“In the Vietnam era,” Clinton declared, “most young men, including the president, the vice president and me, most of us could have gone to Vietnam and didn’t go. And John Kerry said, ‘send me.’”
And the Denney Goes To…
Erin won a Kitchener-Waterloo Arts Award for Literature this past Saturday. For this, she receives a statue called a Denney (named after the artist who sculpted it), which is made out of bronze and is heavy enough to defend the prime minister with. The ceremony was held at the Walper Terrace Hotel along with a three-hour prelude of entertainment and free food. The awards are announced just like the Oscars, with the winners not knowing the results until their names are read on stage.
It’s a good night that’s as much a “thank-you” from the city to its burgeoning artistic community. Mayors Carl Zehr (Kitchener) and Herb Epp (Waterloo) were both in attendance to give speeches and hand out awards. From that you come to understand just how much of an artistic community the region of Waterloo has and, more importantly, how much the local councils appreciate it. We have at least three theatres, several art cooperatives, a major literary magazine and a number of famous writers, and all are being encouraged to enhance the life of Waterloo Region. You wouldn’t think of this, given how Kitchener’s reputation is dominated by Oktoberfest, and the fact that Stratford is just thirty-minutes down the road, but we box well above our weight when it comes to the arts, and that’s something we should be proud of.
The Death of Waterloo Region
I really should pay more attention to local politics because somebody signed Waterloo Region’s death warrant while I wasn’t looking. Worse, I didn’t realize anything was wrong until three years, three months after it happened.
What am I talking about? In the year 2000, the province of Ontario changed the structure of Waterloo Region. Regional councillors would be elected at large from the municipalities and would sit, alongside those municipalities mayors, on regional council. These councillors would not sit on local council.
I have been a staunch defender of the two-tier model of regional government. The system works at addressing wider regional issues while remaining sensitive to local concerns by preserving the lower-tier municipalities, and having those municipalities meet in a regional council to discuss regional issues that all have in common.
Toronto was the first regional government in Canada. In 1954, the province decided against amalgamating the city with its twelve surrounding suburban municipalities and had them sit together on a metropolitan council. That metropolitan council had authority over public transit, the police, garbage collection and regional planning. By combining the borrowing power of city of Toronto with the vast tracts of developable land in the surrounding municipalities, the province of Ontario created an economic engine that grew dramatically for almost forty years. Although relations between the member municipalities were sometimes cantankerous, the jobs got done, and Metropolitan Toronto gained the reputation of “the city that works”. It worked because the regional council of Metropolitan Toronto was entirely made up of councillors who also sat on the councils of the lower-tier municipalities. Metropolitan Toronto was not a separate municipality, not a separate boxer, but a boxing ring wherein the member municipalities could meet and duke it out over issues they had in common.
In 1959, the architects of Metropolitan Toronto were brought in by the Manitoban government to address the regional issues of Winnipeg. They designed a similar federation, but with a few key differences. The ten wards of the Metropolitan Corporation of Greater Winnipeg would span suburban and downtown boundaries, to try and forestall city-suburban conflicts. The ten councillors and chairman would be independently elected, and would have nothing to do with the various local councils that governed beneath it. The result was an unmitigated disaster.
It didn’t help that the mayor of Winnipeg, Steve Juba, was a hard-nosed obstructionist, but all of the lower-tier municipalities resented having this regional council decide matters without consulting them (which was precisely how the regional council was designed). Turf wars became common. The regional council had control over planning and would designate areas for new subdivisions; the lower tier municipalities had control over infrastructure provision and would refuse to service the new land. These games all reflected the fact that, since Greater Winnipeg was an independent municipality in its own right, with no connection to the lower-tier municipalities, there was very little political incentive for the two sides to work together, and plenty of political incentive for each side to use the other as a scapegoat. By and large, the public tended to side with the lower-tier municipalities whose councils were more reflective of the community will. By 1969, it was clear that Greater Winnipeg was dysfunctional, and the newly elected NDP government abolished it and amalgamated the member municipalities into the mega-city of Winnipeg.
The same thing happened in Metropolitan Toronto in 1988 when the province of Ontario decided to separate the two tiers. Regional councillors would be directly elected to their seats and would not sit on the lower-tier councils. Only the mayors of the six member municipalities (Toronto, York, East York, North York, Scarborough and Etobicoke) would link the two councils together. By 1994, the political in-fighting was such that lower-tier councillors were calling for the upper-tier’s dissolution. The region was no longer working, for more reasons than just the various players weren’t playing nice, but the political infighting provided the urgency in the discussion on regional government in the GTA. It provided Mike Harris and his newly elected Conservatives ample excuse to dissolve the 43-year-old relationship, and amalgamate Metropolitan Toronto into the mega-city of Toronto, over the member cities’ wishes.
Longtime public servant Gardiner Church put it best, in his own colourful style, when he noted that separating the two tiers of a regional government made it “politically expedient for each side to p—- in each other’s pot”. Two-tier regional government has always been a compromise to get lower-tier municipalities together to discuss regional issues while maintaining community independence. Typically, the regional interest trumps local independence. Regional needs are pressing long-term needs, and local municipalities, by themselves, can’t deal with them. So, when the regional two-tier governing arrangement fails, the response of provincial governments has tended to be to amalgamate rather than separate. And frankly, for the long-term health of the region, this is the best solution.
But we can avoid this whole mess if we always keep in mind that the regional level of government is not a fourth tier of government. People are governed enough as it is. The regional council is a place where lower-tier councils get to meet. One of the side-effects of this arrangement is that the pull of the regional government is towards the lower-tiers, but that’s okay with me. Lower-tier governments are closer and more in touch with the communities that they serve, and although regional issues must be addressed, by hook or by crook, this compromise seems the best method to assure good governance.
At the very least, we are gathering a considerable case history to back up my assertion.
The two-tiers of Waterloo Region were separated for the 2000 election. For the first three years, everything seemed all right, and that’s probably why I didn’t notice anything amiss. But relations between Waterloo Region and its member municipalities are starting to sour. Some councillors in Cambridge (which has never appreciated being amalgamated into Waterloo Region in the first place) have called for the region’s dissolution. Others, more sensibly understanding the forces at work, have called for the regional councillors to come back and sit on the lower-tier councils again.
That’s the best solution, in my opinion. Waterloo Region is, in my opinion, the new City that Works. It would be a shame to lose what we have. And as much as Cambridge doesn’t want to be here, if Waterloo Region is allowed to fail, the result will probably not be the region’s dissolution. Waterloo Region already controls the area’s public transit and police services. It would be a mess to try and separate those out again. And if these services end up being controlled by more and more cooperative committees, the natural response from the provincial government would be to ask, “why get rid of the region? If six governments are better than seven, surely one government is better than six?” and the result would be amalgamation. And I can’t see Cambridge or the townships being too happy about that.
Waterloo Region works because it was the model for true two-tier regional government. It had the local interests ably represented by their municipalities, and it covered all of the true region. Let’s not lose that. Let’s restore the regional government to the way that we know works properly, before it’s too late.