Hamilton’s approach to Grey Cup reveals double standard on drinking

There’s a time to laugh and there’s a time to groan and sometimes Hamilton council lets you do both simultaneously.

Case in point: Council’s attitude to boozefests. It seems some are more equal than others.

At least that’s the only conclusion I can come to after witnessing the cultural double-standard displayed at this week’s general issues meeting.

Patrick Deane, president of McMaster University, was on deck for his annual address, updating councillors on Mac’s achievements and community commitments.

Following his presentation, Deane, who is leaving in June to take charge of Queen’s University, threw the gate open to questions. Onto the field trotted Ancaster-Flamborough Coun. Lloyd Ferguson.

After praising McMaster’s “significant role” in Hamilton’s resurgence, Ferguson asked what the university is doing about controlling the annual Homecoming celebrations, in which thousands of returning students pour onto city streets and “probably consume too much alcohol.”

Ferguson, the departing chair of the police services board, said the revelries – which typically include drunken behaviour, public urination, vomiting and paramedic calls – create “fear” among neighbouring residents and put a “huge strain” on police resources.

Deane acknowledged the Westdale parties are a perennial challenge and said Mac works hard trying to contain the behaviour of carousing students. But there’s no easy solution because Mac’s code of conduct only governs students on campus or when they’re engaged in sanctioned university activities.

“The real issue with these parties is culture, ” Deane said. “It’s changing the culture, the culture of drinking.”

Minutes later councillors turned their attention to putting together a business case for potentially helping the Hamilton Tiger-Cats land the Grey Cup football championship in 2020 or 2021.

Get it. The Grey Cup. That’s the annual event affectionately known as the Grand National Drunk, in which thousands of revelers spill onto the streets and pile into beer tents for a weeklong bacchanalia of music, dancing and boozing.

According to city staff, the event would showcase Hamilton to the nation, enhance community pride, and support the Ticats’ football legacy. And, if the Canadian Football League is to be believed, it will also have an economic impact of between $80 million and $120 million.

A firm believer in the sweet economic spinoffs of the Cup, Coun. Jason Farr called it “the greatest Canadian party.”

For his part, Ferguson was relieved to hear it’s “doable” to expand stadium seating to accommodate the game. And, while noting the city needs to evaluate both costs and benefits, Mayor Fred Eisenberger said it would be an investment in promoting business in the community.

No one caught the double standard: Binge-drinking Mac students bad; Grand National Drunk good. No one mentioned the strain on police resources, either.

The last time the Cup was held here in 1996, police had about 300 officers patrolling the downtown, including a special crowd control unit. There was a RIDE program blitz, dozens of drinking charges were laid, and about 40 ambulances were dispatched.

Kind of sounds like Homecoming week on a larger scale, doesn’t it? Could it be that councillors were blinded to the similarities by the lure of economic benefits?

Perhaps. But, as Deane noted, McMaster’s contribution to Hamilton’s economy also covers an ongoing downtown strategy which includes building the David Braley Health Sciences Centre, the McMaster Continuing Education Centre, and a planned graduate students’ residence.

True, off-campus Homecoming parties tend to be spontaneous blowouts while Grey Cup merrymaking involves licensed beer tents and other organized venues. But there are also controlled Homecoming events on campus and unsanctioned partying seems to be as much a part of Grey Cup week as the game itself.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting if the Cup comes here we should puritanically suppress all the drunken hoopla. Nor am I suggesting we should turn a blind eye to the Homecoming sprees. No, I agree with Deane. This is about culture. Pity we can’t combine the two events to drive the point home.

• Andrew Dreschel is the city hall columnist for the Hamilton Spectator.

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