Talk·Point of View

Why you should care about participatory budgeting in Hamilton

Norman Kearney wants a future for Hamilton where tens of thousands of residents determine how hundreds of millions of dollars are spent every year.

Norman Kearney wants a future for Hamilton where tens of thousands of residents determine how hundreds of millions of dollars are spent every year

Hamilton is the second city in Canada and the fifth in North America to use participatory budgeting, said Norman Kearney, director of the non-profit group Participatory Budget Hamilton.
Norman Kearney is the founder of Participatory Budgeting Hamilton.

What happens when you have power and ask others, "Would you like to have some?"

At first, you get silence and suspicion. We all know there is no such thing as a free lunch. What is the catch?

"There is no catch", you say. And now you are really trying their credulity. This must be a trap.

"OK, fine. There is a catch. You will have to work hard. You will have to put in a lot of time, attend a lot of meetings, do a lot of research and writing, and stay on top of things. But if you do, then you will feel connected to other people like you never have before - you will realize that you can make a difference."

This is the story of a community that came together and decided to try something strange and exciting. It is the story of a more inclusive kind of citizenship. Of boisterous debate. Of reclaiming the imagination of childhood. It is a beautiful story, and it is a story that needs to be told.

It starts in a community meeting that looks just like any other, but something is different. The people at the front are not paid consultants nor city staff. They are residents who live in the community holding the meeting.

Custodian's plan for a community garden

Hamiltonians get together to discuss how to spend their own tax dollars. (Norman Kearney)

The group has been meeting for several weeks to plan the future of their neighbourhood. And their plans are not wishful thinking. They have a budget and the authority to implement it.

The room hums with the chatter of a couple dozen residents who have never done something like this before. The building custodian peeks in with curiosity and is invited to join the discussion. She offers a few ideas and returns to her work. Next week she comes back with a proposal for a community garden.

Not far away other groups of residents are also meeting: there is a Chinese group, a Somali group, a youth group, and more. Citizen and newcomer, young and old, tradesperson and professional – all are sharing their ideas. A few weeks ago they were strangers. Today they are planning a shared-use multicultural/youth centre, safe and inviting alleyways, and a program to feed low-income children.

In a few weeks they will vote on which proposals to fund. Not every proposal will receive funding, but that is OK. Over the past few weeks the groups have come together and everyone has learned a lot from each other. Now every proposal belongs to the community, and whatever the outcome it will be something that everyone can respect.

'The vote is coming to the voter'

When the voting days come, residents will be greeted at their doorsteps by mobile ballot boxes weaving their ways through the neighbourhoods. Although there will also be a few regular voting stations, this time the vote is coming to the voter.

What is all this? It is what happens when you put faith in the ability of ordinary people to do something extraordinary. It does not happen through magic, of course. It takes a lot of planning, organizing, and support, but it is proof that a participatory democracy is possible.

Over the past year, I have had the pleasure of building and leading this great example of civic innovation. Our work is part of a movement called "participatory budgeting" that began in Brazil twenty-four years ago. Hamilton is among the first few cities in North America to join this movement, but with our example there should be many more to follow.

On August 24 and 25, residents of Ward 2 will vote on their proposals. After the celebrations, our task is to bring participatory budgeting citywide. Everyone in our city deserves to have this opportunity, and we have proven that it is not just feasible, but fun.

Help us build a better democracy. Sign up at

Norman Kearney is the founder of Participatory Budgeting Hamilton.