Although the profile of many big city mayors may seems to be on rise on the national political stage, municipal officials are still very much beholden to their provincial or federal counterparts who control the purse strings, observers say. 

Their biggest asset for wringing concessions may very well be that they speak for the millions of people living within a major urban centre. Mayors only have one vote on city council, but they represent a whole city, areas that can encompass numerous federal and provincial ridings. 

"The mayor can make an issue of something," said Robert MacDermid, who teaches political science at York University in Toronto​.

"The premier or prime minister might well say, 'Well, if I don’t react to this, it could well be that I’ll lose some seats in the city of Toronto, because voters will side with the mayor on this."

Nineteen mayors — including Toronto's John Tory, Vancouver's Gregor Robertson and Calgary's Naheed Nenshi —attended the Federation of Canadian Municipalities conference in Toronto yesterday, where they said they hoped to use the upcoming federal election to secure commitments to transit and housing funding. 

One of the recurring themes at recent conferences has been what the mayors say is a lack of consistent funding from Ottawa.

"They don’t have any control over transfers from the province or the federal government," said MacDermid. ​Money that is necessary because property taxes are insufficient to pay for the many services municipalities provide, including expensive infrastructure projects like highways, public transportation and affordable housing. 

"The biggest chunk of municipal revenue comes from the property tax, and that has always been something that has limited municipal politics in a huge way," he said. 

Co-operation and competition

The mayors of big cities have increasingly taken up a larger profile in national politics because the vast majority of Canadians, not surprisingly, live in urban areas, according to Robert Williams, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Waterloo.

"These are the places that matter, this is the bulk of the population of virtually every province," he said. 

Naheed Nenshi big city mayors Toronto Feb 5 2015 meeting

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi waits to speak to the media as he attends the Big Cities summit in Toronto. The mayors said they want to take advantage of the impending federal election by pressuring parties to include robust urban agendas. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

A number of media savvy mayors have also been successful at explaining municipal issues within the context of the larger Canadian economy, he said. 

"They’re framing it not just around ‘I need to fix the potholes in my street,’ that's all it's about," he said. "It’s about transportation and that's good for economic development and maintaining viable communities."

Municipalities have acknowledged the importance of working together to present a united front on certain issues during conferences like the one in Toronto yesterday, MacDermid said. 

"I think cities all around the world have realized that urban areas have something in common and that they can share and learn together," he said. 

On the other hand, municipalities are also in direct competition with each other on a number of economic issues, including trying to attract businesses to their own city and asking for provincial or federal money to help pay for infrastructure projects. 

"They’re competing for a finite pot of money," he said. 

Federal election

According to Nelson Wiseman, a professor and director of the Canadian studies program at the University of Toronto, the political clout of mayors has changed very little, although federal and provincial politicians are more sensitive to the needs of cities because more people live in them. 

"The constitutional powers haven’t changed," he said. "They are still creatures of the provinces so the province can do what it wants with them."

The mayors of Canada's biggest cities said Thursday they wanted to take advantage of the impending federal election by pressuring parties to include robust urban agendas. 

They pointed out that the 19 mayors at the meeting represent 142 of the 308 seats in the House of Commons. Many of those urban ridings will be key battlegrounds for all three major political parties. 

Williams said municipal leaders are more likely to be aggressive in their demands during an election year but that securing funding commitments from federal and provincial politicians is largely tied to the general state of the economy. In lean times there is simply less money for transit projects, for example. 

"The fixation with a balanced budget means these cries are not likely to be met with an opening up of the bank fold," he said. 

With files from The Canadian Press