Cities We Need conference highlights importance of municipal autonomy

The McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC) opened its 20th annual two-day conference on Feb. 19, focusing on the challenges cities across Canada face.  Elected officials from cities across the country, scholars, and representatives of non-governmental organizations gathered to discuss topics including governance, culture, infrastructure, citizenship, and social justice.

The conference opened with a panel of mayors who discussed governance.  Mayors from Mississauga, Yellowknife, Stratford, Halifax, and Châteauguay unanimously pointed to the lack of consistency across municipalities in the political powers they have over their jurisdiction.  The mayors agreed that consistency and predictability should be the norm in intergovernmental relationships. Attendees also discussed the municipal ability to perceive its own taxes to secure sources of revenue that are independent from provincial or federal subsidies.

Mark Heyck, mayor of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, highlighted this issue echoed by many of his colleagues.

“We have a completely different situation from province to province and from territory to territory, there is no uniformity in what [is] abided by each of us,” Heyck said. “It is time to have a national conversation about municipalities.”

Dan Mathieson, mayor of Stratford, Ontario, also argued that the infrastructures under the responsibility of municipal governments were unstable, given municipal budgets and their capacity to secure independent and predictable sources of revenue are currently insufficient.

Mathieson cited the case of the University of Waterloo, Stratford Campus, which needed $10 million for its operations.  The federal government refused to fund it, but gave $20 million to the University of Alberta through the Western Diversification Fund. According to Mathieson, this is a reflection of the lack of consistency municipalities across Canada are dealing with.  

“The system is broke [sic],” Mathieson added. “There [are] over 2,000 communities in this country and you shouldn’t expect the communities to adapt to new ways of doing things each and every day.”  

Mayor of Châteauguay Nathalie Simon explained that the current fiscal and political arrangements between levels of governments are impediments to municipal development.  

“The most difficult obstacle is certainly the absence of cohesion among the provincial government and the relevant federal agencies,” Simon said. 

She explained that asking for budgets and permissions from both levels of government represents a drag of resources that could be invested in services to the community.  

“If we want to keep up with the current challenges in a dynamic, prosperous, and attractive community, things must change, cities must be recognized as government of proximity,” she said.

Simon also cited the example of Rogers Telecommunications Corporation, which decided to build a new antenna despite municipal regulations.  In doing so, Rogers acted upon the approbation of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, as well as other relevant agencies, but ignored prior urban planning established by the municipality. 

Director of the MISC and McGill communications professor William Straw explained that the conference was prompted by the sense that interesting policy initiatives addressing challenges in Canadian life are currently being developed in cities.

“McGill is an urban university and, more and more, scholarship at McGill reflects on what it means to be a university in a big city,” Straw said on McGill’s role in the city discourse. “McGill is also an university in which people think about cities across all disciplines, from medicine to agriculture to arts. I think it’s important that McGill highlight this aspect of its identity.”

Straw explained that McGill’s location in downtown Montreal and its increasing institutions on urban life and research should be a larger part of its identity.

“I think McGill […] has to think more and more of itself as an urban institution,” he said. “I hope this conference will help that.”

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