By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express
To say the federal government’s plans to amalgamate the port authorities of Oshawa and Hamilton was a surprise to some would be an understatement.
Mayor Dan Carter said he was on a Go Train coming back from a meeting with provincial representatives when he heard the news.
Carter said there was “no discussion” with the city on the potential amalgamation, and he is not happy about that.
“I am not pleased with this process at all,” he said.
The mayor said there are still a number of unanswered questions such as how much of a voice the City of Oshawa will have.
“Are we going to be able to make sure our voice is heard?” he asked rhetorically.
Gary Valcour, chair of the Oshawa Port Authority board, was equally as miffed.
Valcour noted while the idea of amalgamation of port authorities comes up in discussion from “time to time,” he had no idea this news was coming.
“Nobody in the federal government of either party or anybody else has ever come to me, or our board, and said we want to talk about amalgamation. It’s never been an on-the-table issue,” Valcour said. “That’s a real surprise to us.”
While he acknowledged Transport Canada has been developing a plan for the modernization of ports across the country, he says “there was nothing in that certainly about this specific amalgamation.”
For Valcour, the main question is – why now?
“Frankly, I’m still in the dark as to what the rationale is. Where’s the business case? Is there an actual business case that has been done, where are the hard numbers,” he adds.
He raised concerns about how the potentially amalgamated entity will be made up.
“What will be the composition of the new board? Will there be an equal number of representatives from Durham Region and Oshawa?” he questioned. “Nobody seems to have an answer, nobody seems to really have thought about that.”
Valcour notes while the relationship between the city and port has at times been contentious, he believes it is the best it’s been in years.
He fears if there is a lack of local representation on the new board, it will create a lack of accountability.
“Even with all the back and forth we’ve had with the city, and if the city thinks from time to time its been difficult for us, we’re still residents. We pay taxes here,” he said. “What will it be like if nobody on the board lives here.”
The possible amalgamation hasn’t been welcomed by port users, Valcour explained.
“I’ve heard briefly from some of our stakeholders. They are not happy at all,” he said. “Business doesn’t like uncertainty.”
While Valcour says amalgamation could end up being a positive for Oshawa’s port, he isn’t convinced as of yet.
“I don’t have any factual, documented basis to understand why it is a good idea,” he says.
Ward 5 city councillor John Gray noted that Hamilton’s port is much larger than Oshawa.
He worries possible amalgamation could lead to a push for some “dirty, nauseous users” to Oshawa.
“That really handcuffs the developing of our harbour,” Gray said.
Gray worries the federal plans will be a “real threat” to the Oshawa port from an “accountability point of view.”
“Hamilton is going to be the big player, not Oshawa. That means our pleas for help and common sense will probably go by the wayside.”
The former mayor said a lack of development of harbour lands given back to the city years ago could create issues as well.
“The new entity may in fact want to reopen the whole harbour issue to start with. I feel threatened by that,” Gray said. “The city has had the west wharf since 2011, and nothing has gotten done. I don’t want them to take the approach that the city broached the agreement and did nothing with the land.”
Gray did concede that he understands Transport Canada wanting to make sure the Oshawa port is financially viable.
“If you put them in with Hamilton, there is deeper pockets to put your hands in,” he said.
Ward 5 regional councillor Brian Nicholson told The Express he believes the amalgamation has the potential to improve port operations in Oshawa.
“It depends who is on the board, and the terms of management. It’s an opportunity for the city to work with the federal government to find a mutually-operable approach,” he says. “Hopefully, we get it to a way that operates efficiently.”
Nicholson blasted the way the Oshawa Port Authority has operated.
“The biggest problem has been the disconnect between the desire of the port and the desire of the community.”
He accused the port of having “almost an arrogance.”
“They think they don’t answer to anybody,” he said. “The people that are appointed to the board are appointed to represent vested interests.”
Further, he said the city’s representation of the board has been lacking.
He pointed to the recent appointment of Pat Perkins, former mayor of Whitby as the provincial representative on the board.
Are there no qualified citizens in Oshawa to be given this appointment, and why do we always have Whitby residents appointed to the Oshawa Port Authority,” Nicholson said. “Oshawa residents are constantly not appointed to the Oshawa Port Authority. This should end and we should be asking hard questions of the Province.”
Even though Transport Canada has stated the decision to amalgamate is still to be decided, Nicholson isn’t convinced of that.
“I do not see the logic in holding a 30-day public consultation to investigate a process that Ministers are not interested in seeing through,” he said.
For him, he wants the federal government to legitimately hear the voices of Oshawa residents.
“I’m just hopeful for whatever happens in this process, that the public gets an option to have their say,” Nicholson said. “The port does have an impact with our community, whether it be on the Second Marsh or our roads.”
Oshawa MP Colin Carrie says Transport Canada’s announcement left him with “more questions than answers.”
“I think everyone was surprised about it. I don’t think they did any consultation,” Carrie told The Express.
“Where exactly is the business case for this? What about transparency and autonomy? How is this going to be composed,” he said. “I’m asking where is the business case. Maybe these ports would work better together if amalgamated, I’m not saying it won’t.”
Secondly, Carrie admitted confusion as to why Transport Canada would consider amalgamation before releasing the results of its port modernization review.
The federal government is soliciting public feedback on the proposed amalgamation until March 11.
At its latest meeting, Oshawa city council passed several resolutions in reaction to the government’s plans.
These included requesting Transport Minister Marc Garneau meet with Carter, regional chair John Henry and development services committee chair councillor Tito-Dante Marimpietri.
The city is also requesting the public consultation period be extended to 90 days, and that a public meeting be allowed to be scheduled.
Lastly, the city will reinstate a port ‘working group’ composed of Carter, Nicholson, Marimpietri, Ward 1 city councillor Rosemary McConkey and appropriate staff.
The mandate of this group will be to monitor governance and land use at the Oshawa port.
Council has also directed development services staff to prepare a report in order to provide an official submission to Transport Canada.