Tim Querengesser is a writer in Edmonton who is currently writing a book and is an advocate for livable cities.
This election’s first and only English-language debate, held in early October, was notable to many in Canada for what each party leader managed to steer clear of, despite finding time to hurl insults or lump the two front-runners together on climate change as Mr. Delay and Mr. Deny.
“There’s no party campaigning on, ‘Here’s a real serious commitment for the federal government to play a strong, sustained role in city building,’” says Patricia Wood, an urban geographer at York University in Toronto. “Given how much Toronto and other large cities really drive the national economy, as well as their provincial economies, I think the federal government should be involved.”
The party leaders “may be talking about infrastructure,” adds Alan Broadbent, author of Urban Nation and an outspoken advocate for cities to gain powers in Canada, “but I’m not sure they get to the heart of some of the important aspects of what would constitute real assistance to cities.”
Sheer numbers underline their point. Eight in 10 of us now live in an urban area, according to Statistics Canada. The majority of our economic might is clustered in our census-metropolitan areas – a bland term for regions that include multiple towns, suburbs and cities but operate as singular labour, transportation and housing markets. Think not just Toronto, but rather Waterloo to Whitby. Think not just Calgary but Airdrie to Okotoks.
These cities and municipalities now produce more than 70 per cent of Canada’s GDP and welcome the majority of the more than 280,000 new immigrants to Canada each year. They will be where fights against climate change, affordable housing and opioids are won. But to survive, let alone thrive, these same cities are still forced to beg larger governments for money, as well as navigate their shifting political currents.
It holds these cities back.
Consider the big kid in the room, Toronto. In early 2018, former premier of Ontario Kathleen Wynne committed $9-billion for transit projects in the Toronto region, and more than $11-billion for high-speed rail on the Toronto to Windsor corridor – only for the newly elected provincial Progressive Conservative government, headed by Premier Doug Ford, to scrap the high-speed rail plan and battle with the city’s mayor, John Tory, over control of the TTC. (On Wednesday, Mr. Ford dropped his bid to “upload” transit.)
Things weren’t much better before Mr. Ford. In 2017, Ms. Wynne’s Liberal government vetoed Toronto City Council’s 2016 decision to toll drivers on the Don Valley Parkway and the Gardiner Expressway to raise its own revenues. Back then, an incensed Mr. Tory was quoted as feeling like a “little boy in short pants” asking for money.
What type of pants Mr. Tory felt he wore when Mr. Ford slashed Toronto’s council from 47 to 25 representatives, remains an open question.
Regardless, the fact is Toronto raised 75 per cent of its $13.5-billion operations budget in 2018 through property taxes, user fees and the land transfer tax. The province and Ottawa made up the rest.
Cities across the country have similar funding dilemmas.
Ottawa does provide these cities money, just through the provinces as gatekeepers. The biggest source is the twice-yearly gas-tax transfer it sends to provinces for municipalities. Since 2014, Ontario has received $3.87-billion from this transfer, Quebec $2.38-billion, Alberta $1.08-billion and BC $1.3-billion. Still more comes in, project by project – most especially for transit and housing.
But cities are feeling the strain of growth and want more. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), which represents 2,000 municipalities, has called for federal parties to commit to doubling the annual gas-tax transfer, to make permanent the 10-year, $20-billion transit plan the Trudeau government launched in 2015 and for Mr. Trudeau’s $20-billion affordable housing plan to remain in place.
No party platform has committed to every one of these requests. Indeed, as the platforms finally emerged, late in the game, the FCM has instead expressed concern – specifically with the proposal from Andrew Scheer’s Conservative Party to slice $18-billion from infrastructure spending.
“Proposed measures in this platform appear to move in the opposite direction, with fewer dollars available year-over-year,” FCM president Bill Karsten said in a release. “To build roads, expand transit networks and develop housing, municipalities need predictable, long-term funding.”
Meanwhile, the Canadian Global Cities Council (CGCC), a group of chambers of commerce CEOs from eight large cities, is calling for a dedicated national urban strategy. It’s not expecting the election to feature this, however. “The whole thought of large cities or metro areas as economic engines is still new thinking,” says Jan de Silva, chair of the council.
Experts say cities have long been sidelined in Canadian elections. Voting calculations, Canada’s political structure, the war between regions and jurisdictions over scarce dollars and the creeping spatial specialization of our parties goes a long way to explain why. But given how crucial cities are to Canada’s economic health, experts also say cities need to matter at the ballot box.
The first problem cities face during elections is that city talk can generate animosity in a country with so many regions, Mr. Broadbent says.
“If you were to release a well-articulated program on building high-speed light rail, for example, what cities does that matter to? Probably only nine or 10,” he says. “If you’re talking subway construction, you’re probably talking to three cities. It’s not easy to spin that.”
Another problem is the Constitution. Urban areas are where the majority of us live in 2019, and where we depend on water, electricity, transit, streets and other services. But urban areas were not where political power was vested in 1867, when 80 per cent of us lived in the sticks. Cities technically only appear in section 92 of the Constitution, which specifies provincial governments control municipal institutions.
Mr. Broadbent says that wording is unclear, but provinces have exercised complete authority, nonetheless. “[Provinces] have dismissed sitting municipal governments in order to amalgamate them into bigger political units; they have overturned [municipal] taxing regimes; they have usurped tax revenues.”
Federal parties have increasingly deferred to provinces on cities, Prof. Wood says. But that hasn’t always been the case. During the housing crisis that followed the Second World War, the federal government was the main actor designing and even building affordable homes in Canadian cities – a legacy easily spotted in cities such as Toronto, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Kitchener-Waterloo today.
The big shift, Prof. Wood says, came with austerity-themed downloading in the 1990s. First the federal government downloaded responsibilities to provinces, then the provinces downloaded responsibilities to cities. The end result was that Ottawa “strongly” shifted away from seeing cities as its focus, she says.
Zack Taylor, director of the Centre for Urban Policy and Local Governance at the University of Western Ontario, says a further decisive shift came earlier, in the 1980s. Back then, he says, each of Canada’s three main political parties had a strong presence in the three main areas we imply when we say “cities” – those being inner-city cores, commuter suburbs and exurban areas. Today, he says, the parties are increasingly specialized.
Prof. Taylor says it helps to think of metropolitan areas of at least 100,000 people, rather than 1,000 or more – where that Statscan “eight in 10 Canadians” number comes from. If we do so, we will find that between one third and one half of the Canadian population lives in just five metropolitan areas.
“That’s the action,” he says. “That’s where all the economic growth is happening. That’s where all the jobs are being created. That’s where all the immigrants that arrive in Canada end up, virtually all of them. Therefore, that’s where all the population growth is going. That’s why we need a connection to the infrastructure needs of those places.” Simple, right? Well, not quite. After the 1980s, the parties got good at one area and bad or indifferent in others. The Conservatives, for example, became more rural, the Liberals and NDP more urban. All of this coincided with the endless, postwar growth of commuter suburbs – where cities are growing the fastest – and shrinking rural populations. “That’s really the swing,” Prof. Taylor says. “These areas kind of share some of the interests of core-urban spaces but also some of the interests of low-density urban places." And it’s the people who live in these in-between spaces, he adds, that politicians – who speak of the need to work for the middle class – are directly referring to. "It’s trying to appeal to the interests of people who live in a certain kind of urban environment,” he says.
In short, we’re likely not talking about cities in the election because suburbs are the most important place for political parties to swing votes. They’re also places where a carbon tax can flip from either a positive or an existential evil – it adds to the cost of filling up a gas tank. They are places where transit and other programs can be either life-savers or framed as being for “urban elites.”
Parties left of centre have the urban votes wrapped up – consider the wall of red in the densest ridings of Toronto or Vancouver after 2015 – while parties right of centre have the rural areas wrapped up. The suburbs are swings and vital to a win.
“Our politics seem to increasingly revolve around a different kind of spatial distinction between urbanites and suburbanites,” Prof. Taylor says. “It’s being framed in a way that presents these people as being different kinds of people, as being not real Canadians.”
Still, not all agree that cities have been sidelined in the 2019 election.
Cities “implicitly matter” in this election, says Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson, who chairs the big-city mayors caucus with FCM. They do because elections are won and lost in metropolitan areas, he says.
Mr. Iveson says the country’s mayors have “moved the needle” on housing and transit – and this might be why cities are less discussed in the 2019 election campaign than one might expect. “Of course, we’d love more discussion about cities, but nobody’s saying, ‘We’re going to undo the national housing strategy or we’re going to undo the national transit commitments in place,” he says. “It’s now generally accepted this country must have a significant and ongoing commitment to transit. The debate is over whether that should be permanent.”
If Canada is a country of megaregions – of cities, suburbs and exurbs that drive the economy forward – how can the federal government improve our collective lives? The biggie is transport linkages such as big rail projects, Prof. Wood says. “When it crosses provincial boundaries (as is the case for connections between Montreal and Toronto, for example) it seems to me there’s some logic for the federal government getting involved,” she says. “That’s where they could be doing more – policies that speak to cities more broadly and better connect them.”
Prof. Taylor agrees. Given metropolitan areas are unified housing and labour markets, the best way to drive down housing prices or increase the labour pool is to make moving across these areas faster and easier. “If people can travel longer distances with less inconvenience in shorter amounts of time to have higher paid jobs, that’s good for everybody.”
Ms. de Silva, with the Canadian Global Cities Council, says the “good for everybody” point includes all of Canada, too. Metropolitan regions are driving Canada’s overall economic growth, she says. To help them thrive, we must identify the pain points holding these places back.
As part of this, the CGCC is now investigating the country’s largest metro region, the 34 municipalities that encompass the massive Waterloo to Toronto corridor, to find what’s standing in the way of growth. Half of Canada’s manufacturing happens here, she says. But we still think of individual units rather than the whole. “We’ve underfunded enabling infrastructure for the movement of goods and the movement of people” in this region, Ms. de Silva says. “We’ve got a huge congestion problem.”
It’s holding us back. These issues are complex for elections, Ms. de Silva adds, but Canada will hopefully get there. We trail the United States, Australia and Europe in recognizing the economic centrality of cities, but we may catch up. “Hopefully, for the next election cycle, this won’t be such a new, complex subject – it will be something that we just understand.”
Editor’s note: (Oct. 22, 2019) An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Toronto raised just 32 per cent of its $13.5-billion operations budget in 2018 through property taxes. In fact, Toronto raised 75 per cent of its $13.5-billion operations budget in 2018 through property taxes, user fees and the land transfer tax. The province and Ottawa made up the rest.