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Sideshow Rob did Canada’s big-city mayors a favour

I'm going to guess that until this week, very few Canadians had ever heard of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, let alone the Big City Mayors' Caucus.

But Toronto Mayor Rob Ford changed that by simply showing up. Sort of.

Okay, he got there late and left early hoping to tour a football stadium, but still, he participated in a meeting that until now he had written off as "a caucus of lefties."

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The caucus actually represents 22 of the largest cities in Canada, or roughly 65 per cent of the country's population.

But wherever Mayor Ford goes, the journo-herd follows. He does have a habit of saying incredible things when you least expect it. Reporters need to stick close in case that happens.

But Mayor Ford's brief appearance did the FCM a favour – it cast some light on what Canada's major cities are dealing with.

The far less exciting mayor of Vancouver, Gregor Robertson, currently chairs the big city caucus. He went into the meeting carrying two of the FCM's current demands: that a new federal infrastructure fund be spent on housing and the traffic gridlock that plagues Canada's biggest cities eased.

Needless to say, he exited empty-handed – I don't think anyone really expected a different outcome.

After meeting with Candice Bergen, the federal Minister of State for Social Development, the mayors emerged with little more than the feeling they might be talking to the wrong person.

A written statement from Ms. Bergen's office post-meeting read in part: "We will continue to work with provincial and territorial governments, municipalities, the FCM and other stakeholders at the community level to ensure that social housing helps those most in need achieve economic independence."

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This, at a time when the federal government is ending subsidies to thousands of housing co-ops across the country and has no plan for any new affordable housing.

Not quite simultaneously, the City of Vancouver unveiled its plan to rebuild the Downtown Eastside over the next 30 years. The city says 4,400 new social housing units are needed in the Downtown Eastside, and another 3,300 needed elsewhere in the city. The plan hinges on a half-billion-dollar investment from senior levels of government.

On the gridlock issue, Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts has already bypassed TransLink and has asked the federal government for $1.8-billion to fund a badly needed rapid transit line in her municipality.

There are similar stories across the country. Mayor Ford's first trip to the meeting didn't come from a latent desire to hear the city-building ideas of other mayors – it came from necessity. "We have to get this money," he told reporters in Toronto before leaving for the conference.

Dreaming, as Debbie Harry once sang, is free.

The money each of these mayors is hoping to get their hands on is the $14-billion New Building Canada Fund, earmarked for federal infrastructure over the next 10 years.

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Four-billion dollars of the fund is tied to "projects of national significance," with $10-billion allocated to projects of "national, local, or regional significance." Just what any of that means isn't clearly defined, but it's enough wriggle room for the federal government to spend the money in areas that may be politically advantageous. You might want to clean out your e-mail folder now to make room for the good news announcements in advance of the next federal election.

There's no question Canada's cities need cash. According to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, in 2007 there was a combined urban infrastructure deficit of more than $123-billion and a new infrastructure gap of $115-billion. You can bet it has grown substantially since then.

Emerging from the meeting, the mayors issued a statement saying the federal and provincial governments need to put the lion's share of the New Building Canada Fund into municipal projects, including public transit. They also urged the federal government to develop a long-term housing plan, and to reverse the withdrawal of existing federal social housing investments.

Had the statement been read aloud by Rob Ford, more people may have paid attention.

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver.

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