The urban wasteland

The 2015 winter conference of Canada’s premiers passed last week. Alberta Premier Jim Prentice did not attend; he was otherwise engaged with an oil price crisis and an election date to call. Prime Minister Stephen Harper likewise did not attend. He simply does not engage, not with premiers.

The 2015 winter conference of Canada’s premiers passed last week. Alberta Premier Jim Prentice did not attend; he was otherwise engaged with an oil price crisis and an election date to call.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper likewise did not attend. He simply does not engage, not with premiers.

Off the top of my head, I can’t recall a single headline or major issue being raised from this conference — and I was watching (sort of).

No matter. The really important national conference of Canada’s political leaders is set to take place in Toronto this week. And this group isn’t even fully recognized in our Constitution.

The political leaders who most come in contact with our daily lives are our city mayors. Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi is the one most often quoted, and he puts the importance of Canada’s cities this way: if the feds make a major decision, most Canadians will hear about in three weeks; if it’s made by a province, you’ll know it in three days. When a major decision is made in a city, Nenshi says most people will know about it in three hours.

The Toronto conference is for the 22 largest Canadian cities. If you go by the 2011 census, the cutoff is Kitchener, population 220,000 at the time. Together, these 22 cities contain almost half of Canada’s total population.

An aside: for the record, Red Deer was No. 57 in 2011. And here’s something I’ll bet most Albertans don’t know (and I’m certain most MPs in Ottawa, nor most of the federal cabinet don’t seem to know): in the 2011 census, Calgary was Canada’s third largest city. Edmonton was No. 5. Vancouver, which everyone talks about as a major city right after Toronto and Montreal, was No. 8.

The issues these cities face affect more people, in a more direct and daily way, than the issues handled by the feds or the provincial governments.

Do you really care if a barrel of oil or the Canadian dollar is up or down a point or two today? Or do you care that you can get to work on time, that your family is safe and that when you open the tap, clean water comes out of it?

Far more than the federal government, far more than any provincial government, the cities are united by the common issues they face.

Over the weekend, the Globe and Mail ran an excellent story quoting several Canadian mayors on a short range of issues. What impressed me about their comments was their common cause.

What do the mayors of Canada’s largest cities fret most over? Infrastructure costs, with transportation and transit topping the list. Housing problems seem to follow closely after that.

If people cannot move easily in their cities, they quickly make their city councils very unhappy. Here’s one reason: a U.S. report I read said that in cities that have public transit, cycling and walking fully integrated, about nine per cent of annual household expenses go to transportation. In cities that do not, just moving around can consume up to 25 per cent of average household costs.

The feds worry about terrorists in Afghanistan or wherever. The provinces worry about their regional economies. City governments worry if their people are unhappy.

Fixing the structural causes of people’s unhappiness in cities takes money. The cumulative wish lists of Canada’s mayors for upgrading transportation and mass transit is many tens of billions of dollars.

But the Canadian Constitution does not give cities the power to raise money for these projects — even if by doing so, they could save their residents 10 per cent or more on their yearly household expenses. Taxing the value of real estate in their borders is about all the revenue power cities have, and it’s by no means enough.

So they have to get that money as tax transfers from the agencies that have the power to raise it: the feds and the provinces. It’s supposed to be our money, for our benefit anyway, isn’t it?

But from the article I read, contact between mayors and federal decision makers looks pretty thin. Only Toronto Mayor John Tory — a former head of Ontario’s PC Party — seems to claim regular conversation with a wide number of Ottawa decision makers.

Nenshi reported his personal contact with the prime minister happened at the last Calgary Stampede pancake breakfast: hi and bye.

The vast majority of Canadians live urban lives today. In Alberta, all of our major cities rank in the top 100 in Canada (Grande Prairie being the smallest at No. 91 in the 2011 census).

Politicians should forget trying to define who is middle class. Define the needs of what makes Canadians happy in cities and you’ll win their votes.

In Alberta, we will have both a provincial and federal election this year. For all the money we city-dwelling taxpayers send these governments, what have they done for us recently?

Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow him at readersadvocate.blogspot.ca or email greg.neiman.blog@gmail.com.