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Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson and Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante stand beside Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson as he responds to a question during a news conference in Ottawa, on Feb. 6, 2020.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Canada’s big city mayors want the Liberal government to provide more funding and take stronger action on transit, housing and climate issues in the coming 2020 budget.

Led by Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson, who chairs the Big City Mayors’ Caucus of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, the group of mayors met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and senior federal cabinet ministers in Ottawa on Thursday to make their pitch.

The big city mayors are meeting at a time when the Canadian economy is moving at different speeds, with big cities generating much of Canada’s employment growth, leading to housing and traffic pressures in some areas while other regions experience economic stagnation. Two reports in recent days have highlighted the stark gap in Ontario, where Toronto and, to a lesser extent Ottawa, dominate hiring in the province.

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Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said he and his colleagues are urging MPs this week to approve the new North American free-trade agreement (NAFTA) – now called the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement – as soon as possible. He said that could help some of the smaller cities that are struggling.

“I think there’s an understanding that some communities like ours and Toronto are booming," Mr. Watson said after the mayors met with Mr. Trudeau and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland. "But there’s certainly an understanding, when we’re discussing NAFTA, how important NAFTA is for a city like Windsor. It’s challenging in Southwestern Ontario and that’s why I think it’s important that the NAFTA agreement is signed and that people don’t start playing these political games. This is too important for the fragility of those parts of the country that aren’t doing as well.”

Looking ahead to the federal budget that is likely to be released in March, the mayors are urging Ottawa to boost funding for energy retrofits of low-cost rental units as a way of maintaining rental supply in the housing market while also reducing emissions.

They also say more money is needed for housing programs aimed at Indigenous Canadians and people living with mental illness and substance abuse.

On transit, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities supports the Liberal Party’s campaign pledge to make transit funding a permanent long-term commitment and to tie federal transit transfers to the purchase of zero-emission buses and trains.

On climate change, cities are asking Ottawa to increase the federal Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund to support mitigation projects such as flood protection.

The FCM is requesting a $2-billion top-up to the fund over the next four years.

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The government has signalled that climate change will be one of the main themes of the 2020 budget and Mr. Iveson said policies that encourage landlords to update their rental units can fit with that goal.

“We see a climate opportunity around affordable, rental housing,” he told reporters at a news conference alongside Mr. Watson and Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante.

The big city mayors’ day of meetings also included talks with Finance Minister Bill Morneau, Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna and Families, Children and Social Development Minister Ahmed Hussen.

A report released Thursday by the Fraser Institute highlighted the fact that only 9 per cent of Ontario’s job creation came outside of the Greater Toronto Area and Ottawa since 2008. The report found weak job creation in Southwestern Ontario, Northern Ontario and parts of Eastern Ontario, such as Peterborough. As for Ontario’s smaller towns and rural areas, the report found net job creation has been negative during the 2008 to 2018 decade.

Those findings are in line with a report released late last month by the Financial Accountability Office of Ontario. The provincial spending watchdog found “uneven” hiring within the province. Over the past 10 years, the Toronto region accounted for about 66 per cent of jobs created, while Ottawa-Gatineau was next, with 8.1 per cent of new jobs.

The report also found employment declined in some parts of the province, including Peterborough, Thunder Bay and St. Catharines-Niagara.

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The Liberal MP for Peterborough-Kawartha, Maryam Monsef, is the Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Rural Economic Development.

Her mandate letter from the Prime Minister states that the government plans to increase high-speed broadband coverage in rural Canada and to ensure federal programs “are meeting the needs of rural communities.” The letter also calls on Ms. Monsef to work with Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino to encourage more newcomers to settle in rural Canada.

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