Why Canada's big cities need to muscle up: Susan Ormiston

Canada is one of the most urban countries in the world, yet our cities have a weak mayor system that impedes long-term planning and funding for big projects like transportation and housing, the CBC's Susan Ormiston says.

Municipal leaders wield less power than you think

Big Cities, Small Mayors

8 years ago
Duration 7:48
Mayors across Canada are facing the same dilemma: not enough authority to deal with growing municipalities with growing needs.

Toronto votes today to turn the page on a long, messy period in municipal politics.

Rob Ford, who is trying to kick drug and alcohol addictions and fight cancer, is not running again for mayor, but his brother Doug is.

The dysfunction at Toronto City Hall has illuminated systemic problems many observers have seen in municipal politics.

Structurally no matter who wins, a weak mayor system means mayors have influence but not real power. 

"What power?" Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi jokes.

"I’m the mayor of a city that has more people in it than five provinces. but I have exactly the same power and ability as the mayor of a hamlet of 200 people."

He says to fund megaprojects like transit or affordable housing, "we are forever going to the other orders of government cap in hand asking for money." 

Richard Florida, head of the Martin Prosperity Institute at University of Toronto, says big cities are handcuffed, preventing them from growing into megacities or global economic powerhouses like New York or London. 

"With a weak mayor system, we can’t make good decisions quickly. The other thing people will say is: 'Would you want a strong mayor system during the Ford days?' Well of course, no. "

Higher-calibre candidates

Florida thinks a strong mayor system would attract a higher calibre of candidate, like London's Boris Johnson, or Chicago's Rahm Emanuel. Both can set budgets and appoint people to powerful city boards.

In contrast, the mayor in Toronto or Calgary has one vote, matching the vote of every other councillor. 

Allan Broadbent urges big cities like Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal to advocate for powers akin to provinces. (CBC)

Allan Broadbent, a philanthropist, writer and founder of the Maytree Foundation, urges big cities like Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal to advocate for powers akin to provinces.

He says Toronto's public housing authority already serves more people than in the entire province of Prince Edward Island, but without a premier's staff or budget.

"I think the large urban regions should have much more control over their destinies," he says. 

But changing powers for cities would require a constitutional amendment.

There are growing calls by municipal politicians and urban thinkers for a redistribution of powers.

City states need funding and freedom to solve the big city problems that land on their doorsteps. The notion of Canada as a rural country is outdated and counterproductive, according to Florida. Eight out of 10 Canadians now live in cities.

“This century is going to be a century of knowledge, creativity innovation and cities," says Florida.

"We’re going to spend hundreds of trillions of dollars building cities and its important we get it right. What better place to start than in an advanced affluent country like Canada?"


Susan Ormiston

Senior correspondent

Susan Ormiston's career spans more than 25 years reporting from hot spots such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Haiti, Lebanon and South Africa.