meetings and said 'Hey, I want to volunteer,'" McHattie recalls. "I had no idea who he was or what his capabilities were.

"Not a lot of people come forward with offers of volunteer activity to the extent that he did. He said, 'Give me anything. I'm keen to do it.'"

Disheartening loss

Early roles included leading junior naturalist walks through Cootes Paradise and organizing walk-a-thons. His interest in the environment led to him to join the local battle against a planned highway running through the Red Hill Valley.

McLean joined the Friends of Red Hill in 1991, and within a year, took over as chair. The group organized protests and rallies, and wrote reports and debated officials. The issue got so heated that some protesters lived in trees to make their point.

McLean and his allies lost that battle, and the highway opened in 2007. McLean doesn't remember feeling anything when he watched the highway's construction. He doesn't recall any impact from the grand opening. But he vividly remembers participating in a 2001 court challenge to push for a federal environmental assessment.

A month after the anti-parkway team lost the case, McLean had a heart attack.

"One of the cardiologists I talked to was trying to figure out why I would have a heart attack at 53," he said. "He said it was the Sisyphus complex, constantly pushing that boulder up the hill."

For anti-highway activists, the loss brought "sadness and despair," McHattie said.

"It was a very disheartening thing, especially for him because he really poured his whole life into it," he said.


One of the cardiologists I talked to was trying to figure out why I would have a heart attack at 53. He said it was the Sisyphus complex, constantly pushing that boulder up the hill.

"You had to wonder how a guy like that would rebound. But that boundless energy he has, he was able to redirect into the CATCH initiative."

The birth of CATCH

The Friends of Red Hill still exist and hold annual lectures. Minus a brief hiatus after the heart attack, McLean is still the group's chair.

During the Red Hill battle, about 15 volunteers began combing staff and consultants' reports to make argument against the highway. From that, CATCH was born.

The group doesn't interview politicians, said McLean, who writes nearly all of CATCH's articles. It bypasses the talking heads.

"The initial idea of CATCH was simply 'we're going to go and watch and try to circulate some of the information,'" he said.

Not everyone is a fan of McLean's work. Former mayor Larry Di Ianni went head-to-head with him over the Red Hill battle.

'Fermenting trouble'

What McLean sees as activism, Di Ianni sees as inhibiting economic progress for Red Hill.

"He was always out there fermenting trouble and trying to prevent the community from moving forward in accomplishing a project that had been in the books for decades," Di Ianni said.

"He firmly believed in what he was doing, but he was guided only by ideology rather than practicality."

The former mayor can respect certain aspects of what McLean does. CATCH's transcripts used to be "better than Hansard," Di Ianni said, and McLean's tenacity is admirable.

"I think anybody who's that committed to what they're doing should be applauded — as misguided as they may be."

Sold the car

McLean had the opposite impact on Hamilton's current mayor, Bob Bratina, during the Red Hill debate.

"I learned of his absolute integrity and devotion to fact," Bratina said. "His CATCH newsletter was a godsend for those of us who were challenging the conventional wisdom of the time."

McLean now challenges Bratina's positions. But the two are friends, the mayor said.

"He is brilliant, but he is also a down-to-earth and humane individual whose life work is to leave the world a better place."

McLean's activism extends beyond the cameras into how he lives. He got rid of his car eight years ago and cycles around Hamilton on a bicycle his neighbour gave him for free. He estimates that being carless saves him about $200 per week.

Earned an environmental degree

The Red Hill experience inspired McLean to get a masters degree in environmental studies from the University of Waterloo. He now teaches online environmental courses through Athabasca University.

He pores through city documents and reports online now. Otherwise, "I'd be drowning in paper."

McHattie agrees with McLean's assessment of himself — he's a rabble-rouser.

But it's not a bad thing, McHattie said.

"I think any good activist has to be a shit disturber."