22 June 2012

City charters—progress for Calgary and Edmonton?

The municipal level of government is the orphan of our political system. Cities are, under the Constitution, creatures of the provinces. In 1867, making municipalities wards of the provinces may have made sense; most people lived on farms or in small towns serving the farms. Eighty per cent of Canadians were rural. Today, eighty per cent are urban. Canada is part of the greatest human migration in history, a worldwide march from the country to the town. Over half the population of Alberta now lives in two cities: Calgary and Edmonton.

In an attempt to modernize their relationship, the two cities signed an agreement this week with the provincial government that will lead to city charters. Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel says talks will first define "who does what"—and then figure out where the money will come from to pay for it. Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths said he hopes a draft form for the new arrangements will be ready by spring 2013.

Charters are not new for Canadian cities. Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver, among others, have them. Although charters offer a certain independence, they don't change the fact that cities are still constitutionally subservient to provinces. Provincial governments have the right to bestow authority on cities, and the right to take it away. A charter granted to Halifax in 1841 was extinguished on April 1st, 1999—April Fool's Day—by the provincial government of the day.

So charters may enhance Calgary and Edmonton's abilities to govern themselves, but they will remain the province's subordinates nonetheless, Minister Griffiths' sanguine comment that, “There is no city versus province .... We all serve the same taxpayers," notwithstanding.

The ideal would be to have the municipal level of government, which is now in many ways more important than the provincial level, brought into the Constitution as, in fact, Lord Durham recommended in his famous report of 1838. But considering that would take the approval of seven provinces, the chances are slim indeed. The patriation of the Constitution in 1982 offered an opportunity, but neither Ottawa nor the provinces were interested.

Baby steps, such as charters, are probably the only way to enhance the position of Alberta's cities. The charters should at least include a consent clause that would mandate that any alteration to a charter, including its repeal, require the explicit approval of the city’s council.

Many years ago, the American philosopher Lewis Mumford said that the city “is the seat of the temple, the market, the hall of justice, the academy of learning. ... Here is where the issues of civilization are focused." This remains true today. Cities are now our major wealth creators and deserve recognition and power accordingly. Unfortunately, although we are now a metropolitan nation, we remain lumbered with a distribution of powers from an agrarian age.

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