I swore when I applied to Laurier I thought I was going to the Waterloo campus.
Laurier Brantford students are far too familiar with this melancholy sentiment. It echoes through hallways and bubbles in classroom chatter, yet we go about our lives entertaining a half-hearted curiosity about the true nature of Brantford. Swaddled with rumours of past economic turmoil, we sympathize without much regard for the stories nestled within the cracks in the cobblestone and people on the street.
Through the eyes of one of Brantford’s most decorated politicians, I was exposed to the most intimate view of the city’s unique history. Beneath the buildings of our classrooms and the businesses we frequent, there are endless stories to be unearthed. I was given the pleasure of extracting such stories from a man whose hands and willpower have shaped countless initiatives and buildings in Brantford.
At 76 years old his passion for this city is almost palatable as he enters the room. As the current ward five councillor and former mayor of seven years, David Neumann embodies and promotes and authentic legacy of love for the community. After a 23-year break from politics he has returned to city hall to serve ward five once again in 2010.
I was first introduced to this incredible man during a political assignment in my first year. I vividly recall leaving city hall with an awakened perspective, as his enlightening tales shone a beautiful light on a city I never bothered to acquaint myself with.
I enter his office on the second floor of city hall and see a lonely desktop computer sitting solemnly on a wooden desk. With a quick shake of the iPhone in his left palm, he grins and explains his true office resides at his fingertips. His office walls are adorned with maps of Brantford, including one from 1875 complete with tiny sketches of horses and spacious streets. I glance at the old map with wide eyes. Neumann pauses for an impromptu history lesson, (perhaps a ghost from his old teaching career) and asks if I know how Brantford earned its name.
As I fail the pop quiz he chuckles and explains, “Joseph Brant, where he crossed the river, the word ford is when you don’t have a bridge, you find a low spot in the river and you cross at the low spot with your horses and wagons. It’s called fording the river. So Brant’s ford, where he crossed the river- it’s near the Lorne Bridge.”
I smile in the warmth of such a satisfying fact and take out my notebook. I anxiously pull up a chair, my ears buzzing with the anticipation of knowing the man across from me brims with stories about Brantford. I settle in and ask where his path to Brantford city hall started.
While studying history with an English minor at McMaster in Hamilton, Neumann filled up his spare time with additional courses in politics and public service. His affinity for politics was sparked by an unusual coincidence in residence. Roommates were assigned and his new roomie happened to be from Kenya. Neumann was soon introduced to many foreign students on campus through him, which brought him to an abrupt realization.
“I was forced to re-educate myself because people from other lands have a lot of new questions about Canada, and I couldn’t answer them. My education didn’t prepare me to answer the questions they were asking, so through finding answers I learned so much about my own country through the eyes of these foreigners,” said Neumann with a glimmer of nostalgia in his eyes.
He accepted a teaching job at Pauline Johnson Collegiate and moved to Brantford in 1968 after growing tired of the Hamilton commute. Local politics sneaked into Neumann’s life when the controversial construction of an expressway through the heart of the city was announced. Since the project was proposed without any prior consultation, many citizens were concerned. Neumann quickly joined a petition that eventually made it to the Minister of Transportation, and the project was later reduced to an access road.
With his roots planted firmly in the community, Neumann aspired to higher political agendas. He ran for Alderman in 1974 losing by only 100 votes, but claimed success two years later as he was elected ward five Alderman. Four years later his passion coaxed him down the path of a fruitful mayoral candidacy.
“I felt there were more challenging things you could do with the office of mayor in promoting the city and moving things forward. And so I ran against the incumbent Mayor, Charlie Bowen, and I won,” said Neumann with a hint of pride.
However, being Mayor of Brantford during an era with a 22 per cent interest rate cultivated a devastating economic impact on the community.
“In 1982 which was my second year as Mayor, we had an unemployment rate of 25 per cent and the big challenge was bringing a new industry in, diversifying the economy away from farm equipment,” said Neumann.
The recession struck Brantford much harder than surrounding communities as the closing of several major farming equipment companies revealed the community’s dependency on manufacturing. As mayor, he was devastated to witness the impact of unemployment on the city and knew action had to be taken. Lucky for him the answer was only a few radio waves away.
“I was listening to the CBC one morning and the government of Canada announced a program called ILAP, Industry and Labour Adjustment Program, and it said this is designed for cities that have been dependent on a particular industry, and that industry has gone and they need help,” said Neumann.
The program sounded like the perfect fit for Brantford and he immediately contacted the federal government to apply. His quest was hindered as he discovered there was no application- the government simply bestowed the program on the cities they saw fit.
A recurring trend in David Neumann’s political career is certainly perseverance, as he refused to accept no for an answer. After assembling a group to lobby the government, he was given some commitment stating he would hear back within the year. Christmas holidays rolled around without an answer so he decided to take it to the big man himself and call Pierre Trudeau. Although he didn’t get the Prime Minister himself, it was announced a few months later that Brantford would be an ILAP recipient. The establishment of ILAP in Brantford was a highlight of Neumann’s time as Mayor and the program began to work its magic as unemployed factory workers were retrained in new sectors.
Neumann was later approached by Premier of the time David Peterson and was encouraged to run as the Liberal candidate. He was torn because he was overwhelmed by his love of being Mayor. An old friend Max Sherman advised him to take the position- but with one condition, “He said you have the chance to get something, not for yourself don’t ask for anything for yourself, don’t ask for a counter position, don’t ask for anything for yourself but decide what are the most important things for the city,” said Neumann.
He would agree to run if the province granted him two things. First, the 403 must be finished from Woodstock east to Ancaster and second, he wanted funding to help establish post secondary education in the community. It’s no surprise that his political vigour aided the successful fulfillment of both wishes. Mohawk College was established largely due to Neumann’s social persistence at an event with their President. The presence of Mohawk planted the seed for education and their presence appealed to investors and even Laurier. Neumann also anxiously anticipated the impact of having a college in town on the community.
“The other thing that I saw as a teacher, was that during the years of economic vitality where Massey, Ferguson and White Farms had the highest paid jobs in the community and other smaller industries were in a similar position that a lot of my students would quit school in grade 11. Their father would get them a job at Massey’s, or they’d get a job at White’s or some other business so there were job opportunities and they didn’t have to finish their high school,” said Neumann, “You couldn’t look around your city and say ‘oh there’s a university there maybe I’ll go to university.’ Even if they don’t go there, they’re inspired by seeing a university in the community. We didn’t have that so that’s what I was hoping to overcome.”
Another major highlight of his time in office was the construction Icomm centre, but we affectionately know it as the OLG Casino. Significant artifacts from Alexander Graham Bell were sitting in a warehouse begging to be on display. So Neumann along with a board of directors started an initiative for a technology and science hub – The Icomm Centre. Bell Media hopped on board to help with the funding but unfortunately the project collapsed in the hands of the subsequent mayor. Bell got cold feet and pulled out of the project entirely but the problem was the museum was completely constructed. Heartbroken, Neumann attempted to raise independent funds but couldn’t save the project. The name of the adjacent street, Icomm Drive, is the final trace of the ghost museum.
He still quotes the OLG as a blessing considering the city receives nearly five million dollars annually from their share of slots. Coincidently, these very funds paid for the restoration of the Carnegie building to appeal to Laurier when they were contemplating a Brantford campus.
“I remember Mayor Friel telling me it was a big political risk because, he spent I think $400,000 dollars, and then they registered their first 38 students, and people would easily say you spent half a million bucks to get 38 students here?” Said Neumann with a laugh.
Thankfully there is a few more than 38 of us now. I know students can attest that even over the past few years Brantford is steadily establishing itself as a thriving city. I shake of his hand and thank him for indulging me with such treasurable stories. It is tales like these that add colour to the little nuances that make Brantford unique. Sharing and indulging in stories about the community has the undeniable impact of integrating us into its very fabric. Knowing these tiny treasures about our surroundings sheds a refreshing perspective on the Brantford we thought we knew. Trotting down the stairs of city hall, I’m bursting with the ecstatic energy that accompanies falling in love with Brantford all over again.
If you would like to meet councillor David Neumann he will be at 645 Colborne Street on Thursday, March 10 at 7:30 p.m for the ward five town hall meeting. After all, the entire Laurier campus is in ward five.