Civic leaders gathered in Vancouver at the annual meeting of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities this weekend, taking time to mark their progress on securing greater financial commitments from Ottawa to battle gridlock and to set new priorities.
A federal cabinet minister and two opposition party leaders, Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau, beat a path to the get-together, addressing the group that boasts it represents 91 per cent of Canadians.
Canadian municipalities are facing serious challenges in the coming years to figure out how to pay for major transit projects and maintain some level of subsidized housing, says Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi – topics, he says, that dominated discussions with senior federal politicians and meetings of the big city mayors.
One voice absent from all those discussions: Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.
The Toronto region is the subject of an ambitious plan by the provincial government of Premier Kathleen Wynne to raise and spend $2-billion annually on transportation – which has drawn a cool response from federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.
Mr. Ford has denounced the plan to tap taxpayers and insisted more government waste could be eliminated. Mr. Ford has not attended FCM meetings since becoming mayor in 2010 and on his radio show Sunday made no secret of his scorn for "the lefty caucus" and Toronto city councillors whom he accused of "having a good time" in Vancouver at taxpayer expense.
Some municipal leaders remarked that the controversy hanging over Mr. Ford, who has been besieged by questions about a video that allegedly shows him smoking crack cocaine, would have made him a "distraction" at the FCM meeting in any case. Others questioned his criticism of the body that has led the way on lobbying Ottawa to share a greater proportion of tax revenues with municipalities.
Karen Leibovici, an Edmonton councillor and FCM's departing president, says the ground gained by the organization in areas such as infrastructure spending show how powerful local governments can be if they speak in unison.
"If you have 100 competing demands, how are you going to ask for anything?" Ms. Leibovici said.
The high-powered weekend crowd at the FCM included federal Transportation Minister Denis Lebel. He reiterated Ottawa's pledge for $53-billion in infrastructure spending over 10 years, money included in the past federal budget. Substantial portions of it is a continuation of long-standing federal funding for municipalities, including transfers of a portion of the gas tax and GST rebates. It also includes a $14-billion federal fund for new buildings, and a $1.25-billion fund for private-public partnerships.
Mr. Nenshi said conversations over the weekend focused on what more can be done. "We are talking about a dedicated fund nationally for transit and how that would look for big cities and for smaller towns," he said.
He believes that the one-on-one meetings that city politicians had with federal ministers last year helped pave the way for the new Building Canada Fund announced in the budget, as well as new agreements on getting gas-tax revenue for cities.
This year's meeting came amid growing alarm about the state of infrastructure across the country.
In Toronto, there is rising concern that gridlock is hurting the city's future. On Sunday, Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa called for a meeting with his federal counterpart to urgently discuss public transit funding in the province as part of its bid to fund new projects across the greater Toronto and Hamilton area.
As mayor of Toronto, Mr. Ford has denounced the plan to tap taxpayers to pay for transit expansion.
Of the 18 Toronto councillors who went to the FCM meeting, Mr. Ford and his brother, Councillor Doug Ford, argued that only four had any business being there.
"Even four's a little high," he told listeners of the radio show the two men co-host. "But then 18 councillors, 18 councillors flew out Thursday. You know, the same councillors said 'aw, you know, the city's falling apart.' Well where were they Thursday? Where were they Friday? You could shoot a cannon off at city hall."
Councillor Paula Fletcher, one of the group singled out for attack by the mayor, called the conference a "learning opportunity," for municipalities and a chance to see "heavy hitters from the Hill."
"I don't apologize for trying to learn more so I can do more for my constituents," Ms. Fletcher said, questioning why the mayor and his brother think it was fine to go on a trip to Chicago last year with business leaders, but not to a meeting where they can discuss best practices with other civic leaders.
Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti, a former member of Mr. Ford's cabinet-like executive committee, was one of the four given a pass by the mayor and his brother. But he also challenged the radio criticism. "Anyone who says this is a junket doesn't understand the work that goes on here," he said.
Cornerbrook Mayor Neville Greeley was one of four to come from his Newfoundland community's seven-member council. "Maybe the mess [Mr. Ford's] in is because he hasn't taken the opportunity he's had to learn how to be a more effective mayor," he said.
After Mr. Ford spoke Sunday, some of those attending the FCM shot back that the meeting was far more important than he appears to think.
"It's nine hours of meetings a day … we get a lot of work done," said Surrey Mayor Diane Watts. "The meetings I have with other mayors across the country are valuable. I don't know how one would connect like that by e-mail. For the smaller communities, especially, they have an opportunity to tap into a network."
Mr. Ford is not the first Toronto leader to take a pass on the annual FCM meetings. While former mayor David Miller was an active member of the federation, taking a lead role in the group's efforts to secure municipal funding from Ottawa through gas taxes, another former mayor, Mel Lastman, was in the habit of letting a young city councillor speak in his place – Jack Layton.
With reports from Campbell Clark