The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - OPINION - DOUG SAUN­DERS OPIN­ION

The Globe and Mail’s in­ter­na­tional-af­fairs colum­nist whose books in­clude Ar­rival City and Max­i­mum Canada

The last time the peo­ple of Toronto were so thor­oughly stripped of their il­lu­sions of se­cu­rity and self-gov­ern­ment by a higher power, they were forced to flee across the Don River and blow up the Fort York am­mu­ni­tion dump.

Un­like those events fol­low­ing the U.S. in­va­sion of 1813, this week’s show­down with On­tario Premier Doug Ford has not killed or maimed any­one, although it has in­volved scream­ing, march­ing, de­nun­ci­a­tion, be­trayal and cit­i­zens be­ing dragged out of the pro­vin­cial leg­is­la­ture in hand­cuffs.

It has also ex­posed, in a most dra­matic way, a fun­da­men­tal cri­sis in Canada’s big cities. The at­tempt by Mr. Ford’s Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment to slash the num­ber of Toronto city coun­cil­lors in half in the midst of a mu­nic­i­pal elec­tion – and his un­prece­dented de­ci­sion this week to in­voke a con­sti­tu­tional clause to sus­pend the Char­ter of Rights and Free­doms in or­der to do so – may look to many Cana­di­ans like a mo­men­tary fit of pique and pet- ty vengeance by one right-wing politi­cian who be­came Premier against an­other who de­feated him in a may­oral elec­tion.

More than that, it is the lat­est, and most dra­matic, man­i­fes­ta­tion of a larger prob­lem, one seen world­wide but es­pe­cially in Canada, one that cuts across lines of party and ge­og­ra­phy, and grows more acute as this coun­try be­comes more ur­ban: Our cities, as po­lit­i­cal and con­sti­tu­tional and demo­cratic en­ti­ties, do not ex­ist.

The Ford cri­sis “un­der­lines the pro­found prob­lem of non-ex­ist- ent lo­cal democ­racy rights,” says Mar­i­ana Valverde, a Univer­sity of Toronto so­ci­ol­o­gist and le­gal scholar who co-au­thored a 2006 Os­goode Hall Law School pa­per, with Ron Levi, which pre­dicted that a then-new wave of pro­vin­cial “city char­ters,” which sup­pos­edly gave greater fis­cal pow­ers to Canada’s big cities, would not ac­tu­ally pro­vide any guar­an­tee of in­de­pen­dence or demo­cratic rights, and that prov­inces could tram­mel the in­ter­ests of cities on a whim.

In fact, as Toron­to­ni­ans learned this week, Canada’s Con­sti­tu­tion and laws pro­vide no right to demo­cratic gov­ern­ment at the mu­nic­i­pal level, be­cause cities, and mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ments, sim­ply don’t ex­ist as con­sti­tu­tional en­ti­ties or in­de­pen­dent ju­ris­dic­tions in Canada – they are mere crea­tures of the prov­inces. As Dr. Valverde says, “Cana­di­ans may think they have a right to elect their lo­cal gov­ern­ment, but they don’t.”

Mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ments in most Western coun­tries are sim­ply cor­po­ra­tions, reg­is­tered with and fully un­der the con­trol of na­tional, state or pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ments. Some of them (mainly in English-speak­ing coun­tries) are able to fi­nance them­selves by levy­ing prop­erty taxes, and oc­ca­sion­ally mu­nic­i­pal sales or in­come taxes and other fees. In many coun­tries (and partly in Canada), they rely on block grants and trans­fers from higher lev­els of gov­ern­ment.

This sys­tem was de­signed dur­ing an era when Canada and other coun­tries were mainly ru­ral and agrar­ian, and cities were an af­ter­thought. To­day, eight in 10 Cana­di­ans live in a city, mak­ing us lead­ers in an ur­ban­iza­tion wave that’s still sweep­ing across the rest of the world. The largest cities are more in­flu­en­tial and eco­nom­i­cally im­por­tant than the prov­inces and states that con­tain them; in ef­fect, the ma­jor prov­inces are held aloft fi­nan­cially and some­times po­lit­i­cally by their big­gest cities.

This also means that pro­vin­cial and some­times fed­eral gov­ern­ments, with in­creas­ing fre­quency, find them­selves in po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic con­flict with their big cities. The Ford-Toronto show­down is just the lat­est in a con­tin­u­ing se­ries of con­flicts over ur­ban rights:

Toronto only re­cently faced an un­pleas­ant con­fronta­tion with On­tario’s erst­while Lib­eral gov­ern­ment, in which for­mer premier Kath­leen Wynne, for ap­par­ently elec­toral rea­sons, for­bade Mayor John Tory’s at­tempt to fi­nance a pub­lic-tran­sit ex­pan­sion by charg­ing road tolls on the high­ways the city owns.

Van­cou­ver’s at­tempts to ex­pand its own pub­lic-trans­porta­tion net­work us­ing a 0.5-per-cent sales tax was sim­i­larly thwarted by then-premier Christy Clark’s gov­ern­ment, which in­sisted, ap­par­ently with sim­i­lar po­lit­i­cal goals in mind, that any tran­sit plans be sub­ject to a city­wide ref­er­en­dum – and the ref­er­en­dum, in 2015, failed.

Mon­treal, which faced fric­tion from the prov­ince in its ef­forts to ex­pand into a larger self­fi­nanced metropoli­tan re­gion, may find it­self in the same tran­sit dead­lock as Toronto and Van­cou­ver af­ter Oc­to­ber’s Que­bec elec­tion. The party cur­rently lead­ing the polls, the con­ser­va­tive Coali­tion Avenir Québec, has vowed to can­cel Mon­treal Mayor Va­lerie Plante’s pop­u­lar plan to build a ma­jor new Metro line: “We have con­cluded it’s not the pri­or­ity,” CAQ Leader François Le­gault told his party con­ven­tion.

Van­cou­ver’s at­tempts to deal with its over­dose cri­sis with su­per­vised drug-use sites has be­come a po­lit­i­cal foot­ball at the fed­eral level over the past decade and a half, with Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ments at­tempt­ing to shut the site down and de­fund it, and Lib­er­als gen­er­ally sup­port­ing it.

Re­cently, both Toronto and Mon­treal have found them­selves at odds with their pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ments over refugees and border-crossers, with the cities declar­ing them­selves “sanc­tu­ary cities,” their po­lice re­quired not to re­port any­one to fed­eral im­mi­gra­tion au­thor­i­ties – putting them at odds with prov­inces that have tougher stances on asy­lum­seek­ers.

Be­hind all th­ese con­flicts is a larger prob­lem: To­day’s most sig­nif­i­cant gov­ern­ment chal­lenges – from im­mi­gra­tion to drug pol­icy to trans­porta­tion and poverty and even In­dige­nous af­fairs – are all mat­ters of na­tional or pro­vin­cial pol­icy, but those chal­lenges play out over­whelm­ingly on the mu­nic­i­pal level, de­spite a com­plete lack of mu­nic­i­pal po­lit­i­cal au­thor­ity over many of th­ese ar­eas. Im­mi­gra­tion, al­ways a mat­ter of na­tional pol­icy, takes place al­most en­tirely in Canada’s three largest metropoli­tan ar­eas, with the city ad­min­is­tra­tions both reap­ing the ben­e­fits and deal­ing with the chal­lenges of set­tling and in­te­grat­ing new­com­ers, with­out any di­rect con­trol over numbers or re­quire­ments. The great ma­jor­ity of Canada’s First Na­tions, Inuit and Métis peo­ple (about six in 10) live in ur­ban ar­eas, even though In­dige­nous af­fairs are strictly na­tional or band­coun­cil mat­ters.

Canada is far from alone in this. Con­flicts be­tween na­tional poli­cies and their mainly mu­nic­i­pal man­i­fes­ta­tion have come to a dra­matic head in the United States, where Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and his ad­min­is­tra­tion have at­tacked ma­jor cities – home to al­most all im­mi­grants in the United States – for ap­ply­ing sanc­tu­ary-city poli­cies that shield and some­times hide mi­grants from his in­creas­ingly harsh im­mi­gra­tion en­force­ment. Sim­i­lar con­fronta­tions be­tween na­tional im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies and the cities that must con­tend with those poli­cies have been felt in the Nether­lands, Bri­tain, Italy and else­where. Even ur­ban plan­ning can be af­fected: In Vi­enna, a dis­pute played out for years over the city’s lively Turk­ish dis­trict, which the city wanted to pro­mote as an at­trac­tion and the more con­ser­va­tive state gov­ern­ment wanted to dis­cour­age vis­i­tors from see­ing.

“There’s his­tor­i­cally been this per­cep­tion that mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ments are pol­icy tak­ers, not pol­icy-mak­ers,” says Ali­son Smith, a Univer­sity of Toronto po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist whose work fo­cuses on the in­ter­ac­tions be­tween mul­ti­ple lev­els of gov­ern­ment around such is­sues as home­less­ness.

“A lot of the pol­icy prob­lems be­ing faced to­day aren’t re­solv­able by one level of gov­ern­ment or even by many – when we’re look­ing at gov­er­nance to solve some of Canada’s big­gest prob­lems, such as im­mi­grant set­tle­ment, it re­quires the co-or­di­na­tion of a whole lot of ac­tors, in­clud­ing not just fed­eral and mu­nic­i­pal and pro­vin­cial, but non-profit and pri­vate-sec­tor and In­dige­nous. And we’re not there yet. We’re not good at that yet.”

The Ford-Toronto cri­sis, and the sim­i­lar ur­ban-pro­vin­cial showdowns that pre­ceded it, have led a lot of peo­ple to pro­pose a rad­i­cal change in the way big cities are ad­min­is­tered and rec­og­nized in Canada. One Toronto may­oral can­di­date, for­mer chief plan­ner Jennifer Keesmaat, has gone so far as to launch her cam­paign af­ter mak­ing a “se­ces­sion” pro­posal – that is, to turn the Greater Toronto Area into some sort of sep­a­rate prov­ince or quasi-inde- pen­dent ju­ris­dic­tion that re­ports to the fed­eral gov­ern­ment. It’s not an en­tirely new or rad­i­cal pro­posal, hav­ing been en­dorsed or pro­posed, in some form, by for­mer Toronto lead­ers Paul God­frey, Mel Last­man and David Miller. But it would prob­a­bly en­tail a con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment – one the prov­inces would never con­sider.

If Canada were to be cre­ated to­day from a blank slate, it’s likely that the three to five big­gest cities would have some spe­cial con­sti­tu­tional sta­tus. That would not be a unique ar­range­ment. In Ger­many, whose fed­eral struc­ture was cre­ated af­ter the Sec­ond World War, the cities of Ham­burg and Berlin have the sta­tus of states; so does Brus­sels in Bel­gium. This gives them a po­lit­i­cal and fis­cal in­de­pen­dence some­times en­vied by other cities. In China, the cities that have been most adept at re­sist­ing Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping’s in­creas­ingly au­thor­i­tar­ian poli­cies have been the hand­ful of big ones that are legally full-scale prov­inces.

Then again, be­ing directly be­holden to the fed­eral gov­ern­ment sounds good mainly to cities whose gov­ern­ments are ide­o­log­i­cally at odds with their prov­inces.

Canada’s cities, as pro­vin­cial cor­po­ra­tions with­out rec­og­nized demo­cratic rights, do ap­pear to have a lot less in­de­pen­dence and self-gov­ern­ing abil­ity than cities in other coun­tries. A num­ber of com­par­a­tive stud­ies over the past decade sug­gested that Canada’s cities are at the low end of the au­ton­omy scale – no­tably com­pared with the United States, where cities have far greater im­mu­nity from state in­ter­fer­ence (un­less they go bank­rupt, which hap­pens fairly of­ten).

“Canada is one of the lag­gards in terms of what cities are able to do,” says Dr. Smith, who co-au­thored a study that found a very low level of au­ton­omy in most Cana­dian cities (with Van­cou­ver hav­ing some­what more in­de­pen­dence than most, and Saska­toon hav­ing even less).

There have been moves to­ward more au­ton­omy – at least on pa­per, in the form of “char­ter city” move­ments, in which cities are granted new in­cor­po­ra­tion acts, or char­ters, by their prov­inces. Th­ese char­ters ex­pand the abil­ity to levy taxes, bor­row money (within strict lim­its) and self-gov­ern. In prac­tice, how­ever, sev­eral schol­ars have con­cluded that th­ese char­ters aren’t worth much – their re­stric­tions out­num­ber their lib­er­at­ing clauses, and in the end, as the Toronto show­down has demon­strated, a re­cal­ci­trant pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment can still wreak a lot of havoc on a city it dis­likes.

And a lot of in­formed ob­servers say that au­ton­omy, by it­self, won’t solve the prob­lems cities face.

“If we work from the premise that lo­cal au­ton­omy and self-de­ter­mi­na­tion is al­ways bet­ter, with­out any con­di­tions or bound­aries around it, then we end up look­ing a lot like the United States,” says Zack Tay­lor, a Univer­sity of Western On­tario pro­fes­sor who is di­rec­tor of the Cen­tre for Ur­ban Pol­icy and Lo­cal Gov­er­nance. “And that pro­duces a lot of in­equities that I think we’re pretty glad we don’t have.”

Amer­i­can cities, which prize au­ton­omy above all, are of­ten frag­mented into scores of sep­a­rate mu­nic­i­pal en­ti­ties, each with its own prop­erty-tax sys­tem, po­lice and school sys­tem, and in ex­treme cases such as Cleve­land and St. Louis, have no re­dis­tri­bu­tion be­tween the very poor mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties (which are of­ten black) and the wealthy ones (which are mainly white).

Canada’s prov­inces, like na­tional gov­ern­ments in places such as Bri­tain, have of­ten done cities favours by de­frag­ment­ing them into larger amal­ga­mated units, al­beit of­ten against their will. “It doesn’t have to be com­mand and con­trol at the ex­pense of lo­cal au­ton­omy,” Dr. Tay­lor says. “What prov­inces have done in their most en­light­ened mo­ments is to cre­ate rules within which lo­cal au­ton­omy takes place.”

The un­der­ly­ing para­dox is that the most ef­fec­tive mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ment, in many cases, is the lo­cal of­fice of the fed­eral or pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment – and that cities are of­ten able to func­tion most au­tonomously and ef­fec­tively when th­ese higher-level gov­ern­ments are well in­te­grated into their ur­ban ma­chines.

“Our most press­ing pol­icy prob­lems are found in cities,” Dr. Tay­lor says. “And prob­a­bly the so­lu­tions are found in cities as well. So the ques­tion is, should we mu­nic­i­pal­ize the prob­lem? And I would rather sug­gest that we should for­mu­late ur­ban gov­er­nance as mul­ti­level gov­er­nance – all lev­els of gov­ern­ment are gov­ern­ing cities, and the test is how well they work to­gether to do it, to lever­age the dif­fer­ent things that they’re good at.”

One of the many fun­da­men­tal flaws in Canada’s Con­sti­tu­tion is that it does not rec­og­nize, em­power or pro­tect cities. With­out that pro­tec­tion – and even prob­a­bly with it, as schol­ars such as Dr. Tay­lor and Dr. Smith point out – it comes down to po­lit­i­cal re­la­tion­ships. At the mo­ment, th­ese hang on a knife’s edge in the big­gest cities. But those cities, even if they may take a se­ri­ous beat­ing dur­ing four-year pe­ri­ods of po­lit­i­cal dishar­mony, ul­ti­mately pro­vide their pro­vin­cial and fed­eral gov­ern­ments with the lion’s share of tax rev­enues, eco­nomic growth and vot­ers. And if those higher gov­ern­ments fail to “mu­nic­i­pal­ize” their poli­cies ef­fec­tively, or in­stead starve the cities of re­sources, then they’ll even­tu­ally suf­fer an elec­toral ex­plo­sion on an 1813 scale.

To­day’s most sig­nif­i­cant gov­ern­ment chal­lenges – from im­mi­gra­tion to drug pol­icy to trans­porta­tion and poverty and even In­dige­nous af­fairs – are all mat­ters of na­tional or pro­vin­cial pol­icy, but those chal­lenges play out over­whelm­ingly on the mu­nic­i­pal level, de­spite a com­plete lack of mu­nic­i­pal po­lit­i­cal au­thor­ity over many of th­ese ar­eas.


Canada’s three big­gest cities – Toronto, Mon­treal and Van­cou­ver, the City Halls of which are seen above – face the coun­try’s most sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenges, from im­mi­gra­tion to drug pol­icy to In­dige­nous af­fairs, de­spite the lack of mu­nic­i­pal po­lit­i­cal au­thor­ity over many of th­ese ar­eas.


Peo­ple write mes­sages out­side Toronto City Hall in Au­gust in protest of On­tario Premier Doug Ford’s plan to cut the size of Toronto’s city coun­cil.

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