Canada’s cities are the second-class citizens of governments.  Could direct partnerships with the feds fix that?

Feature | by Gregory Beatty

There’s no shortage of drama in Canadian politics these days. Federally, we have a minority Liberal government that intends to seek support from Parliament’s other parties issue-by-issue. Provincially, the premiers put on a show of unity at their Dec. 2 Toronto meeting — at least when they demanded more money from Ottawa for health and other programs. But deep divisions on climate change, pipelines and equalization are lurking.

Then on Dec. 12, Conservative leader (and Saskatchewan MP!) Andrew Scheer resigned!

Municipal governments are another source of intrigue. Constitutionally, they have virtually no power. But over 80 per cent of Canadians now live in cities, and — as we saw in the Oct. 21 federal election — they have a lot of political clout.

That reality was implicit when, shortly after the Oct. 21 federal election that saw the Liberals shut out in Alberta and Saskatchewan, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke with the mayors of Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon and Regina.

Trudeau did NOT speak with the two premiers Jason Kenney and Scott Moe.

“I think it was a strategic move,” says University of Saskatchewan political scientist Joe Garcea. “The Liberals weren’t sure the two premiers would meet with the prime minister without making a big political statement, so the government decided the best way to show it cared about the west was to go to the city governments.”

Simon Enoch, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Saskatchewan director, agrees the move made political sense for the Liberals.

“I think it was smart to go around Kenney and Moe,” he says. “They’ve shown their entire electoral strategy is based on having Trudeau as an enemy. Why even bother engaging with them? Why not go straight to the urban centres which will be much more receptive to some of the government’s policies?”

The environment, infrastructure and gun control are three key areas where cities are more likely to support federal policies.

While it’s a stretch to call Trudeau’s snub a shot across the bow of the two provincial governments, Saskatchewan certainly took notice.

In an Oct. 29 CBC report, Saskatchewan’s minister of trade and economic development Jeremy Harrison said that while the government didn’t have a problem with Trudeau speaking with the mayors, it would be “highly opposed” to a more formal working relationship.

“That’s not how the country works,” Harrison said.

Read a note of insecurity and defensiveness into the province’s position if you like, but under Canada’s antiquated constitution, it’s essentially correct.

Broken System

S.92 of the 1867 British North America Act gives provinces exclusive jurisdiction over municipalities (they’re number eight on the list, behind jails, hospitals and asylums, but ahead of licensing saloons, shops and auctioneers).

Obviously, 1867 was a long time ago. Canada (and the world) have changed a lot since then. Unfortunately, our constitution is stuck in the past.

And it’s starting to pose significant governance challenges, says Enoch.

“The municipalities are the poor cousins of federal and provincial governments,” he says. “In many respects they’re the government that’s closest to the people and could have the greatest impact on their lives. But they really don’t have the powers they need to move into the future.”

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities has long recognized that reality, says Garcea.

“Invariably, whatever the other orders of government do impacts on them,” Garcea says. “The FCM and its members have made it clear they want both a seat at the table with those governments, and a voice in the room to set up policy and program frameworks.”

That’s not the municipalities only ask. They also want protection from arbitrary political actions by their provincial masters.

One grievous example came in July 2018 when Ontario’s newly-elected Doug Ford government passed surprise legislation to slash the number of wards in Toronto. With the election set for October, candidates had already started campaigning, so the move caused chaos. But the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld it as constitutional under s.92 of the BNA Act.

A few weeks ago in Alberta, Jason Kenney’s UCP government hit Calgary and Edmonton with steep cuts to health, education, universities, social services and more. The province, which had delayed its budget until after the election to avoid tarring Scheer’s Conservatives with the same austerity brush, also reneged on promised funding for major infrastructure projects in both cities.

In Saskatchewan, Provincial Auditor Judy Ferguson just released a damning report on two private real estate developments the Sask. Party government greenlit in Wascana Centre. In March 2018 the government unilaterally disbanded a joint board with the City of Regina and University of Regina and transferred control of the 2600-acre park to the newly created Provincial Capital Commission. Because of their business focus, Ferguson said, both projects violated Wascana Centre’s Master Plan which restricts development to five objectives: education, environment, recreation, culture and seat of government.

And if Regina doesn’t like it? Too bad!

Charter Talk

Right now, Canada is essentially a 21st century country operating with a 19th century constitution.

It’s not a good fit — not only for the vast majority of Canadians who live in cities but for the country as a whole and its ability to thrive in a globalized world.

“A constitutional amendment is not going to happen, even the major cities realize that,” says Garcea. “What they’ve been asking for are charters that give them a lot of authority and autonomy to do what they feel is necessary.”

Calgary and Edmonton actually had charters. But after promising not to revoke them in last April’s election win, Kenney and the UCP did exactly that in the budget.

In Toronto, a charter campaign is currently underway. With a metro population of almost six million, Toronto is bigger than every province except Ontario and Quebec. Some argue, says Garcea, it should enjoy equivalent powers — and even international status.

“The question is, how far can you go with that?” Garcea says. “If Toronto wants to twin itself with another city in the world that’s one thing. But if it wants to enter into a special trade deal, that’s a whole different matter.”

There’s also the question of where to draw the line on charter recognition. Canada’s three largest cities, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, are obvious candidates. But what about second-tier cities such as Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Hamilton? Do they also merit recognition?

And if they qualify, what about small cities like Saskatoon and Regina?

The fact remains, too, that no matter how big a city is, it still operates in a broader provincial jurisdiction.

“Municipal governments can say they’re closest to the people and know what’s best for them. And the province can say, ‘Yes, but we have to coordinate a bunch of things across communities. And we can’t do that if we allow each of you to do your own thing,’” says Garcea.

“There’s going to be limited autonomy,” he says.

With a constitutional amendment a non-starter, the only real avenue open to municipalities, Garcea says, is to push for greater consultation through intergovernmental committees and agreements.

“The question is, can you do that in a general sense, or does it need to be sector by sector related to immigration, infrastructure, social housing, whatever the case may be? If you do that, you may end up with a lot of committees and agreements.”

Regardless of the complications it’s a situation that needs to be addressed. Yet at the moment, some provincial governments, such as those mentioned above, seem more interested in clawing back autonomy from cities than granting more powers.

And it’s causing real political tension, says Garcea.

“There’s no doubt there are big and smaller fish in the municipal pool, and the big fish, over the last 15 years, have been asking for greater autonomy to make their own decisions on various matters,” he says. “If any premier wants to turn back the clock, there’s going to be considerable resistance.”

As we were going to press, the Ford government scrapped a promised $1 billion LRT in Hamilton. Transportation minister Caroline Mulroney (yes, Brian’s daughter) needed a police escort to escape her cancelled Dec. 16 press conference.