OTTAWA—The mayors of Canada’s big cities have launched an election-year appeal for a new relationship with the federal government in the face of rising tensions between Ottawa and some provinces, a reality that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau admits has created “challenges.”
The big city mayors’ caucus of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities met with Trudeau and three key cabinet ministers Monday in Ottawa to lay out requests for the coming federal budget.
On the list was a call for an enhanced relationship meant, in part, as an insurance policy against municipal needs getting lost in provincial-federal tensions, something that Trudeau suggested may already be happening.
“We all serve the same citizens. We need to be doing it in a smart, strategic way,” he said.
“I think we all know how the political context is changing right now. We’re having sometimes certain challenges with the provinces in various ways,” Trudeau said at the start of the meeting.
Trudeau’s Liberals are odds with several provinces, including Ontario, notably on the issue of its climate change strategy. Municipal leaders fear those tensions could impair progress on initiatives, such as refugee settlement, that require discussions among all three levels of government.
“We need to be also thinking about scenarios where provinces are not co-operating. Unfortunately we’re seeing more of that than we’d like,” said Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson, chair of the mayors’ caucus.
That’s why the mayors want the next federal budget — the Liberals’ last before the October election — to announce a “clear federal intention and timeline” to create an intergovernmental forum for federal-municipal discussions that would also be open to provincial and territorial leaders.
The mayors say the forum would recognize that the issues facing cities, such as refugees, opioid addictions, are increasingly complex.
“When it comes to almost everyone of these issues, transit, community safety, housing, the people who deliver the actual product … are cities. They’re just not at these tables where these kind of decisions are being discussed,” said Toronto Mayor John Tory, who was at the meeting.
The appeal for a new relationship stirs memories of former prime minister Paul Martin’s “new deal for cities,” which sought to give cities better funding and a better relationship with Ottawa.
Yet federal politicians have generally been reluctant to formalize relations with municipalities, which under the Constitution are the direct responsibility of the provinces, a concern the mayors are trying to put to rest.
“This does not require a constitutional amendment,” Iveson said. “This is just common sense and it requires political will,” .
But the mayors’ proposal for a new forum got a decidedly cool reception in the private meetings with ministers and later in public.
“I think we have to be respectful of the provinces and the reality that provinces do work directly with municipalities,” Finance Minister Bill Morneau told reporters after his meeting with municipal leaders.
And Dominic Leblanc, the minister of intergovernmental affairs, refused to speak to reporters at all about the municipal requests.
The mayors might have better luck with their other budget demands. Those include a request to make permanent federal funding for public transit, beyond the existing 10-year, $3.4-billion commitment that began in 2016. The promise of funding would facilitate planning for these long-term projects, the mayors say. In the meeting with Trudeau, Tory said he cited the example of plans for a new relief subway line — on accelerated time line, it would be finished in 2029, two years after the current federal funding expires.
Also on the wish list is $2 billion more to help municipalities adapt to climate change.
Trudeau struck a more hopeful note on the topic of infrastructure spending.
“From our particular perspective, investing in infrastructure in our big cities is one of the best ways to create jobs in the short term but also meaningful growth and support for our citizens in the long-term,” he said.
Tory used the session with Trudeau to add another priority to the list — federal funding to build new housing across the country to support people with mental illness and addictions.
The failure to provide adequate support now is taking a heavy social and financial toll, Tory said, estimating that it costs each Toronto resident $50 a year.
“That is for the cost of emergency services, policing, homeless shelters that are trying to cope with people,” he said.
“That’s just the monetary side. The other side of it is that these people who are suffering from these illnesses are not getting proper care,” Tory told the Star in an interview.
A city-led survey of some 2,000 people who have been homeless found that 32 per cent reported a mental health issue and 27 said they had an addiction issue.
Last year, Toronto city council asked the federal and provincial governments to fund up to 1,800 new units of supportive housing a year for 10 years. “We have to be looking at that kind of ambition on this,” Tory said.
Bruce Campion-Smith is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @yowflier