Although in 2002 our national press focussed on terrorism and public safety, one of the hottest Canadian stories of 2002 was the results of the recent Census.
The Census, you ask? Yes, the Census! A hot story of 2002?
Guess what? In 2002 we found out that more than 80% of this rural country lives in cities! Only in Canada, you say. Yes, only in Canada would a rural country wake up one day to find that 80% of its citizens living in cities – a 5.2% increase since 1996, living in more than 30 urban regions with a populations of over 100,000.
And yet, for decades rural issues, rural communities in crisis, and the flight of young people from rural communities have dominated the public policy agenda in Ottawa, and from Victoria to St. John’s. Canada’s Provinces are focussed not on growth and growth cities but on communities in crisis, and that strategic focus has been a failure from coast to coast.
But with the numbers bouncing out of the recent Census, look out Canada: we are in for the biggest political change since the CPR and the opening up of the West.
This is a Cities Conference. Capital Cities are smart cities, focussed on communications and information technology, service centres where the needs of citizens demand imagination and innovation. These smart cities are also cultural and historical centres, with a unique blend of historic and architectural assets which make them natural centres for tourism. And after the tragic events of September 11, 2002, these smart cities must cope with the demands of additional security and a new focus on public safety.
So, for a few minutes this morning, in one of Canada’s oldest, most beautiful heritage cities, let’s look forward to the future and consider some of the major issues facing our country as the rural tail ceases to wag the urban dog.
For openers, Canada’s Cities are more than Toronto. I would suggest that we can only have a real national debate if we open up the discussion to include all cities from Victoria to St. John’s. Yes, we have the Big Five each with over a million people where 51% of Canadians actually live. But we also have an exciting range of Tier Two cities with populations of more than a quarter of a million, including Victoria, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Regina, London, Ottawa, Waterloo, Quebec and Halifax. And then there are the smaller cities with less than 250,000 including Fredericton, St. John’s, and Charlottetown.
Only by demanding such inclusivity will the forthcoming national policy debate avoid a confrontation between urban and rural Canadians and the real needs of urban and rural communities. If we polarize the debate, as the press usually does, our country will fail to capitalize on the energy of this modern urban nation.
Canada’s cities are 21st century economic, social and cultural dynamos trapped within a Victorian political world. Their governments are often puny and parochial, their provinces hostile and rural dominated, and Ottawa isn’t even sure it’s supposed to know that cities exist. This is not a recipe for prosperity.
Our cities used to have charters like private corporations, but today most of our cities are under the jurisdiction of departments of Municipal Affairs which are very low on provincial food chains. Most cities feel very alienated from their provincial governments. They are rarely consulted, rarely involved in setting funding priorities, and the recent round of amalgamations has antagonized their relationships. In smaller provinces, moreover, tension arises from the relative affluence of urban centers. Saskatoon and Halifax, for example, are currently forced to be cash cows for poorer communities within their provinces. This is the antithesis of investment.
Cities should not be equated with municipal governments which are under the thumb of the provinces. Cities are full of all kinds of vital forces and organisations that can and should be shouldering more of the burden of the work to make our communities great. While city governments need to be part of the partnership, as in the Greater Halifax Partnership, they can and should be only minority partners.
Commentators agree that the knowledge economy and the growth of the internet will strengthen the role of cities at the expense of nations, regions, and national governments. The Federal Government, for the first time since 1867, is beginning to acknowledge that Canada is an urban country and that our national prosperity is in the hands of the innovation, creativity and imagination of these urban centers.
Canada is currently among the five OECD countries most reliant on property taxes to support urban services. The amazing fact is that on this limited tax base Canada’s cities operate in the black. But infrastructure is crumbling and quality of life is threatened.
In this decade, the challenge for provinces will be to give cities more autonomy and allow them to broaden their revenue base through innovative partnerships with non-government groups. These partnerships will be the key to shouldering the new burden of investment in infrastructure and public services. [Manitoba’s recent modernization of The city of Winnipeg Act is a model of how provinces can begin to clear away useless regulations and allow cities to operate as “high performance centers”. It is a courageous and imaginative reform which will allow the City to operate with more independence, with a mandatory system of public-private competition, and a clear separation of elected officials from day-to-day operations. The entire province will be a winner. ]
Outside the sphere of urban governance, partnerships between the public and private sector are already working throughout Canada. There are great success stories in Vancouver, Calgary, Saskatoon, London, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax, in areas like health sciences, information technology, the commercialization of university research, and economic development. Here are working models which, with innovative tax incentives and tax credits, could form the basis for a national urban strategy.
Urban partnerships are not government-centered. They empower people, organizations and businesses to take the lead in our cities. If governments want people to invest money voluntarily in their cities, they have to listen to what people want. Value must be created for all parties.
Success will demand that we design vehicles which can surmount federal-provincial tensions and narrow definitions of conflict of interest. A number of Canadians are already advocating a federal ministry of urban affairs. The danger is that it could become another expensive jurisdictional debating club for the provinces. Let’s keep it simple. An alternative would be a focused secretariat within Inter-governmental Affairs which would have the authority to impose urban priorities and not just ministerial priorities on Federal urban spending.
This Secretariat would be a voice for a new national urban policy, facilitate major changes in current regulations, promote strategic partnerships and business alliances, calm provincial and federal anxieties and encourage citizens and the private sector to invest in their communities. Urban partnerships are focused on people who can make things happen and not on squabbles about turf, jurisdiction, and unproductive ways of government thinking.
Cities are like businesses. They partner easily and they efficiently form national and international alliances. Working together to take on the economic and social challenges of the global economy is, if nothing else, a fresh basis for national unity. [This organization of Capital Cities is an example of how we can build a strong national urban partnership to share knowledge, to work together, and eventually market our communities internationally.] This presumes that we are now an urban nation and that we have the courage to cut the Victorian structures that are stifling national growth and prosperity.
In the last few years Canada’s cities have begun to demand national attention with the claim that our cities, the pride of Canada and the centres of wealth and innovation, have begun to crumble. They need money, they claim, money for transportation, housing, environmental projects, and a host of other issues if Canada is to continue to compete in the global economy.
This plea for more money is aimed at Ottawa and not the provinces who are constitutionally responsible for municipalities. The recent Interim Report of the Task Force Chaired by Judy Sgro, MP, makes an eloquent case for a national urban strategy, but this political report lacks a chapter on the source of the new money. Ottawa, though politically positive, has refused to respond with committed dollars. In the last few months the funding of Canada’s municipalities has taken centre stage as a number of political heavyweights including the Prime Minister are engaged in a Liberal leadership battle.
But the Provinces, as if awaiting another winless constitutional battle, have remained quietly in the bushes waiting for Ottawa to make the first move and perhaps the first mistake. Everyone is interested in getting more dollars out of Ottawa, but no one has indicated any willingness to surrender power, jurisdiction and control over municipalities and municipal spending,.
If Canada’s cities are actually crumbling, then this is a national crisis. And something must be done to increase investment, public and private. But in a nation already burdened with excessive federal, provincial and municipal taxes, and with an electorate already sceptical about the efficacy of current public spending, there is little patience for new demands on the public purse.
To date urban pleas for more money, especially by Canada’s “big five” cities and their friends, are exclusively aimed at increased public spending. No one has declared that, if this is truly a national crisis then this is a time for innovative alternatives, broader partnerships and profound reforms in municipal governance.
Finally, in discussions about the urban crisis, the press has mistakenly identified city governments with Canada’s cities. In many cases these municipal governments are part of the problem, and they have very little to do with the vitality, creativity, and the spirit of innovation that marks many of Canada’s cities.
Canada does need a national urban strategy, not to get more money out of the federal government, but to force the federal government to spend strategically and coherently, to convince the provinces to use their cities as more than cash cows, and the cities themselves to modernize their tax and investment bases to foster broad-based partnerships with the private sector and community groups.
The bottom line then is that a national urban strategy requires reforms at all three levels of government: reforms in setting national urban priorities for spending, reforms in the way the Provinces administer and control large urban centres, and reforms in the governance of the cities themselves which will make public spending broad based, transparent and accountable in competition with the private sector, labour, and community groups.
Canada’s Cities are the jewels in its crown. It is in its cities that Canada competes in the global economy, and it in its cities that our future prosperity rests. The sad thing is that few Canadians realize this. Although our national focus is usually on the larger big five urban centres, the spirit of innovation, entrepreneurship and excellence is alive in many smaller centres. Saskatoon, for example, has become a global centre for biotechnology and agri-business, London has achieve remarkable break-throughs in financing the life sciences, Ottawa in Information Technology, Laval in pharmaceuticals, Charlottetown in Food Technology, Fredericton in Forestry, Halifax in Marine technologies and offshore services, and St. John’s in fisheries science and offshore engineering. Urban partnerships with universities and centres for research and development have emerged in Victoria, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, London, Waterloo, Ottawa, Halifax and Charlottetown.
This is twenty-first century Canada. We owe it to those millions of immigrants and pioneers, who had the courage to come here, to protect and grow these cities with innovative, imaginative and courageous public policies. Canada must look prosperity in the face and grasp the future for the sake of our grandchildren and the thousands of immigrants who will make our country their home.
Thank you for your patience.