Brighter Lights, Bigger Cities

Cities are the bloated elephants in Stephen Harper’s Cabinet room. Will he have the courage to look them in the eye?
Photograph by Eamon Mac MahonPhotograph by Eamon Mac Mahon

Prime Minister Stephen Harper faces numerous challenges, not the least of which is addressing the critical needs facing Canada’s largest cities. He could choose, of course, to be constitutionally correct, noting that under the British North America Act provincial governments are responsible for cities. To this jurisdictional truth, he might also argue that fragile minority governments like his do not have a mandate to negotiate constitutional reform. However, great prime ministers of the past have not shied away from tough issues, and some have engaged in seminal nation-building exercises from minority platforms. And for Canada, making sure that our large city regions are optimally competitive is key to the country’s future economic prospects. Time has wasted as Harper’s predecessors either did nothing or took baby steps while other nations acted.

Politically, Harper needs to build a governing coalition if he is to replace the Liberals for anything but an interim period. His January 23, 2006, victory returned no seats from Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal, and while he made strides elsewhere, the biggest cities remain Liberal and ndp strongholds. Harper and his colleagues can see this as a problem or as an opportunity for growth. If they want to build a coalition that will sustain them for a number of elections, and take them into majority-government status, those three urban regions offer fertile ground.

Capturing that ground would require the Conservatives to develop a cities agenda that addresses the differences in values between urban and rural Canadians; the relative efficacy of investing in cities as opposed to resource extraction in non-urban Canada; the choosing and settlement of immigrants; and, perhaps most importantly, the fiscal imbalance facing Canada’s largest cities. It is estimated that the Toronto region, for example, sends between $15 and $20 billion more to Ottawa and Ontario than it receives back in tax-paid goods and services.

Harper might also take a position on the fact that urban ridings have considerably more population than rural ones. On average, urban ridings are represented by one Member of Parliament for just under 120,000 residents, while rural ridings get a federal representative for just over 86,000 people. (And there are the true anomalies, like Prince Edward Island with a population of 138,000 and four seats, and the sparsely populated north, where there is one MP for every 35,000 residents.) As it stands, an urban vote is worth almost one-third less than a rural vote. An equal distribution of votes per constituency would result in many more urban seats, making them much more valuable to contest.

The city regions will be waiting for cues to know how to respond in the next election, and urban constituents clearly want more attention directed their way. According to a comprehensive 2003 study conducted by Cameron Strategy Inc. of Calgary and Probe Research Inc. of Winnipeg, 77 percent of Canadians in major cities believe that their civic governments are more accountable than the federal or provincial governments. After years of seeing the costs of services downloaded onto municipal governments, the majority of big-city residents want their mayors to be formally included in the federal budget planning process.

Harper has named his five priorities: passing the Federal Accountability Act; cutting the gst; cracking down on crime; increasing financial assistance to parents; and working with the provinces to establish a wait-times guarantee for hospital care. He has also consistently said that the constitution establishes that cities are a provincial matter, and that he doesn’t intend to tread on that hallowed turf. But the historic constitutional architecture of Canada, now nearly 140 years after Confederation, has become an anachronism. When Sir John A. Macdonald and his contemporaries began to cobble the country together, adding Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to the union of Upper and Lower Canada and, in turn, the other provinces, it was only through assurances of sovereignty that each joined up. Thus a considerable list of powers resides with the provinces, ranging from education and health care to cities, towns, and villages, making Canada one of the most decentralized countries in the world. But this constitutional architecture was designed for an era when the primary economic pursuits were the extraction and selling of natural resources, and towns and villages were simply conduits or way stations for this rudimentary trade and commerce.

Today, traditional resource-based industries represent only about 13 percent of Canada’s total economic output, and cities—particularly large urban regions—are anything but outposts at the service of the resource extractors. Instead, they are economic engines, where more than 80 percent of Canadians now live. Wealth once derived from the land, in the form of furs, wood, minerals, and food, now derives from information and design, the centres of which are in the cities. Large urban regions have become diverse economies featuring complex human networks and the vibrant interaction that leads to innovation and wealth creation. Financial services, construction, entertainment, media, design (urban, architectural, and industrial), education and training all take place on a significant scale in our largest cities.

Under the Canadian system, this city-generated wealth gets distributed across the nation in a government-centred system of transfers that sustains the regions. All is not necessarily copacetic in this system, as many commentators will attest, but it is the way we currently do things.

City regions have become the foci of international competition, eclipsing the importance of nation states. Following World War II, Toronto’s challenge was to become the main economic, social, and cultural centre of the eastern Great Lakes, a challenge it won by surpassing Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit, each of which was equally competitive in the middle of the twentieth century. That objective was never a national ambition; it resulted from the province engaging directly with the city. Today, globalization, the information and service-based economy, and, even, the Bilbao Effect are all directing the world’s major metropolises to invest heavily in cultural capital and modernization, and encouraging cities long regarded as in decline—from Dublin to Cleveland—to compete with megacities. Toronto’s recent cultural investments (redesigns of the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Royal Ontario Museum, as well as the new ballet and opera house), and the Quartier international de MontrĂ©al project illustrate the fact that cities are dynamic entities that must continue to innovate in order to compete.

As prime minister, Harper has a comprehensive responsibility for all of Canada, and he has inherited a genuine problem. Over the course of the twentieth century, the country experienced a two-stage urbanization process. The first was the steady movement of people from rural and hinterland areas to villages, towns, and then contained cities. These cities were regional centres, and places like Moncton, London, and Saskatoon grew. The second stage saw people moving from these cities to Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, and, with the development of the oil industry in Alberta, to Calgary. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, it was clear that there were three large urban regions with diverse economies that embraced a large number of surrounding municipalities: Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver.

Harper’s problem is that the growth of Canada’s largest cities has been achieved, in good part, at the expense of the next tier of cities. In 2001, Winnipeg’s then-mayor, Glen Murray, pointed out that he, like many of his fellow mayors, was watching the steady erosion of tier-two cities like Winnipeg as successful businesses, media, and government people moved to one of the larger cities for greater opportunities. Murray looked at the space between Toronto and Calgary—with Winnipeg, Regina, and Saskatoon shrinking—and called it a great national concern, something that demanded federal government attention. The great observer of cities, writer Jane Jacobs, noted the same trend and warned that the hollowing out of parts of the country would be problematic for national prosperity and unity. Indeed, given current migration patterns and immigrant settlement trends, one can forecast a population picture of Canada in the very near future where the overwhelming majority of Canadians will live in one of three major urban centres, all separated by vast and relatively unpopulated regions.

This concern led to a number of initiatives, including the meetings of the C5 Mayors (from Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto, and Montreal) beginning in Winnipeg in May of 2001. These meetings were aimed at highlighting the ways in which the world and Canada had changed. The astute Don Stevenson, a former Ontario senior public servant, called for fresh attention to urban matters in Canada. He also alerted us to the fact that although the majority of Western society lived in cities for most of the twentieth century, the twenty-first century would be the first “urban century,” when a majority of the world’s population will live in cities.

Home · Page 1 of 3 · Next

1 comment(s)

AdamDecember 29, 2007 21:33 EST

"So, if the four Maritime provinces were to unite as one political entity, for instance, the new governance structure would represent approximately 2.3 million people."

Some very simple fact checking would have informed Walrus that there are not "four Maritime Provinces," there are four "Atlantic Provinces" which are the three Maritime Provinces and Newfoundland, and they are not quite as easily united as you seem to imagine.

" Quebec, without Montreal’s 3.6 million inhabitants, would now be a province of four million."

Now, returning to real world politics, how would cutting North America's last Francophone region in half, and making making one part a bilingual metropolis, play in Quebec? What is the purpose of this silly thought-game? None of the carve-ups described are even remotely possible.

"While ostensibly radical, "

Not so much radical as nonsense - science-fiction really.

"this redesign of Canada’s map would actually resolve the anachronism that is our political structure and better prepare our economy for the challenges of the twenty-first century."

Nobody knows what the challenges of the twenty-first century will be, but some guess they might have something to do with massive environmental destruction, with which megacities might be poorly designed to cope.

Also, this claim that cities are wealth creators only works if we assume, for instance, that the excessively compensated executive in Calgary sitting in his desk contributes more than the labourer in Grande Prairie who brings the oil from the ground, and that both contribute more than the Dene fisherman in Fort Chip whose entire way of life is destroyed by Oil Sands development. Of course, the Dene fisherman may receive very little compensation for several thousand years of fishing rights, but without the destruction of these rights, our idiot in Calgary wouldn't receive a cent, despite his "creative" potential.

A more radical suggestion might be to tax the Jesus out of the idiot in Calgary (even if he hides out in Turner Valley), increase the wages of the worker in GP through unionization, and properly compensate the fisherman in Fort Chip. That might also reduce the number of people who have little choice other than to relocate into the cities.

In the current political climate, that is probably almost as much science fiction as the strange carve-ups suggested by the authors.

Add a comment

I agree to’s comments policy.

Canada & its place in the world. Published by
the non-profit charitable Walrus Foundation
The Walrus SoapBox
The Walrus Laughs
Walrus TV