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OPINION | How Alberta's cities can — and must — fight back

Jason Kenney is right when he says that Canada is broken but he’s largely wrong about who’s breaking it and where.

To rework Jason Kenney’s phrase, there cannot be a strong Alberta without a strong Edmonton and Calgary

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney speaks to the Canadian Club of Ottawa, during the ‘Team Alberta’ trip in December 2019. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

This column is an opinion from Tim Querengesser, a writer based in Edmonton.

A popular sentiment in Alberta is that Canada is broken.

Premier Jason Kenney believes it. He explained why in December, during the 'Team Alberta' trip to Ottawa, where Kenney and more than a dozen cabinet ministers descended on the nation's capital to push for reform.

Kenney reasoned Alberta sends more income taxes and revenues to Canada than it receives, and that Ottawa meddles in its affairs — and that this holds the province, and therefore all of Canada, back. 

"There cannot be a strong Canada without a strong Alberta," he said.

Kenney is right when he says Canada is broken but he's largely wrong about who's breaking it and where. Because when it comes to Alberta's economy, it's arguable that it's Kenney and the UCP who are breaking things. And they're doing it in Calgary and Edmonton.

First came the UCP cancellation of hard-fought, long negotiated city charters between the province and each of the cities. Next came a UCP threat that Alberta could bail on billions in transit funding commitments in these two cities with just 90 days notice. After that came a UCP proposal that it might force the two cities to ask Alberta for permission to make new funding deals with Ottawa.

But the true snake in the grass is now visible. Last week, Municipal Affairs Minister Kaycee Madu announced a mere four weeks of consultation will now inform potential government changes to the Local Authorities Elections Act, which dictates how campaigns are run and paid for, the power of political action committees, and the transparency offered to the voting public. 

Many have expressed concern that this could be a Trojan horse designed to deliver partisan politics into municipal councils.

When Municipal Affairs Minister Kaycee Madu announced changes are planned for the Local Authorities Elections Act, many expressed concern about partisan politics entering municipal elections. (Peter Evans/CBC)

I think these concerns are justified. Indeed, in a previous column, I argued these potential changes should be vigorously fought by Edmonton and Calgary in order to protect their economies. 

To rework Kenney's phrase, there cannot be a strong Alberta without a strong Edmonton and Calgary. 

But how can these two cities fight back? 

Cities are often viewed as powerless, and it is true that Calgary and Edmonton lack formal power, but they have plenty of the people version.

They can fight by building — literally, by building better cities. Perhaps more to the point, though, they can fight figuratively, by building city-based identities that are more welcoming to more of us than the exclusive, regressive, grievance-laden UCP 'Albertan' identity that's being forced down our throats.

This is a battle over who we think we are. To fight, Edmonton and Calgary need to give their residents reasons to see themselves, many for the first time, as city people.

Why Canadian cities must fight

Cities are 'creatures' of their provinces thanks to our constitution.

This shouldn't surprise us. The document was written in 1867, when the largest city, Montreal, had roughly 100,000 residents, when Alberta did not exist, and when Edmonton and Calgary were decades away from appearing as cities on a map. 

The trouble for Canada, and Alberta in particular, is that this powerlessness is at odds with reality. Cities are where the majority of Canadians and Albertans live, most especially the big ones. 

If Toronto were a province, it would be Canada’s fifth-largest economy and populace. Instead, it's controlled at its roots by the province of Ontario, led by Premier Doug Ford. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Consider Toronto: Were it a province, Toronto would be Canada's fifth-largest economy and populace. Instead, Toronto is controlled at its roots by the province of Ontario, led by Premier Doug Ford. And like Kenney here in Alberta, Ford has wasted little time meddling with a massive political unit that could cause him headaches. 

In 2018, Ford unilaterally slashed the number of council seats in Toronto, a metropolitan region of nearly six million people, from 47 to 25. The cuts were ostensibly to save money and cut red tape (cough, cough), but have resulted in few actual savings. 

Meanwhile, beyond the ostensible fixes Ford imposed, Toronto's investment in transit infrastructure, to use but one example, remains highly dependent on taxing its property owners. 

Toronto is also dependent on the favour of the Ontario government to give it money. This should sound vaguely familiar for Alberta. 

This has pushed Toronto's basic infrastructure to the edge. Given that the city's future is one of intense population growth, the status quo promises paralysis.

"Toronto in 20 years, with a million more people and very little new transit, is going to be a giant mess," wrote author Alex Bozikovic on Twitter, recently. 

According to provincial government estimates, by 2046, nearly eight in 10 of the projected 6.6-million people expected to live in Alberta are expected to live within the Edmonton to Calgary corridor.

So, without doing a lot — a lot — of building, immediately, a giant mess is headed here as well. 

How Calgary and Edmonton can fight

"If Doug Ford tomorrow wanted to rename Toronto 'Ford Town' and make his nephew Mikey Ford mayor, he could do that, legally speaking, because there's no legal standing for the City of Toronto to point toward and say, 'No, we have rights,'" says David Del Grande, who's part of a group in Toronto that's demanding a city charter

What Del Grande and others in the group propose is a deal that prevents Ontario's meddling and instead builds collaboration.   

It's this exact collaboration that Kenney and the UCP have stripped from their relationship with Edmonton and Calgary, by axing their city charters.

To fight a bully province, Calgary (pictured) and Edmonton must build city identities that offer more than the parochial anger that’s being stoked outside of it. (Leslie Kramer/CBC)

Charters are precisely what's needed to prepare these cities to service close to 80 per cent of the province's population. They offer a fundamental change in governance and funding, from new ways to raise revenue (payroll, congestion and even sales taxes are all employed in other international cities) to new rights and autonomy.  

Given this fact, should new charters be where Calgary and Edmonton concentrate their effort?

Not yet.

What's needed first is a strong, city-based identity. 

To fight a bully province, Calgary and Edmonton must build city identities that offer more than the parochial anger that's being stoked outside their city limits. 

First, both cities need to explain the raw deal they face is one forced upon their residents by the province. They must spell out that the policies that force them to rely on property taxes cost everyone more money and damage the economy.

There is gold in this simple explanation. Studies show Canadian cities are far more dependent on property taxes to build basic stuff than other western cities. They also show Canada's cities are woefully behind that pack when it comes to building infrastructure. 

"In cities across Canada, the status quo on property taxation has also meant cities stubbornly retain a long-term habit of taxing business property values at rates twice, three times or even four times as high as residential properties," notes the Canadian Global Cities Council, in a recent report

Kenney and the UCP can (and likely plan to) thrive within this sort of paradox, though.

A city that's struggling to keep up with growth and basic infrastructure demands will, inevitably, raise property taxes or sink to the bottom of the sea. Cue outrage. 

We're already hearing calls that property taxes are too high and so we must take back city hall. What Calgary and Edmonton must do is make it clear that the only reason these property taxes are so high is Alberta. 

Deliver, or expect to be bullied

Beyond this, the two cities must deliver. 

It's here where Kenney and those in the UCP orbit have their strongest point.

Edmonton in particular has a lousy track record managing large projects. It has struggled, too often, to deliver on promises and responsibilities, particularly with light rail. This needs to change — now — or Edmonton should expect to be bullied. 

Edmonton has a lousy track record on project management. This needs to change — now — or Edmonton should expect to be bullied. (Codie McLachlan/CBC)

The two cities must also spell out their plans to offer more.

The way these cities use land, in particular, should be a battleground. This has started to happen in Edmonton, with the ongoing revisions to the city's master plan. Rather than a recipe for inertia and submission, the plan offers big ideas that can work, more or less, with or without the provincial government. 

The plan forecasts Edmonton's population to double, but proposes it happen within the current city footprint. That means a more efficient city that gets more out of every costly investment, be it roads, the transit system, sewers, fire halls, or parks.

Lastly, Alberta's two big cities must organize the municipalities surrounding them and create functional regions. These mega-regions need to collaborate rather than remain Balkanized

Their unacceptably slow action on this front could be Calgary's and Edmonton's undoing.

Premier Kenney has stoked outrage in Alberta over fiscal fairness, external meddling, and dampened economic success. His target has been Ottawa. 

Edmonton and Calgary must flip this script and make the same case, but for cities.

The province is attempting to break our two most important cities. Both Calgary and Edmonton need to fight back.


This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of the story said Municipal Affairs Minister Kaycee Madu had announced four weeks of consultation would inform government changes to the Local Authorities Elections Act. In fact, Madu said four weeks of consultation would inform potential changes. As well, an earlier version said many, including the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association, had expressed deep concern that this could be a Trojan horse designed to deliver partisan politics into municipal councils. In fact, while members of the AUMA have expressed deep concerns, the association itself has not.
    Feb 10, 2020 1:59 PM MT

About the Author

Tim Querengesser is a writer in Edmonton. His writing on cities has appeared in publications such as CityLab, Canadian Geographic, Spacing and the Globe and Mail.

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