04 October 2011

Cities—the provincial option

The possibility of Toronto becoming a province has popped up in the news again. The idea has floated around for years, supported by a variety of civic thinkers including the urban guru Jane Jacobs.

The idea has considerable merit and not only for Toronto. Under our Constitution, cities are creatures of the provinces, to be dealt with as provincial politicians see fit. This may have been reasonable when we were a rural country, but we have become an urban country, and it's time to reverse the relationship. A good start would be transforming our major cities into provinces. They are, after all, the centres of cultural and economic activity and should therefore be the centres of power.

Acquiring provincial status might require a constitutional amendment ... or it might not. If the federal and provincial government agreed to split a province, a constitutional amendment might not be necessary.

Calgary's mayor, Naheed Nenshi, a vocal advocate for Canadian cities, has been talking a lot about the need for more sources of revenue for cities, emphasizing that their growing costs drastically outpace their property tax revenues. “I’m the mayor of a city that has more people in it than five provinces," he points out, "yet I have the exact same legislative authority as any village of 30 or 40 people. And that has to change.”

Indeed it does. And if he starts promoting the provincial option as the agent of that change, he will get my support.


  1. And where does this slippery slope end, private cities? Societal cohesion is ill-served by this sort of urban-rural divisiveness. The city follows and is the result of the wealth generated initially by the rural, agrarian society. Cities grow through the wealth that flows to them from their surrounding regions. To sever that bond and break down the city's responsibilities to the less affluent surrounding areas and communities could give the powerful an even greater advantage than now exists over the less influential.

    This sort of thinking leads to the perversion we see in some states in which what began as gated communities evolve into gated municipalities, complete with fire, police and utilities services, in which the rich isolate themselves and escape the burden of providing for the less fortunates they leave behind.

    It's a really bad idea.

  2. Not as bad an idea as a jurisdiction with more people than five provinces having the “same legislative authority as a village of 30 or 40 people.”

    No disrespect, Mound, but I am not a fan of slippery slope arguments. They can be taken anywhere, far from the intent of the original premise, as illustrated by your suggestion that this idea would somehow lead to gated municipalities. Berlin, Bremen and Hamburg in Germany are city states, yet I’m not aware they have led to any of the problems you mention.

    The idea that cities are dependent on the wealth generated by the rural, agrarian society is rather 19th century. In modern societies, cities are the prime generators of wealth. Unfortunately, as Mayor Nenshi points out, they have insufficient powers to tax that wealth in order to carry out their responsibilities. It is long past time to recognize this reality and, at the very least, provide them with constitutional powers equal to provinces.

  3. Bill this idea is genuinely fraught with peril. Allow me to put it in just three words, "Premier Rob Ford." I spent a few years covering municipal governments and my experience convinced me they were more akin to highschool student councils than any higher level of government. There are not a lot of our best minds going to waste in municipal politics.

    Yes, city states exist in Germany but do recall that Germany itself is an amalgam of a plethora of former principalities unified under Metternich and Bismark. We have no similar national tradition. Likewise ours is a very large yet sparsely populated country in which the rurals are already poorly served.

    And, where do you draw the line? Would a second-tier city like Calgary be constituted a province or only real metropoli such as Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver? Would Calgary be given the same constitutional clout as vastly larger municipalities and, if so, why?

    This sounds to me like a really, truly bad idea. We have more than enough trouble making the existing Confederation work.

  4. Good questions, Mound. With the right answers, we may have a really, truly good idea.

    I agree "Premier Rob Ford" is enough to cause cold chills. On the other hand, I would very much prefer "Premier Naheed Nenshi" to "Premier Tim Hudak."