Opinion: Is Waterloo Region Facing an Identity Crisis?

Waterloo Region has a history of being reshaped by outsiders, often against the wishes of those who live here. It’s a strange sort of identity crisis that bubbles to the surface again and again.

As Kitchener and Waterloo build a reputation for software development, research and startup culture, we’re seeing subtle efforts to rebrand the entire region as “Waterloo,” to make for a more unified identity.

That’s the wrong approach. Erasing Kitchener, Cambridge and our many rural communities from the picture does a disservice to our Region’s diversity.

This isn’t the first time this phenomenon has occurred. When Mennonite settlers arrived on the banks of the Grand River in 1800, they bought their first plots of land from a man named Richard Beasley. After starting to name villages and hamlets, they found that the land hadn’t strictly been his to sell. Oops!

Separately, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy was quarrelling with the Canadian government over the shared use of land and fair compensation for land sales. This fight for Indigenous rights continues today.

Fast forward to 1916, in the thick of the First World War. Here on the home front, anti-German sentiment was fierce and the residents of Berlin, Ontario were coerced into changing the city’s name. Violence against people of German descent was a real threat and most of the 5,000 eligible voters stayed home on referendum day. A new name, Kitchener, won with 346 votes.

Later, 2,000 of those residents would petition the Ontario government to reverse the decision, but their plea fell on deaf ears. Against the wishes of the majority, Berlin became Kitchener.

In 1973, the Ontario government had grand visions for streamlining city bureaucracy. It imposed a two-tier structure for the newly-formed Region of Waterloo. In the name of efficiency, Preston, Hespeler and Galt were merged into what we now call Cambridge.

Forty-five years later, many people who live in Cambridge still resent being lumped in together. They identify strongly with their pre-amalgamation place names. Preston, Hespeler and Galt have distinct reputations and a healthy dose of sibling rivalry.

There’s a palpable sense of angst too, from Cambridge residents who feel like they’re on the outside looking in when it comes to regional government decisions.

I bring up these history lessons to draw a common thread between what has happened in the past and the tech-fuelled rebranding effort that’s happening now.

Communitech, the startup hub known for transforming downtown Kitchener’s Lang Tannery building, launched a marketing campaign last year. Called #WhyWaterloo, it’s aimed at attracting new tech workers to the region.

The #WhyWaterloo website features photos of Oktoberfest and St. Jacobs. A slick video shows beautiful shots of people having fun in Victoria Park. And it’s all wrapped up in this “Waterloo” branding.

Why should Communitech downplay its very specific relationship to Kitchener? The tech industry loves spacious industrial loft offices and downtown Kitchener offers a kind of urban living that isn’t possible in Waterloo’s north-campus office blocks.

It’s disingenuous to reject those first-wave tech offices around Columbia Street, but still try to say you’re from Waterloo.

I’m giving Communitech a hard time, but there are a lot of people who would like our communities to have a unified identity. I get it. It’s difficult to explain Waterloo Region’s idiosyncrasies to an outsider, much less compare ourselves to other tech hubs around the world.

Our regional economic development organization, Waterloo EDC, is also guilty of “Waterloo-washing.” The words “Kitchener,” “Cambridge,” or “Region” don’t appear at all on the homepage of its brand-new website. It includes such misleading statements as, “Waterloo is located directly along Canada’s 401 superhighway.”

As much as it might be convenient to pretend that Waterloo Region is a unified brand, we’ve never been one big happy family. Blanketing everyone with the same “Waterloo” identity serves none of us well. The Region’s municipalities cooperate well across borders, but those distinctions are still significant.

I see clear parallels between the Mennonite settlers’ ignorance, the xenophobic Berlin name-change referendum, the forced amalgamation of Cambridge and this new attempted rebranding by tech industry heavyweights.

It’s not an approach that does justice to the diversity of our Region. I, for one, celebrate our fractured identities. I love the way that Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge can orbit around one another without becoming one and the same.

For any rebranding exercise to succeed, it needs to start with those who were here first.


Sam is the co-owner of Full Circle Foods, community advocate and hip-hop artist.