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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

LORINC: National politics vs. local land use planning

Why the federal government should keep its paws off the admittedly imperfect realm of land use planning


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The Liberal’s housing, infrastructure and communities minister Sean Fraser is by far the most entertaining politician on the national scene these days, what with his performatively insouciant policy videos, as well as an interesting confection of progressive cockiness and East Coast bonhomie. The guy’s all arms and legs and stubbled jaw line. While I’ve never met him, there’s no way Fraser doesn’t use that height to convey precisely enough alpha to cause his opponents to sniff the air warily.

Let’s also acknowledge this point: he’s a master thief. I can’t remember the last time I’ve watched a political figure in one party pick-pocket a rival as deftly as Fraser has done with the pre-tax-axing version of Pierre Poilievre.

Cast your mind back to when Pierre would frown-march up and down neighbourhoods like some right-wing version of Rick Mercer, threatening to steamroll over the municipal “gatekeepers” who were preventing the common folk from affording homes. Remember how he was going to ring-fence federal infrastructure fund until said gatekeepers yielded to his will?

Pierre’s all about his t-shirts and the carbon tax these days, while Fraser’s become the tough dude who’s been using the threat of withholding federal housing accelerator fund dollars to slap around local governments that refuse to up-zone neighbourhoods or streamline approvals.

Fraser’s message track will be further enhanced during the April federal budget, per this week’s announcement by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that the government would earmark $6 billion for those provinces prepared to play housing ball or attempt an end-run and deal directly with municipalities. No fourplexes and the like (listening Doug?), then no federal manna for investments such as water mains. (Trudeau also revealed big dollar pledges for an apartment construction loan program aimed at new rentals, including some affordable rentals, as well as a rental acquisition program to protect older existing apartments.)

Should it matter that a more or less explicitly coercive approach seems more palatable when emanating from a Liberal as compared to a Conservative? In theory, no, but obviously the reality is that Fraser has found a way to soft sell (to urban progressives) what amounts to an explicitly intrusive federal power move into a realm — land use planning and zoning — that the Canadian constitution has long delegated to local and provincial governments.

If I’m being honest, I must admit that I have mixed feelings about the whole effort, and not just because it originated with Poilievre’s incessant sloganeering. Federal incursions into clearly enumerated provincial jurisdictions should always be treated with caution. There is, of course, room for pragmatic accommodation, to be sure, but the separation of powers exists for a reason, and landmines await those political regimes that ignore this constitutional reality.

It’s important to acknowledge that sections 91 and 92 of the British North America Act contain enough 19th-century fuzziness that Ottawa, in the post-WWII era, has been able to assert itself in urban policy domains such as housing, child care, and infrastructure. There are a few examples where Ottawa has taken unilateral action, and an even smaller number of instances where the feds have negotiated individual deals with certain local governments, including the City of Toronto, during Paul Martin’s short tenure (2004-2006).

Mostly, and generally with success, the federal government’s approach has been to negotiate individual bi-lateral agreements with provincial governments that allows funding to flow from Ottawa into provincial coffers and then on to whatever program has been bruited, e.g., childcare or infrastructure. In the early 1990s, the Chretien government actually had a name for this strategy: “asymmetrical federalism,” which acknowledged that one size doesn’t fit all.

However, the exercise turned on Ottawa’s ability to strike a deal with its provincial counterparts. The fact that those deals had to be negotiated was key. Both sides had something to gain and something to lose. The deals often required a lot of tough sledding, but there was rarely a sword of Damocles, in the form of a threatened jurisdictional end-run by whomever held power in Ottawa, hanging over the process. As a consequence, both sides understood how to stay in their lanes while cooperating on specific policy files, even in adversarial circumstances (e.g., Jean Chretien vs Mike Harris, Stephen Harper vs Dalton McGuinty).

Things didn’t always work so smoothly. Pierre Trudeau’s attempt in the early 1970s to create a federal urban affairs ministry and pursue city-related projects by cutting out the provinces produced a sharp backlash in nationalist Quebec, and forced him to ice the strategy lest it further inflame separatist sentiment.

After the younger Trudeau’s announcement this week, the governments of Ontario and Quebec immediately started shouting about jurisdictional incursions. Others will surely follow.

Do constitutional niceties that date back to a time when municipalities ran jails and licensed saloons matter in 2024, especially in a housing-plus-climate crisis which creates a powerful case for more density?

I’d argue that the answer is yes, for two reasons: one, because jurisdictional feuding is a massive distraction from the issues that actually matter; and two, because today’s progressive-ish federal incursion can easily flip and become tomorrow’s retrograde federal incursion.

Sean Fraser succeeded in prettying up Pierre Poilievre’s manipulative and politically opportunistic housing strategy. The reality, however, is that there’s very little substantive difference between these two approaches, both of which run roughshod over the fragile architecture of Canadian federalism.

Ottawa, in the end, should stay out of land-use planning and progressive voters in heavily urbanized provinces, like Ontario and Quebec, need to make sure their governments are making the tough political choices that will enable affordable and sustainable housing in their cities.

photo by Andrew Lee (cc)


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