How things have changed. Today, over 80 per cent of Canadians live in towns and cities. In Alberta, over half the population lives in just two cities: Calgary and Edmonton. Arguably now more important than provinces, cities are the centres of politics, social life and commerce—our major wealth creators. They deserve recognition and power accordingly.
In an initial attempt to recognize their new importance, the Alberta government signed an agreement in principle in 2012 to establish charters for Calgary and Edmonton. The charters would grant the cities more powers and change the way they are funded. This week the charters moved a step closer when new premier Jim Prentice signed a framework agreement with the Calgary and Edmonton mayors to work toward formalizing the charters, the details to be finalized by spring 2016. "Calgary and Edmonton face serious infrastructure deficits," said Mr. Prentice. "They need the freedom to come up with innovative, homegrown solutions."
Other Canadian cities—Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver among them—have charters, but theirs, like Calgary and Edmonton's, don't release them from constitutional subservience to provinces. Provincial governments retain the right to bestow authority on cities, and the right to take it away. A charter granted to Halifax in 1841 was extinguished by the provincial government on April 1st, 1999—April Fool's Day.
Nonetheless, charters will enhance Calgary and Edmonton's abilities to govern themselves even as they remain creatures of the provinces. Ideally, cities would be brought into the Constitution as, in fact, Lord Durham recommended in his famous report of 1838. But we are all aware of the current level of enthusiasm for constitutional change.
So this baby step is to be welcomed. We will remain for the foreseeable future an urban nation lumbered with a distribution of powers from a rural age, but we are nonetheless moving, albeit very slowly, in the right direction.