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Newly elected Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman at City Hall in Winnipeg Manitoba, January 29, 2015. The leaders of the country's 22 largest municipalities gather in Toronto this week in a bid to lay out their priorities and frame the political debate ahead of the upcoming federal budget and election.Lyle Stafford

Canada's big city mayors are starting the new year with a renewed effort to put urban issues on the national agenda. The leaders of the country's 22 largest municipalities gather in Toronto this week in a bid to lay out their priorities and frame the political debate ahead of the upcoming federal budget and election.

Their meeting marks the latest chapter in a lengthy campaign to give municipalities a higher profile, and more money. The leaders' top priorities – transit, housing and infrastructure – may not change, but look for a new swagger in their step.

In part that's because the creation of new ridings means that urban areas will have more clout when federal voters head to the polls. The extra muscle coincides with a lineup of mayors who seem more willing to work together and articulate a common cause. As well, Montreal and Toronto – the country's two biggest cities – are back in force on the national scene after being distracted by problems at home in recent years.

Against this backdrop, The Globe and Mail asked five members of the re-energized municipal alliance, including its chair, Vancouver's Gregor Robertson, to assess the year ahead and outline what role cities will play.

At least one mayor – who, like several of his colleagues, has a profile that goes well beyond his city's limits – feels that role will be pivotal.

"I firmly believe," says Calgary's Naheed Nenshi, "that whoever has the best urban strategy, whoever figures out how to fund transit in Vancouver, in Toronto, gets to be prime minister."

CALGARY: Naheed Nenshi

Naheed Nenshi has become a household name for Canadians since his stunning, come-from-nowhere victory just over four years ago. The wonkish former management consultant, only 38 at the time, was elected over better-financed and higher-profile rivals to lead what is traditionally regarded as the country's most conservative city.

But for locals, the "purple revolution" – named for Mr. Nenshi's campaign colour and backed by a broad demographic that included strong support among youth – was a relative non-event. Nobody cared that he was Muslim, even as the rest of the country discovered what Calgarians had long knew: Cowtown was cosmopolitan.

After taking office, Mr. Nenshi drew national attention by shepherding the city through a devastating flood in 2013, as well as pushing through construction of a contentious tunnel to the airport, and overhauling the city's audit system.

Now 43 and in his second term, Mr. Nenshi says his key priorities include securing badly needed funding for infrastructure to catch up with Calgary's manic growth. As oil prices crater, he has urged Ottawa and Edmonton to boost support for municipal transit, hoping a cooling construction market will bring down costs.

What is the most pressing issue in your city that could benefit from a co-ordinated, national agenda?

Our biggest issue is managing growth. Growth shines a spotlight on a number of problems around how cities are financed and in particular how cities invest in infrastructure. So that is where commonality occurs with all cities across Canada. We don't have a good system of predictable, stable, long-term revenue that helps us fund infrastructure and particularly helps us fund transportation and transit infrastructure, as well as water and waste water and housing.

Do cities need more power? If so, what kind?

It's not so much power as it is a proper alignment of decision-making and authority, which sounds like a weird, politician thing to say. So, for example, we as cities don't really have anything to do with social services. That's a provincial issue. But when people fall through the cracks and become homeless, even though we don't deal with addiction, or mental health, or social services, or welfare income, it's our problem.

So, as a result, cities have been taking on more and more of the funding of these programs without any authority to make decisions. And so these are areas in which we, especially here in Alberta, need a much better delineation of who does what.

Do cities need more money and, if so, should they raise it themselves?

I would prefer to levy myself, so that I'm ultimately accountable to my citizens and, if they don't like it, they can get rid of me. Allowing others to levy the tools takes away predictability and stability, as well. That said, we're starving here, and any improvement to the system that leads to those predictable, stable cash flows is a good thing.

How do you convince other governments to pay more attention to cities?

You remind them that there is a political imperative to this, as well. When you look at Prime Minister [Stephen] Harper, he spent many years seeking a majority, mostly seeking it in the province of Quebec. When [the Prime Minister] finally won his majority, he didn't find it in Quebec. He found it in Toronto, in Vancouver, in Edmonton, in Calgary, in Winnipeg. Like it or not, our current federal government owes its power base to cities.

What role do you expect civic issues to play in this year's federal election?

I think it's going to be huge. The election is going to be won or lost in the Lower Mainland, in Vancouver, to some extent in Montreal, in Ottawa. And if I'm a political strategist, I'm saying, 'Go where the battle is going to be won or lost.'"

Will falling crude prices undermine the ability of other levels of government to fund city initiatives?

It's going to be very, very tempting to pull back, and I suspect that may happen. It's a big mistake. What we learned in 2008 with stimulus spending is that it actually works and, if you use the municipalities as partners, it actually helps keep the economy going.

When was the last time you spoke with the PM?

At [last July's] Stampede, just hello-goodbye.

A federal cabinet minister?

Our regional minister is [Minister of Employment and Social Development] Jason Kenney, and I've got a good relationship with him. He responds to my e-mails. We talk.

Getting attention at the federal level is an old fight.

There's nothing new, except that the problems are getting bigger and bigger. Congestion is actually robbing people of their quality of life. And I do think that whoever figures out that the political math has changed – that you don't need a regional strategy to win the next election as much as you need an urban strategy – is going to do very well.

Written by Jeff Lewis

VANCOUVER: Gregor Robertson

Gregor Robertson has spent the past 3 1/2 years at the head of the body that unites Canada's top 22 communities. Yet, in his youth, the chair of the Big City Mayors' Caucus didn't see a future for himself in politics.

Then, he became increasingly concerned about the environment and interested in how to bring about change, which led to his 2005 election to the B.C. legislature.

He quit less than three years later, feeling sidelined within the New Democratic Party, and set his sights on the mayor's office. He and his party, Vision Vancouver, swept to power in 2008 with a promise to end street homelessness in 2015 (a deadline fast approaching), create affordable housing and make Vancouver the world's greenest city.

Now 50, Mr. Robertson was elected to his third term in November after a tough race in which many citizens expressed unhappiness with how his party had handled Vancouver's frantic pace of development.

The mayor promised to fight the proposed expansion of a pipeline bringing Alberta oil to Vancouver and championed both a new subway line and affordable housing for the city.

He also startled many people when, a week before election day, he apologized for not listening enough to their concerns.

What is the most pressing issue for cities?

The caucus's focus is on affordable housing and transit infrastructure, primarily. Funding is obviously critically needed for both to maintain our cities' livability or affordability. With housing, we've asked for the housing dollars in the federal budget to be protected at existing levels. Transit is massive, with the congestion crisis in so many cities. It is the top infrastructure priority right now.

Should the federal government just transfer money or go to some new regime?

We have an archaic system. Cities aren't recognized in our constitution. It's unbelievable. But Big City Mayors have set aside those important gaps because the needs are now so urgent on housing and transit, we can't afford to spend a couple years debating structural change. For the time being, the focus is just on ensuring there's more federal capital provided for transit and other urban infrastructure.

You expect to be busy during the federal election?

I'll definitely be in Ottawa more often with the federal budget and election in 2015, rallying support for Canada's cities. The parties all need to have robust urban investment strategies, or Canada will be in real trouble.

We don't invoke the Detroit scenario much, but if you fail to invest in infrastructure, quality of life and emerging industries, there are dire consequences. Canada has great cities, we're very lucky for what we have, but we're falling way behind. Canada's brand is best represented by our big cities overseas, Vancouver and China being a classic example of that – the Vancouver brand resonates and is attracting big investment. Part of the role of the federal government is to empower cities to be that front-line growth engine.

How often do you connect with leaders from the federal government?

I have regular meetings with cabinet ministers, [Industry Minister] James Moore, [Transport Minister] Lisa Raitt and [Infrastructure and Communities Minister] Denis Lebel, being I think the last three in the last few months. It's been a while since my last conversation with the Prime Minister.

Do you feel as though the federal Conservatives have given up on cities?

I don't think they have. I think all the parties recognize the importance of cities on the electoral map. Canadians live in cities overwhelmingly, and increasingly urban needs are shared across city regions. I think we're going to see the urban-suburban divide melt away in many cities. I think they're recognizing that now.

What is concrete evidence of how they're recognizing it?

Infrastructure-funding commitments were beyond what the federal government had discussed. So I think there's some signs of progress. I'm hopeful that there's a race to the top of the federal parties in recognizing that Canada's metropolitan areas are crucial to our success as a country.

How do you make sure you get heard?

We send most of the revenue to the federal government and we expect that we get our fair share back to reinvest in our cities. It's our money to begin with. It's making the strong case that that re-investment must happen, rather than begging.

Unfortunately, there's a pattern for many years of that re-investment being so far below what's needed, that we've got a huge backlog. Congestion is at an all-time high. Affordable housing's a crisis in cities right across the country now. And the infrastructure deficit is bigger than ever. So we have to make a strong case this year. I think we're going to see a much louder effort.

When we see the volatility of resource industries, it speaks to the steady engines of growth that cities are to be respected and invested in. We maintain a diverse array of industries and ensure that economic growth is stable across the country.

Written by Frances Bula

WINNIPEG: Brian Bowman

Brian Bowman is a 43-year-old lawyer and former chamber of commerce chair. He is also Métis – the first indigenous mayor of a city that Maclean's magazine labelled the most racist in the country soon after he took office two months ago.

Mr. Bowman was elected with almost twice the support of his nearest rival after running on a platform that appealed across the political spectrum. His priorities include investing in infrastructure, making City Hall more transparent, bringing more residents to the downtown and improving rapid transit, all while keeping property-tax increases steady at the rate of inflation.

However, the racism charge proved to be the first in a series of political crises, prompting the new mayor to face the cameras saying that Winnipeg is committed to doing better and he hopes his children will grow up proud of their heritage.

A few days later, the city was forced to ask its 700,000 residents to boil their drinking water over E. coli fears. Then its acting chief administrative officer was suspended and escorted from City Hall in circumstances that remain murky.

What's the most pressing issue Winnipeg shares with other cities?

I'd say without question infrastructure and new funding models to modernize the ways that cities fund themselves. That's something I've started discussions on already with some of my counterparts, Mayor [Naheed] Nenshi in Calgary, Mayor [Don] Iveson in Edmonton as well as Gregor Robertson in Vancouver. We've talked about a number of topics including the missing and murdered indigenous women and girls issue, public transit and rapid transit development. But the one consistent theme is that the way cities are funded is outdated.

What revenue model would you like to see?

That's the question I really want to explore with neighbouring municipalities as well as with the provincial government. I'd like to replace property taxes on a revenue-neutral basis with a more economically smart, growth form of taxation. There are different options. There's a municipal sales tax, which has its own challenges that would have to be addressed before I would support it. Another would be a municipal income tax. Other levels of government have long abandoned property tax as a vehicle to fuel growth. I would like cities to have skin in the game when it comes to economic development, a vested interest in ensuring there's economic activity so they collect more revenues.

How would a municipal sales tax or income tax be collected?

No form of taxation is perfect. I want to engage the leading economists, other big-city mayors, the provincial government and the federal government on what makes sense. But something's got to give. Cities are not funded adequately. They go cap in hand to their provincial masters and plead for money every year. It's not sustainable. The sales tax, for instance: If you had it in Manitoba but not Ontario, people could go across the border to save some money, and we don't want to distort the economy that way. So having those discussions on a national level is entirely appropriate.

How can you convince more senior levels of government to pay attention to cities?

Part of it is just having that dialogue in private and in public. It's up to municipalities to make the case about what's broken, but also to provide some solutions. I don't think bashing the federal government is going to do anything. It might help with short-term headlines but, if we're going to be serious, we have to have grown-up discussions.

Do you think civic issues will play a role in the federal election this year?

I hope that they do. In order for Canada to be successful, cities need to be successful. They're the economic engines of our economy, they're where the majority of people live and where some of the most acute issues that we face across Canada are amplified. I think it's incumbent on anyone who wants to be prime minister to engage in an open dialogue on how we can move forward together.

Have you had a chance to speak to the Prime Minister since your election?

No I haven't. Our senior minister in Manitoba is Shelly Glover [Canadian Heritage and Official Languages], and we've had numerous discussions with her, especially pertaining to infrastructure. We've had a very positive dialogue with her.

How do the big-city mayors stay in touch?

It's a lot of direct messages on Twitter, text messages and telephone chats. I went out to [Vancouver to] the Grey Cup and I had some face time with a number of mayors. There's a wave coming from the West of what I've called a new generation of leadership, and I think it's going to have an increasing impact on the national dialogue. I'm talking about a much more open, accessible style of leadership, more technologically savvy, a lot more pragmatic and less ideological than we've seen in the past.

Written by Joe Friesen

MONTREAL: Denis Coderre

Denis Coderre wants to leave the past behind. "The time for self-flagellation is over," he says of the corruption scandal that cost two of his immediate predecessors as Montreal's mayor their jobs and tarnished municipal politics across the province.

Now in his second year, the 51-year-old former federal cabinet minister insists the city "is at a turning point." It is trying to recover some of the money it lost through inflated contracts and has introduced a "more transparent bidding process" to guard against problems in the future.

Elected a Liberal MP in 1997, he easily won the mayoral election late in 2013. Forming a powerful tandem with Quebec City's Régis Labeaume, he got the province to tackle a massive deficit in the city's employee pension fund while he continued the cleanup at city hall.

With the province and its powerful pension fund agreeing to look hard at investing $5-billion in light-rail transit – long a dream for Montreal commuters – Mr. Coderre says he has "turned the page" on the past. He also wants more powers.

Although he looks to the West for allies (and clearly admires Calgary's Naheed Nenshi), his blueprint is closer to home: a city equipped to tackle such problems as finding jobs for immigrants and fresh sources of revenue for itself.

"We're pretty inspired by the Toronto example," he says.

What kind of new powers are you looking for, and what would you do with them?

We are negotiating a new pact between the province and Montreal, and it's all about municipal autonomy. We need tools so we're not always waiting in the hallway at the end of legislative sessions looking for amendments to make the city work better. Since 85 per cent of immigration in Quebec is going to Montreal, we need more control over tools of integration, like job creation and housing. Montreal needs financial leverage … We already have Investment Quebec [which handed out $1-billion in provincial subsidies last year]. I have in mind what I call Investment Montreal.

Isn't this really about money?

It's not just a matter of money; it's a matter of governance. But, yes, I'm also looking for a diversity of revenue. I'm not talking about raising taxes. Now, we just have property taxes. It's 76 per cent of our revenue; in Toronto, I believe, it's around 34 per cent. We need our money to come from more diverse sources [Toronto collected $425-million last year from a levy on property sales].

What issue could benefit most from a national campaign by cities, especially with a federal election coming?

I was at the federal level for 16 years, so I know the importance of infrastructure. We need to focus on public transit and infrastructure. We'll also need to focus on housing. This year is supposed to be the last year [of Ottawa's billion-dollar Investment in Affordable Housing program]. We want to make sure it stays.

How do you convince senior levels of government to pay more attention? You had some success through an alliance with Mr. Labeaume in Quebec City.

Of course. We just selected objectives we could reach together, and we went after them. It helped the province was ready to listen. What I'm looking for is to have that kind of relationship with the mayor of Toronto. That one-two punch between Montreal and Toronto can happen.

Are you in frequent contact with the other mayors?

I've been pretty busy, but it's a priority for 2015. In a few weeks, I will go to Toronto and have our first official meeting with John Tory, later he will come to Montreal. I also have a good relationship with [Naheed] Nenshi, [Don] Iveson from Edmonton. Gregor [Robertson] is chair of our caucus, I'm pleased he was re-elected. I know Jim Watson in Ottawa very well. Now we are focusing on having a municipal agenda; it's not a matter of lobbying, it's that municipalities are closest to people's lives. Nenshi likes to say, if something happens to the federal level, people will hear about it in three weeks. At the provincial level, it's three days. At the municipal level, it's three hours. He's right.

And how's your relationship with the feds?

I talked to [Minister of International Development] Christian Paradis at a [Jan. 12] commemoration for the anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti. I talk all the time to Denis Lebel [Stephen Harper's Quebec lieutenant]. The Prime Minister and I spoke at the funeral of Jean Béliveau, and we'll talk again. The feds are not always easy, but the messages get through. The relationship between cities and the federal government is sensitive because there's a constitutional issue. We cannot deal directly with them. But we can still work together.

Written by Les Perreaux

TORONTO: John Tory

John Tory took office in December on a promise to mend fences both within Toronto and with other levels of government. He also promised to return Canada's largest city to the national stage after a period of isolation under Rob Ford, his controversial predecessor.

Mr. Tory, the 60-year-old former leader of the provincial Progressive Conservatives, based his campaign on easing the city's congestion, with a plan for a light-rail line that hinges on securing billions from Ottawa and Queen's Park.

On the job, he has made a point of scoring small wins early, such as a stepped-up towing program for cars parked illegally at rush hour and a fast-tracked construction schedule for the crumbling Gardiner Expressway. But he is also looking for budget approval for a multimillion-dollar investment to improve transit.

What is the most pressing issue in your city that could benefit from a co-ordinated, national agenda?

Funding certainty and consistency for transit, infrastructure and housing. If you are going to build those things, we just need to have a better, more predictable regime.

Do cities need more power?

It might help a little, but in the end they say money talks, for a reason: Money allows you to make the investment. If you have the power to declare something or do something, but you don't have the money to pay for it, it doesn't make you feel much better to have the power. I never fuss myself too much about power.

Do cities need more money and, if so, should they levy revenue tools themselves, or is it preferable to have transfers from other levels of government?

I start from this premise: Are people paying enough taxes? In many cases, you could argue, not only are they paying enough taxes, they can't afford to pay any more. We should be looking at the total amounts paid to all three levels of government and how that is being allocated. Do we believe that, in the case of Toronto, the federal and provincial governments are making adequate investments in transit, given the amount of money they take out of this area in taxation? I would say the answer is: not yet. [But] they have been doing better.

How do you convince senior levels of government to pay more attention to cities?

The first thing I can do is get back involved with [municipal] organizations, like [the Federation of Municipalities of Canada]. As the country's largest city, it doesn't make us more important than anyone else, but we should have a voice. It should start from the premise that the fundamental underpinning of the Canadian economy to have prosperity is dependent on the success of the cities, because 80 per cent of Canadians live in cities. I would argue it's the federal government that is the biggest beneficiary of investments in infrastructure because they have the income and corporate taxes, where you see the benefits of economic growth and job creation first. I think [lobbying] is best done by having a platform, drawing some attention to that and not getting into harsh partisanship. [Political attacks] make you feel better for 10 minutes when you make the speech, but I don't think they get you any cheques.

What role do you expect civic issues to play in this year's federal election?

A lot of it should be education of voters – to have people understand that transit in cities, for example, if you tried to pay for it solely through property taxes, you would cripple people, or you wouldn't build the transit. We have had a bit of both, but mostly we haven't built it.

Are you in contact with other mayors?

I haven't had much of a chance. I'm in reasonably frequent text contact with [Calgary's] Naheed Nenshi. He watches the news very carefully, and he texts when something is going on.

When was the last time you spoke with the PM? A federal cabinet minister?

I met the Prime Minister [on Dec. 11]. I talk to ministers often. I would say every week.

How could cities benefit from a more direct conversation with Ottawa?

Formal meetings have some usefulness, but I tend to think it is informal conversations, the ability to pick up the phone, that over time develops a relationship and an understanding of how we can help each other. I don't place huge stock in big meetings. They often don't produce tangible results. Informal conversations, those are gold.

This isn't an old fight. Why is it different now?

It's the story of Canada. This is a country that was knit together against its will in some respects. There is still a tension between urban and rural. I think we have moved in the right direction by having four- and five-year infrastructure plans. I just think we have to do more.

Written by Elizabeth Church

These interviews have been condensed and edited.

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