When the FCM big city mayors caucus met in Ottawa recently, their call for more federal spending on affordable housing and infrastructure got second billing to Rob Ford joining his colleagues for the first time since his election three years ago.
Ottawa Citizen City Hall columnist Joanne Chianello wrote that it was not surprising that the mayors’ demands were overshadowed in the media by the Rob Ford sideshow since “there has never been an FCM meeting that didn’t end in cities’ calling for more infrastructure money from the federal government.”
Normally I wouldn’t quibble with a columnist taking some liberties with the historical record to make a rhetorical point – particularly since it has been true for the last few years — but in this case it obscured the real story from the mayors’ meeting.
To get at it, we have to step back a decade to the early days of the cities’ push for a new deal from the federal government.
Back then, FCM news releases typically ended with references about a new deal for cities having to be “about more than money” and the need for a municipal “seat at the table”.
For the mayors, getting that seat at the table was at least as important as increased federal funding for infrastructure or housing. They wanted to stop being cast in the role of supplicants of federal largesse.
With a federal government and Prime Minister–Paul Martin–ostensibly looking for “transformative change”, they argued that above all, a new deal had to be about a new political relationship that recognized the growing importance of cities in Canada’s political, social and economic landscape.
And ending their cities’ status as the poor relations of the Canadian federation was behind the mayors’ call for the so-called gas tax transfer, which would become the centrepiece of the new deal.
Of course the gas tax transfer was about money – a lot of it. But for the mayors it was also a new institutional arrangement that would recognize and formalize a federal interest in cities that went well beyond the limits imposed by our 19th century constitution.
The real story from the recent Ottawa meeting of the big city mayors is not so much the antics of the Toronto mayor or whether he was a distraction. It’s that we may be witnessing a return to the “mayors-as-supplicants” model of municipal-federal relations. And that’s bad news for cities.
Of course the mayors don’t see themselves on bended knee when they come to Ottawa. But when you frame the cities’ agenda as being about federal money, you’re playing Ottawa’s game, and in this game, the federal government is top dog.
Settling for the status quo carries with it two serious problems for Canada’s cities: first it means reducing the federal role and interest in cities to investments in infrastructure and puts the multitude of cross-jurisdictional issues that play out in cities on the back burner; two it suggest that Canada’s mayors accept a return to a 19th century vision of federalism that belies Canada’s urban present and future.
The greatest political gains made by municipal governments over the last decade came as a result of a thoughtful, passionate and effective cities’ campaign and narrative focused on the central role of cities in an evolving Canada.
It all went south with the 2008 recession and the promise of mucho federal infrastructure cash.
The last five years saw the largest federal infrastructure investments ever in Canada’s cities. That’s the good news. The bad news is that on the national scene, the political clout of Canada’s big city mayors is probably the lowest it’s been in over a decade.
The mayors cannot be blamed for embracing the opportunity to get the lion’s share of stimulus spending. But focusing 24/7 on infrastructure (and continuing to do so now) served to narrowcast the political relationship and move the discussion away from the core issue the mayors had been pushing for years: fixing an outdated institutional system.
With a federal election a little more that a year away, the mayors are likely starting to think of how to best jockey for position in the run-up. If their last meeting is any indication, for Canada’s big city mayors, the future will continue to be painted the colour of money.