If you happened to tune into the federal election debates, you might have noticed a certain topic that was conspicuous by its absence. Hint: it’s where you’ll find more than 80 per cent of Canadians and 74 per cent of job growth in the last year. Another hint: it’s the source of many of the daily services you need—like public transit, roads, housing, water, and waste management—but receives only a small portion of tax dollars.
The issue, of course, is Canadian cities, and it was the subject of an April 14 panel discussion called Cities and the Federal Election: Who Cares about 15 Million Urban Voters? The event—timed to coincide with the release of a report by the Martin Prosperity Institute [PDF]—was put on by the Cities Centre at the University of Toronto and was moderated by CBC Metro Morning’s Matt Galloway. Among the panelists: Julia Deans (CEO, Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance); Fred Eisenberger (president and CEO, Canadian Urban Institute); and Richard M. Sommer (dean of the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design at the University of Toronto).
According to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, cities build, own, and maintain more than half of the country’s infrastructure, while receiving only eight cents of every tax dollar. This has led to an estimated $123 billion municipal infrastructure deficit—and that number is four years old. To make matters even more cheery, 40 per cent of federal infrastructure funding for municipalities is expected to expire in the next 36 months. On top of which: we are the only country in the developed world without a national housing or transit strategy. Given these facts, one might begin to wonder why cities have not featured more prominently in the recent federal election.
One reason might be that the federal electoral system vastly favours rural over urban ridings, giving a disproportionate weight to rural votes. As metro regions grow, so too, in theory, should their representation in the federal government—but this hasn’t happened. Eisenberger suggested that what we really need is a system of proportional representation, where regions are given voting weight that corresponds to their population.
The challenge, he said, is that people don’t necessarily see a problem with the current electoral system.
So what has this election said about cities? Perusing the parties’ platforms would leave most city slickers underwhelmed, as it did Calgary’s Mayor Naheed Nenshi, who wrote an op-ed in the Calgary Herald this week expressing his frustration that cities’ needs are being virtually ignored in this election. Each platform mentions the subject of cities and municipal finances only in passing, with only the Green Party really delving into the subject by calling for increased financial tools for municipalities, and laying out specific goals and models for infrastructure funding.
Both Eisenberger and Deans said that Canadian federal governments are hesitant to get involved in municipal affairs because cities are essentially creatures of the province. However, this doesn’t hinder the federal government’s ability to set up long-term funding strategies for cities. They can, and do, give money to cities all the time. What is needed, however, is consistent, long-term funding streams. Having to go cap in hand, as Eisenberger said, to the federal government for each infrastructure project is not a stable funding model and doesn’t allow cities the ability to properly plan for the future.
This prompted one audience member to ask whether cities should be seeking only handouts from the federal government or if they should be striving for more taxing power. As we’ve seen in Toronto, however, even when a city is given more taxing power (think of the vehicle registration tax), it doesn’t make these taxing powers politically feasible (think of Rob Ford repealing the vehicle registration tax). Eisenberger, a former mayor of Hamilton, pointed out that while they are necessary for funding purposes, proposing taxes such as these would have made him unelectable.
There’s also a need for funding that goes beyond standard taxation models. Dean suggested looking at road tolls and user fees—both of which are likely to be similarly unpalatable to voters. “The reality is that without additional resources you have to do things that are not popular,” Eisenberger said.
It’s about more than just infrastructure funding, however. With metro areas receiving 90 per cent of the immigrants into Canada, Deans said, there needs to be more federal support for settling newcomers, making sure they find jobs suited to their education, and offering supports for entrepreneurs looking to start new businesses. And then there’s the dismal state of affordable housing in our cities, with over 80,000 people on the waiting list in Toronto; it will be years before many on that list are given housing spots.
Sommer tied it all together when he spoke of the need for investment in the idea of city building, saying that we are still trying to figure out how to govern, plan, and design large agglomerations like Toronto. Eisenberger expanded on this thought, adding: “We have to stop thinking about individual municipalities and start thinking about regional economies.”
At the end, civic engagement (and the lack thereof) was raised as a concern, as was the importance of civic literacy, especially in youth. There was the sense that these issues—affordable housing, transit, infrastructure, electoral reform—are only raised and spoken about during the five weeks of an election, before fading into the background of day-to-day life.
“Think about that issue that you’re going to complain about after the election because it didn’t get enough attention,” Deans said. “And then think about how you’re going to do something about it the rest of the year.”