Montreal mayor Gerald Tremblay and Toronto mayor David Miller held a press conference at Montreal City Hall this morning to repeat their demands for greater federal support in the managing of Montreal, Toronto, and cities across Canada. In a federal election campaign with no dominant issue, the mayors hope to draw attention to the national parties’ lack of engagement with issues facing Canadian cities. Unlike past demands from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) that have focused on specific proposals, such as devoting a portion of GST revenues to cities, Tremblay and Miller stressed that what is needed now is a willingness to engage in a real partnership rather than just more piecemeal action. In fact, the rhetoric of both mayors painted the lack of funding for cities as an urgent, non-partisan issue of national importance. The municipal model, they say, is broken.
The complaints are familiar but relevant. Cities have been burdened with the task of providing more and more services and maintaining aging infrastructure, solely on the back of property taxes. What is needed, the mayors say, is revenue that grows with cities. Interestingly, in addition to the usual calls for infrastructure and transit funding, the mayors emphasized the economic importance of cities to Canada and the need to invest locally in order to compete globally with cities in China, the EU, and the US. Tremblay seemed fond of reciting the statistic that every dollar invested in infrastructure contributes 17 cents to productivity in the city. Miller said that Toronto loses $2 billion a year due to the lack of a national transportation strategy.
While Miller also mentioned the importance that the greening of cities plays in attracting top talent around the world, environmental concerns played second fiddle to the recurring theme that Canada needs to invest in its cities to compete economically. Perhaps Tremblay and Miller are already anticipating a Conservative government and hoping that their pragmatic approach will make cooperation with the Conservatives easier. Or perhaps they feel that painting the issue as one of economics and “help grow the pie for everyone” is the best way to avoid the sticky constitutional questions that come up every time a re-imagining of federal, provincial, and municipal relations is proposed.
Tremblay stressed that they do not want to re-open Constitutional debate. When asked how this would be possible, he replied that no one asked if the Constitution should be re-written when the federal and provincial governments off-loaded many of their responsibilities to cities. He is correct in the sense that there is no need to rewrite the Constitution to provide cities with more funding- all it takes is political will from governments in power. But with a Conservative government known for playing to its rural base, the mayors are likely right that funding for cities will only come when Canadians demand it. Tremblay and Miller tried to overcome the urban/rural divide by including Jean Perrault, the head of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities at the press conference, who spoke about the broad coalition of municipalities across the country, big and small, North and South, that faced similar infrastructure and revenue problems.
Red Deer and Montreal, unite?