British Columbia

People in Metro Vancouver are voting for 21 mayors. Would it be better if it were just 1?

It may seem strange to an outsider, but there are historic and political reasons for the piecemeal approach — and experts say it is unlikely to change anytime soon.

Don't expect to see municipal amalgamation happen anytime soon, experts say

A tall building with the Canada flag flying atop it, with the words 'Helena Gutteridge Plaza' visible in the foreground.
Vancouver City Hall is home to just one of 21 different local governments that make up Metro Vancouver. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

If you live in almost any other major metropolitan area in the world — Paris, New York, Toronto — local elections mean voting for one mayor.

And yet, in Metro Vancouver and Greater Victoria, residents are divided into multiple governments with multiple mayors.

In Metro Vancouver alone, there are 21 municipalities. On the other side of the Salish Sea, in the capital region, there are 13 municipalities. 

It may seem strange to an outsider, but there are historic and political reasons for the piecemeal approach — and experts say that is unlikely to change anytime soon.

"It's difficult to get councillors to vote, to put themselves out of a job," said Mario Canseco, president of polling firm Research Co.

An archival map showing Metro Vancouver in 1892. It is sepia-toned. The only municipalities at the time were North Vancouver, Vancouver, South Vancouver, Burnaby, New Westminster, Coquitlam, Richmond, Delta, Surrey, Langley and Maple Ridge.
A map of Metro Vancouver's political boundaries as they existed in 1892. The only municipalities at the time were North Vancouver, Vancouver, South Vancouver, Burnaby, New Westminster, Coquitlam, Richmond, Delta, Surrey, Langley and Maple Ridge. (Vancouver Archives)

In August, he issued a poll showing the majority of potential voters in Surrey and Vancouver supported the idea of reducing the number of municipalities in Metro Vancouver (800 likely voters were surveyed, with a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points). 

Canseco says despite interest from voters, it's up to elected politicians to get the ball rolling, and it's not high on their radar right now.

The urge to merge

There are, however, arguments for reducing the number of cooks in the political kitchen. 

"There's multiplication and duplication of services all over the place," said John Treleaven, chair of the Grumpy Taxpayers of Greater Victoria, who lives in Sidney, about 27 kilometres north of the capital. 

Treleaven cited streamlining police and fire services, along with regional responses to climate change and disasters, as reasons for amalgamation.

The back of a Victoria Police car.
The capital region is policed by four municipal police departments — Saanich, Central Saanich, Oak Bay and Victoria — and multiple RCMP detachments. (Ken Mizokoshi/CBC)

For a population of about 400,000 residents, the capital region has four independent local police forces, plus three separate RCMP detachments.

Treleaven argued having a centralized command centre for police and fire services would be safer and more efficient, using the looming threat of a massive earthquake as an example for where multiple first response commanders could be organizational chaos.

"Public safety is at risk given the current governance structure here."

Province has the power

This spring, the City of Victoria and the District of Saanich issued a joint statement saying the amalgamation would be one of the options considered in a citizens assembly that will start next year, with the provincial government having kicked in money for the assembly.

However, no equivalent negotiations or discussions are currently taking place in Metro Vancouver. 

Stewart Prest, political scientist at Quest University, says when it comes to merging municipalities, the provincial government is the "ultimate decider," but it is unlikely to do it without local leaders on board, or a clear reason to do so.

"The province doesn't want to be seen to be overriding democracy," said the political scientist. "They're not going to really stick their necks out to invite that kind of controversy."

 

Prest says there can be benefits to having multiple municipalities in one region — primarily that it makes it easier for residents to contact their local council and allows governments to implement solutions that fit the particular needs of their communities.

In Toronto, where significant amalgamation happened in the late 1990s, Prest says debates still rage about how best to distribute resources between the suburbs and the downtown core.

District of North Vancouver Councillor Jordan Back, who is running for re-election, says the subject of amalgamation comes up during every local election. On the North Shore alone, there are three municipalities: West Vancouver, City of North Vancouver and the district.

Rows of cars and bikes cross a bridge leading into the mountains.
The Iron Workers Memorial Bridge links Vancouver to the North Shore. Local government's in the region worked together to ensure their North Shore is prioritized for future rapid transit. (Christer Waara/CBC)

Back says while he's open to studying amalgamation, he argues collaboration, instead, has served that region well.

"I think practically, it's more realistic for us to be able to do more of that," said Back.

When it comes to fire services in the region, for example, Back says the three departments hire and train together, and have similar systems and equipment.

They also teamed up with Bowen Island and Lions Bay, along with the Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations to lobby for prioritized rapid transit to the traffic-snarled North Shore.

This united approach, says Back, can also be used to tackle issues that impact residents across the region — like taking action on housing affordability and climate change.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bridgette Watson writes and produces for news and current affairs at CBC British Columbia. You can reach her at Bridgette.Watson@cbc.ca or @Beewatz on Twitter.

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