A little over 50 years ago, the communities of Galt, Preston and Hespeler were, as the saying goes, three peas in a pod. Tremendous sports rivals to the very core of community pride.
Sorry, for those living in Hespeler and Galt, but I was a Preston kid. I grew up playing pool at Rusty’s, bought penny candy at Gravelle’s Variety, went swimming at ‘Eddie’s Pool (Ed Newland Pool), and sat on the wall by the Dairy Queen with a Dilly Bar.
But behind the scenes of this young man’s life, there was some interesting politics playing out. William Davis was the Premier of Ontario at the time and Darcy McKeough was his Minister of Municipal Affairs. I guess for some unknown reason, to me at least, they figured that we’d be better off together than apart and as of January 1st, 1973, the Premier declared, “thou shalt be conjoined into one harmonious community.”
Well, frankly, at that point in my life I was more interested in who was meeting at Rusty’s after school rather than what anyone at Queen’s Park was doing for, or with, my hometown of Preston. I can vaguely recall the community vote during the 1972 municipal election on what this ‘new city’ should be called, and it was narrowed to Cambridge or Blair. In the end, 11,728 residents voted in favour of the name Cambridge compared to 9,888 – most of those residing in Galt - who selected Blair. While the name Blair is not offensive in any way, it is hard for me to wrap my head around what might have been had the vote gone the other way.
We all know the end of that tale: Cambridge we shall be, and we shall be united, we shall be one. Sounds good in theory, but perhaps that ‘experiment’ didn’t exactly work out the way it was planned. My children, all born ‘post amalgamation’, still refer to the former municipal names, for the most part.
However, isn’t that what community is all about? When someone asks us today where we live, we identify, again for the most part, with the “old” community names.
The Chamber, however, had a much easier time adapting to this new reality and kind of bought into the whole concept in the early stage of amalgamation when the Galt Chamber, Preston Chamber and Hespeler Village Association merged to become the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce.
Looking back, I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall during those meetings, but I was too busy sitting on the wall by the Dairy Queen catcalling the hot rods driving down King Street. I know now, however, that there was likely some kicking and screaming but with the universal understanding that bringing business together was going to build a better community with opportunities for everyone.
The Chamber throughout the last 50 years has been the mainstay for community development and creating opportunities, filling gaps, and moving the agenda of positivity. It has also been here when the community was in need. Take the Grand River flood in 1974 as an example.
Although we are blessed to have two of Canada’s Heritage Rivers (Grand and Speed) running through our community, they can create issues - not just traffic trouble if one of the bridges is closed - that overshadow their beauty.
This was the case when the Grand River overflowed its banks on that fateful May 17th hitting downtown Galt very hard. You may have read or heard the official stories about the inadequacies of the emergency response departments that unforgettable day. But did you know that before the water arrived the Chamber President, the late Don Faichney, called the Grand River Conservation Authority to ask if there was an issue after hearing there was a dam incident at Conestogo?
The GRCA confirmed to him that they had let officials know. But hours later, as the river began to rise, Faichney called the City and of course the newly minted Regional Municipality of Waterloo, about what steps they were taking to alert businesses in the downtown core. Realizing not enough was being done, he then worked as hard as possible to get the message out himself by calling businesses - remember, there was no email or social media back then. In his Royal Commission Inquiry into the Grand River Flood 1974 report, Judge W.W. Leach credited the Chamber with providing an early response of warning that likely saved some loss.
Fortunately, all of that led to the GRCA getting funding to put up those infamous walls in downtown Galt in hopes of mitigating any future flooding, which also led to creating opportunities for revival. In hindsight, maybe we should have insisted on easy river access and raising of the water slightly so we could utilize the river in downtown for paddle boat rentals, or even freezing it to create a Rideau Canal-like experience in the winter. By the way, the GRCA is still a willing partner for that to happen one day, but I’m not sure the Grand River will freeze anymore thanks to climate change. Still, it might be worth exploring.
The Chamber of Commerce has also championed the industrial subdivisions and was instrumental in two very important community assets: higher education and professional live theatre. It was the Chamber who brought together the team – known as the ‘Cambridge Consortium’ - that eventually would get the University of Waterloo School of Architecture opened here AND, more formally, out of a tourism committee meeting came the call to establish a live professional theatre in Cambridge which led to the Hamilton Family Theatre which we now hail as a ‘community jewel’.
The Chamber has always taken the approach of fostering the building of our community by not saying no, but by saying yes and how do we get it done.
Again, putting political reasoning aside, back in 1973 our communities needed to band together since aging infrastructure was becoming an issue - especially in Hespeler – and getting new infrastructure was, and remains, a very costly ordeal. Preston, to its credit, had amazing infrastructure at that time and was in great shape and perhaps could have opted out. However, its leaders recognized that some work was needed to ensure its preservation and supported the move.
Now, let’s be clear, I am not a big fan of forced amalgamations. Frankly, I think those moves are officially political in nature. However, I am a fan of working together for the betterment of all.
Today, many of us remember the dividing lines of those three former communities, but in time those too will disappear in the memory of its residents as change brings bigger, better, and bolder ideas to build a strong, vibrant, and genuinely prosperous community. In many respects, I believe we are the envy of our neighbours to the north which many think want to consume us since we are the only community in the region that fully straddles both rivers and Highway 401, North America’s busiest roadway. I think if we were to analyze the entire circumstance of Cambridge’s amalgamation we would probably agree, in the end, it was good for us. It certainly would have been better if we had all been on the same page at the time, but we’re only 50 years old and that’s a “young’un” in terms of community years. The best part is we’re still young, enthusiastic, looking forward, and optimistic on what kind of a community we can have. We aren’t done building this community yet, so any further craziness of amalgamation talks is off the table from my perspective.
What we have now is a community poised to explode, and you might not like that, but worry not, anyone reading this is unlikely to be here when that happens and the leaders of the day will care about what they are doing, just like the leaders of the past did.
They will care about being progressive in community development but also in building a city that is safe, healthy, and abundantly filled with opportunities. Let’s celebrate our 50th anniversary in style with recognizing we’ve come a long way in the first 50, so let us reach for the top in the next 50. After all, it’s all about the making of a community.
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