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Canada’s big city mayors confident of clout in federal election

Parties that hope to form the next government face a united front of big cities that insist on stable funding for transit and housing.
Feb. 5, 2015
By David Rider

The party that promises the most help for cities on transit, housing and jobs will soon form the next government of Canada, predict the confident-sounding mayors of Toronto, Calgary and other municipalities.

Toronto’s John Tory told reporters Thursday at a one-day big-city mayors’ gathering downtown that cities are job-creation “powerhouses” and the days of “episodic” help from senior governments are numbered.

“We need jobs in this country and if we’re going to get those jobs then we’re going to need the transit and the infrastructure and the housing to make sure people can live in livable, human, affordable cities,” Tory said. “We need partners in the other governments to make that happen.”

For years, such Federation of Canadian Municipalities gatherings have included demands for billions of federal dollars to build transit and roads, fund social housing and repair crumbling sewers and other infrastructure. Often to little visible effect.

Calgary’s Naheed Nenshi, however, pointed out that Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper got his coveted majority in 2011 with help from seats in Vancouver, Ottawa and the GTA.

“Any party that wants to win this next election needs to stop thinking about regional strategies and needs to start thinking about urban strategies,” he said, adding “you couldn’t pass a piece of paper” between the positions of the 18 mayors gathered this week in Toronto.

“The people in downtown Calgary are just the same as people in downtown anywhere. The people in my suburban neighbourhood in Calgary are very similar to the people in Mississauga, in Brampton, in Surrey. So whoever figures out how to fund transit, whoever figures out how to fund housing and how to fix the housing problem we have in this system, I guess that person gets to be prime minister.”

The mayors expect the parties to jockey for their support, and that of all city dwellers, but are not expecting to endorse a particular party.

They want at least status quo for federal housing funding - agreements will soon expire - and more money to flow from the Harper government’s 2013 pledge for $70 billion in infrastructure funding over 10 years.

A top priority, they agreed, is funding sources for transit and transportation. Some have suggested a slice of income tax as a possibility.

“No one is saying, ‘Hey, federal government, write a cheque for this, hundreds of billions of dollars in unfunded infrastructure,’ ” said Nenshi. “What we are saying is let’s talk about creating predictable, stable forms of income.”

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, chair of the gathering, said he was heartened by enthusiasm from the mayors, who included three rookies from the GTA: Tory, Mississauga’s Bonnie Crombie and Brampton’s Linda Jeffrey.

Crombie, a former Liberal MP, told her colleagues that the two main opposition parties hold most urban seats and will likely offer cities agendas but “it’s incumbent on us to reach out to the government to ensure that our priorities are their priorities.”

Nenshi, recently given the 2014 World Mayor Prize by an international urban research group, had generous words for Tory, who was elected last fall.

“What’s that line from Batman?” Nenshi said. “The mayor you need and the mayor you deserve? I’m very optimistic about John’s initial work,” adding Toronto councillors have told him “they feel like they’re really getting back to work on the issues that are important for the city.”

After the meeting, the mayors called for the federal parties to commit to working with them on cutting commute times, with “hard targets”; “sustainable” infrastructure investment; and “a long-term plan to make housing affordable for all Canadians.”