The Conservative Critique Ia - Urban Affairs Redux

Before I go on, I thought I’d mention that my fourth professional commission with Business Edge ran in their June 9th Southern Ontario edition. You can find my article on the LRT projects of Ottawa, Waterloo and Toronto here.

I’m quite pleased with this commission. It’s my longest and most detailed article yet with Business Edge and it was a pleasure to interview all of the principles involved. So, check out the link or, better yet, buy a copy of the issue, which I’m told has neat maps and pictures with the article.

Hat tip to God’s Copybook for linking to my critique of the Conservative party’s policy on urban affairs (or lack thereof). I appreciate the kind words and he/she raises some interesting points that I need to address:

Bow, James Bow, makes a persuasive case that the CPC will doom themselves to perpetual opposition if they don’t start taking seriously urban voters (HT Bound by Gravity).  It was only some thirty or forty years ago that the words Toronto and Tory were synonymous.  The shift was partly demographic - Orange Toronto equaled Tory Toronto - and partly shrewd politics.  I keep going back on this blog to the PC dynasty that ruled this province for forty years because so much of what works and doesn’t work in modern Ontario stems from the policies of that era.  There is a massive and potentially crippling deficit in the quality of public infrastructure in Ontario and across the country.  That deficit is mainly in the area of urban infrastructure.  If the CPC does not address that issue they will be, in the long or the short run, toast. 

Virtually every piece of public infrastructure in the Greater Toronto Area was largely subsidized and even designed by the provincial government.  The 400-series highways, including the DVP, QEW, and the Gardiner (which has been on again, off again under the control of the city), the subway system, and the electrical system were built by provincial governments using provincial funds in conjunction with the municipalities.  There has been much discussion about the antiquated nature of the Canadian Constitution and how way back in 1867 only a small percentage of Canadians lived in urban areas.  The problem, it is said, is that municipalities have limited taxing power and little say about the downloading of services. 

This however completely misses the point.  American cities, which Bow correctly notes are becoming strong competitors to Canadians cities for investment in high-tech and information services, live under the same constitutional constraints.  The majority of Americans live in dense urban and suburban areas, yet they are every bit as much creatures of the state governments.


It’s true that municipal affairs aren’t mentioned in the American constitution, full stop. And it’s true that they are explicitly mentioned as coming under the purview of the provinces according to the British North America Act of 1867. And it’s true that the tenth amendment of the American constitution states that any power or obligation not explicitly handed to the federal government under the constitution resides with the states, arguably putting the responsibility for urban affairs in the states’ hands, but legally municipalities in the United States have far more power to manage their own affairs than municipalities in Canada.

Consider: the province of Ontario could decide tomorrow to abolish all municipalities within its borders and run urban affairs exclusively from Queen’s Park. Only the patent stupidity of such an action prevents them from doing so.

This actually confers a bit of an advantage to Canadian cities, as the province can intervene to change a municipality’s boundary or dissolve it entirely. For this reason, the Greater Toronto Area is governed only by two megacities, four regional governments and twenty-one townships/villages/towns/cities rather than the nearly one-hundred that existed in 1967. Compare this to Greater Chicago which is managed by a patchwork quilt of over 250 counties, cities, towns, villages, townships and special service boards. If the province of Nova Scotia wants to draw a line around the urban area of Greater Halifax and call it Halifax, that’s what they do. If the State of Illinois wants to reflect the urban reality of Greater Chicago, its hands are tied.

This is because most American cities are established by charter. These charters set the boundaries and the powers and the responsibilities of a particular city. These powers and responsibilities include the right to tax residents via their properties, through the gas pumps and even via the cashier or (in New York’s case) by incomee. American charters, once granted, are hard to change and almost impossible to revoke. The charter practise predates the American constitution and America’s founding fathers were not interested in having the senior levels of government impose upon the right of local individuals to organize themselves. Through legal precident, if not through constitutional fiat, this grants charter cities considerable protection from state activity. This systems maintains municipal enclaves long after their existence becomes a joke within the wider urban fabric, but it also grants American municipalities far more rights to manage their own affairs than Canadian cities have.

In Canada, only Vancouver, Winnipeg, Montreal and St. John have charters. Halifax, Calgary and Edmonton have special relationships with their provinces, but relationships which are established solely at their provinces’ discretion. It is unlikely that any of these municipalities could hold out against a boneheaded provincial policy decision if that province was determined to carry it out.

The City of Toronto has no charter, and believe me people have suggested this as a means of granting the city the power it needs short of making the GTA into its own province. Its legal existence is governed by the same basic act of 1849 (the Baldwin reforms) that established most of Ontario’s counties and townships we see today (although Toronto was modified by further acts in 1954, 1967 and 1997 and other municipalities have been changed and altered by provincial edict). The McGuinty government is putting forward a City of Toronto Act, which should take effect late in 2006. Among other things, the Act gives the city the right to change the time when bars close rather than petitioning Queen’s Park whenever a special event comes up. The McGuinty government has been reluctant to transfer to Toronto the power to establish new taxes that could shift the burden for municipal services off of one’s property.

Another significant difference to consider between American and Canadian cities is the fact that American cities tend to use a strong mayor system, where the mayor of a town acts as the town’s President, with a division of power between him and City Council similar to what exists between the President and Congress. Most Canadian cities use a weak mayor system, where the mayor of a town is just one more vote on the council he or she chairs — a vote only used in the event of a tie. Some Canadian cities have used a variant of the strong mayor model, where the mayor and a board of control elected city wide sits above the ward councillors and whose decisions can only be defeated by a 2/3rds majority of councillors, but in Canada this model is established at provincial discretion. In America, its established by charter.

American cities have much more power to manage themselves. This has been responsible for both their advantages and disadvantages compared to Canadian cities. The fact that American cities can’t be dissolved or merged without a fight has allowed American urban centres to be balkanized, individual cities pitted against each other, creating the prospect for white flight and setting the stage for the sort of urban decay that has plagued Detroit and sent investment north of the border. But American cities that can get their acts together get things done. Most Canadian cities know what they need to do to succeed. Neglect from the senior levels of government is preventing them from doing it.

And it’s also worth noting that while the tenth amendment suggests that the federal government of the United States has no place in urban affairs, it’s not the first time the federal government has ignored the tenth amendment. Since the late 1980s, they’ve poured billions into American city centres, turning around downtowns and making them places to invest in once more. The federal government of Canada has promised similar investment; and they are only now beginning to deliver.

It’s time for the feds to deliver. Or it’s time to send the matter firmly back to the provinces.

Although this is a subject worthy of another post, I should comment on God’ s Copybook’s link between Canada’s urban taxation problems and the Canadian medicare system. Despite the fact that Paul Martin got the downloading ball rolling with his cuts to health care transfers, I believe it’s the lack of political will, and not the health care system, that is causing the problem. The costs that emerge from the Canadian medical system are not appearing out of nowhere, they exist in the American economy as well. In Canada, health care is paid for out of taxpayers’ pocket. In America — where health care costs are higher per capita — it’s paid for through high premiums and the tragedy of millions of sick Americans going without health insurance. Every single challenge that the Canadian health care system is going to experience as our population ages is going to be experienced south of the border as well, but without the benefit of a broad-based sharing of the costs through our taxes.

And it’s worth noting that Canada is still in surplus, even as the United States posts its worst deficits in history. Our provincial and federal governments could pay for medicare and eliminate the infrastructure deficit if they wanted to. They just don’t want to. We have to make them want to.

The problem of urban affairs is not related to the inability of governments to make room for it among medical spending, education, unemployment insurance and the military. It’s related to our system of government which, unlike the United States, does not recognize the legitimacy of cities at all — where provincial governments have been able to pawn off the costs of government decisions onto a set of municipally elected patsies while reaping all of the benefits.

As much as the coming medicare crisis promises to bite our senior governments in their backsides, so to does the neglect of urban affairs. Our cities are where the greatest opportunity for prosperity resides, and the key to maintaining that prospect is to maintain the cities’ quality of life. To compete in the global marketplace, our workers have to be well educated and they have to be healthy. They have to live in a good environment, where congestion is kept to a minimum, and all amenities are close at hand.

That costs money. Tax money. But it is not money shovelled into a pothole and left to rot. It is an investment in our future.

Further Reading

  • An article on American City Charters with interesting histories on America’s tumultuous city governments of the 1850s.
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