What happens to residents’ feeling of identity if Ford restructures regional municipalities?

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Our sense of location and identity can be thrown off when names and geographic boundaries are modified, as they are in Ontario from time to time.

More changes may be coming due to the provincial administration‘s recent statement that it will look into regional government reform. Peel Region, which comprises the municipalities of Mississauga, Brampton, and Caledon, could be obliterated or drastically altered.

Most Peel Region residents do not identify as Peelers (with apologies) but rather call one of the neighboring municipalities “home.” Peel was established in 1974 by the Bill Davis government as an administrative organization responsible for roads, schools, policing, and other services while leaving emotional ties to the lower-tier towns.

Any positive or negative consequences of the upcoming Peel changes on administrative and institutional levels will be felt more than in how people in the region identify. However, if Brampton and Mississauga, or Brampton and Caledon, were to merge into one city, the feeling of geographic place that has developed there would undoubtedly be affected.

These would be drastic measures, but considering the Ford government’s summer cut to the Toronto city council during an election campaign, perhaps no one should underestimate the Ford government’s willingness to go to such lengths.

Beyond these conjectures, it’s interesting to see where other people’s identities intersect. I’ve met people who claim to be from Durham Region, Peel’s eastern GTA counterpart, which was founded in 1974. It’s undoubtedly true, but because there are so many different villages inside this administrative territory, I often follow up with questions like, “Yes, but from where?” Personal identities tend to take root in Oshawa, Pickering, Uxbridge, and other Durham locations since they have the greatest local references and long histories.

The provincial government combined several communities in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the last significant round of municipal restructuring in Ontario. When Metro Toronto’s two-tiered municipal organization, which consisted of six municipalities and one regional administration, was merged, it became the “megacity.” Some people still have strong ties to the former municipalities, but I’ve observed that younger people who grew up after the merger don’t recognize the old boundaries. To them, Toronto is just one enormous city.

To be sure, the names of historical cities still ring true, with Scarborough being the most powerful of the six. However, this is more often shown as neighborhood identity, a sense of belonging, than a historical identification with a municipal institution. Even today, some older people use Don Mills, Willowdale, or Rexdale as their mailing addresses, demonstrating that people have strong attachments to historical and geographical names.

There’s been an even more convoluted name and location mix-up outside of Toronto. In 2001, Hamilton merged with other communities such as Ancaster, Dundas, Stoney Creek, and Waterdown, as well as a large portion of rural territory. You may live on James St. in downtown Hamilton or on a farm in Glanbrook Township and still be considered a Hamilton resident. It muddles the entire concept of a city, not to mention exacerbating political tensions at a city hall that must deal with fundamental urban-rural lifestyle disparities.

A journey down Highway 401 reveals even more peculiarities. When you enter what was once Kent County, you’ll be greeted by Chatham-Kent, a single-tier municipality established in 1998. Chatham is a well-known urban area in the center, and it has a city-like downtown cluster of buildings, but you can be in Chatham-Kent even if you’re hundreds of kilometers out in the middle of a farmer’s field.

Chatham’s “Chathamness” is diluted in this way, at least officially. What is the line between the city and the countryside? Administrative boundary changes weaken these timeless landscape archetypes.

Outside of Windsor, some villages were merged as well. Lakeshore, on Lake St. Clair, is one of those locations. This 1998 invention, which was given a generic name, ate up historic sites like Belle River. Such fundamental changes remind me of Gertrude Stein’s famous remark, “there’s no there there,” which she used to describe her demolished childhood home in Oakland, California.

Changes in municipalities aren’t often as drastic. The town of Tecumseh, which is immediately adjacent to Windsor, also merged with several lesser cities but elected to keep the most important historic town name, which honors the renowned Shawnee chief and his participation in the War of 1812. Even yet, some people have forgotten the terms of locations they once knew and identified with. Indigenous peoples in this area suffered far more when colonial newcomers destroyed hundreds of their place names.

A sense of place develops over time and is highly personal, something to keep in mind as we face more civic change.