Only Rob Ford knows what he was really thinking as he reached up to pat Chinese sculptor Ai Weiwei’s giant rat head perched in Nathan Phillips Square. The inauguration of the dissident artist’s zodiac installation yielded another of the culture clashes we’ve come to expect in the Ford era, although this one made the oversized mayor look even smaller than usual.
Still, Montrealers can only envy the relative functionality of the city they could once dismiss as the place without a pulse. As Toronto moves assuredly (in spite of its mayor) up the ladder in the global-city sweeps, Montreal is mired in a grave crisis that has exposed the rotten core of its civic government. Its city hall not only needs a mayor; it needs a disinfectant.
The danger is that the Ford sideshow and the Montreal circus will prompt disgusted voters to disengage just when the need for their involvement is greatest. Canada’s two biggest cities are in the market for new leadership at a critical juncture. So-called “higher” levels of government are out of money and ideas and de facto city states are re-emerging as the real motors of national growth and innovation.
Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley of the Brookings Institution point out that this “inversion of the hierarchy of power” presents cities with both challenges and opportunities. Higher levels of government are too broke, too slow and too politically divided to make transformative public policy, so visionary mayors must fill the void. The trend is yielding a new model of governance. “The metropolitan revolution,” they write in their new book of the same name, “is like our era: crowd-sourced rather than close-sourced, entrepreneurial rather than bureaucratic, networked rather than hierarchical.”
North America’s most dynamic mayors understand that competitive taxes, modern infrastructure and reliable garbage collection are not enough. Human capital is paramount. Cities must foster constant networking, and not only among local elites in government, business and academia. They must make room for the disruptive creative forces of outsiders, lighting the entrepreneurial spark that ignites innovation and prosperity. It’s happening in Cleveland and Houston. So why not Toronto and Montreal?
If inclusiveness is key to the metropolitan revolution, Toronto and Montreal have been shaped by history and demography to embody it. With half of its population born outside Canada, Toronto reverberates with the influences of an entire planet. Dundas Square on a Sunday afternoon is a chaotic free-for-all of colour, creed, generation and gender. There are few places in the world that could pull it off as peacefully.
Two-thirds of Montrealers are bilingual and about a fifth are trilingual. The proportions are even higher among young people, creating a population of polyglots unrivalled in North America. That has in turn flavoured the food, film and festivals that continue to make Montreal one of the most innovative cities anywhere. With so much raw creative energy, its future should be bright.
So what kind of leaders are needed for Canada’s two biggest cities to make a success of this metropolitan revolution? Mr. Katz and Ms. Bradley write about a new breed of civic leadership that is “at its core, a pragmatic caucus, which puts place over party, collaboration over conflict and evidence over dogma.”
That definition does not exactly fit the current Toronto City Council. Nor does it apply to the urban environmentalists of Projet Montréal, who fail to appreciate that cities exist first and foremost as centres of commerce. (We would not need to live in them otherwise.) It also seems to exclude career politicians such as ex-Liberal MP and Montreal mayoralty candidate Denis Coderre. His main talent is as a party organizer, which, as the Charbonneau Commission has revealed in its daily testimony, is not what Montreal needs right now.
As Torontonians ponder a Ford-free future, they need to think about who can best lead such a diverse city as it stakes its claim to global greatness. Choosing an anti-development ideologue who puts poverty alleviation ahead of economic growth would be just as big a mistake as picking a crane-loving populist who doesn’t know his Weiwei from his WiFi.
The inversion of the power hierarchy promises to make the next mayors of Toronto and Montreal national leaders, not just local ones. To succeed, they will need to transcend outdated political cleavages and notions of progress. Canada’s metropolitan revolutions depend on it.