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Canada’s new government must
show it cares about urban issues
Originally published by The Toronto Star
2 February 2006: For most advocates for Canada's big cities, the 2006 general election failed to turn out as they had hoped. That is because the victorious Conservatives under leader Stephen Harper are rightly regarded as being the least sympathetic of the three national parties to the needs of large urban areas. And for Harper and the Conservatives, the fact that voters in Canada’s three biggest cities - Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver - rejected every Tory candidate who dared to run within their boundaries, is a clear sign that the incoming government has much work to do in order to convince urban dwellers that it truly does care about their unique issues.
The electoral outcome, which produced a stark rural-urban split for the Conservatives, leaves in doubt the hopes for a "new deal for cities" that was championed by big-city mayors, the Liberals and the New Democratic Party. That is why mayors from Halifax to Victoria are already urging Harper not to ignore the demands from big municipalities - the same ones that failed to deliver any support on election day.
Such neglect would be profoundly counterproductive. It is in no one's interest to turn big cities into yet another Canadian "solitude."
Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver are engines of economic growth. They shelter most of this country's immigrants, are centres of research and innovation and serve as key gateways to Canada. They also face stiff challenges, including having to deal with massive public transit systems, high levels of homelessness and severe demands on their infrastructure.
But if Canada's big cities are to thrive, they need understanding and support from Harper. Conversely, if Harper entertains serious hope of ever forming a majority government, he needs the support of big-city voters.
That mutual dependence opens a route to real progress on a "new deal."
Although Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal have distinctive needs, their mayors are united in seeking a share of income tax or sales-related taxes. Such revenue sources have the advantage of growing in step with the economy. Toronto, in particular, faces a CAN$532 million shortfall this year. Harper has already committed to dropping the goods and services tax to 5 per cent from 7 per cent. Possibly one of those two percentage points could be designated specifically for cities.
Harper also promised during the campaign to abide by the Liberal government's agreement to share gasoline taxes with municipalities. But he has not followed through with commitments to fund public transit systems. Instead, Harper's priority appears to be highway and road construction. While building and maintaining roads is obviously a good idea, money is also desperately needed to maintain and extend transit systems that are fundamental to the efficient running of big cities.
In addition, a Conservative government would do well to approve more funding for affordable housing, especially a planned new community at Regent Park in downtown Toronto, which needs federal money for the next stage of a massive redevelopment. And Harper could earn the gratitude of Canada's largest city by eliminating the controversy-plagued Toronto Port Authority and turning its functions over to the municipality.
Because there will be no cabinet minister from Canada's three largest cities, as well as other large urban centres such as Halifax, Hamilton and Victoria, more indirect routes must be sought to influence Tory policy.
To that end, big-city mayors are wisely working together in a common front. They will need help. For instance, Toronto is well-served by a business class, led by the Toronto Board of Trade, that fully appreciates the importance of a new deal for big cities. And former city councillor Jack Layton, now head of the New Democratic Party, with 29 federal seats, could prove a useful ally. So too could John Tory, leader of the Conservatives at Queen's Park and a former candidate for Toronto mayor.
There is much to gain for Harper and cities through a progressive urban agenda. Canada's new government would be wise to heed that fact.