Alberta's big city mayors vow to hold Trudeau government to promises

The future of Canada and the solutions to many of the complex problems it faces will depend on the health and social cohesion of the nation’s cities.
Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson and Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi shared the stage at the University of Alberta on Wednesday evening for the 10th annual Hurtig lecture. (CBC)

The future of Canada and the solutions to many of the complex problems it faces will depend on the health and social cohesion of the nation's cities.

That was the message the mayors of Alberta's two largest cities brought to the stage at the University of Alberta on Wednesday evening for the 10th annual Hurtig Lecture.

Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson and Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi shared the stage and the spotlight, not to mention their hopes for the future under a new federal government.

With the election of a Liberal government, cities across the country hope for major funding commitments to build badly needed infrastructure.

During the election campaign, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau promised billions for transit and other major projects in urban centres.

Nenshi said he and Iveson will try to make sure those commitments are met.

"We are going to spend a lot of time making sure that they live up to those promises, particularly those on the most important investments any government can make right now. And that's investments on public transit."

The two mayors spoke with common purpose, but had different view on the most urgent needs their cities face.

For Nenshi, that issue is public transit.

For Iveson, it's social housing.

A lack of affordable housing, Iveson told the large and enthusiastic crowd, drives up the costs for policing and the justice system, and for the health care system.

As one example, he said: "If you care about the plight of Syrian refugees, and you want them to come here, like I think most of us do, where are they going to live?

"The clientele for social housing in this country is immigrants and refugees, and it's First Nations, Metis and people. So if you care about the Syrian refugees, you care about social housing. If you care about reconciliation, you care about social housing."

Nenshi noted that more than 80 per cent of Canadians live in cities. He said his top priority is public transit.

'City issues are Canadian issues'

"City issues are Canadian issues," he said. "If we don't get it right now, if we don't build our LRT systems out, for example, now, then it'll be much too late and much too expensive to do it later."

Nenshi said in his travels across the country, he has come to understand a common truth about Canada.

"We're all in this together," he said. "Our neighbour's strength is our strength, our neighbour's success is our success, and most important, our neighbour's failure is our failure. The failure of any one of us, is the failure of every one of us."

Iveson said cities can play an important role in moving public opinion on issues such as climate change, which is a global problem with solutions that will be found, all over the world, mainly at the local level.

He said people trust the local governments because they are easier to relate to.

"I think it's because local governments have the social licence, they have the trust of the people," he said, then he made a joke at his own expense. "Not all the time. Not every bridge goes up perfect, not every LRT line turns on on time. Nobody's perfect."

He cited recent research that shows people trust local governments the most and the federal government the least. The same research also found that people surveyed think the federal government gets about half of every tax dollar, while the provincial and municipal governments get one-quarter each.

"This is what blows my mind," Iveson said. "Because … we have eight cents of your dollar. Sometimes six. Fifteen if you count all the transfers and all of the different way in which other orders of governments fund back to municipalities."

Canadians overestimate by a factor of three or four how much money cities have to work with, yet they still think local government is the most responsible with that money, Iveson said.

"So give us the other 20 cents, and then see what we can do."


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