Canada’s future unfolding in our municipalities
2017 is Canada’s big year. All across the country, Canadians are marking the 150th anniversary of Confederation with festivals, fairs, and fireworks – all culminating next month with the biggest party this country has ever seen. From Hamilton to Hay River, communities are celebrating who we are, and where we come from.
But, there’s something else remarkable going on in our communities, something that’s transforming the places we call home. While celebrating our past, local governments have also begun to shape Canada’s future.
As FCM President, I’ve been fortunate to travel to every corner of this country. What I’ve seen is that some of the most dynamic and impressive leaders in Canada today are municipal leaders. In our ever-changing world, municipal leaders are innovating and adapting to meet the needs of Canadians, often with limited fiscal capacity. That’s good news for Canadians, because it’s in our cities and communities where the 21st century will unfold.
In fact, it’s already unfolding in places like Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, where local officials have taken the lead on a remarkable project that’s turning organic waste into natural gas – one of the first of its kind in North America. And, in the Region of Waterloo, where a downtown revitalization project is attracting tenants like Google and spurring economic growth with good-paying, high-tech jobs. And in cities like Winnipeg and Vancouver, which are leading the way in implementing the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. From coast-to-coast-to-coast, municipal leaders are delivering local solutions to big, national challenges.
The federal government has taken notice and, as a result, there’s a fundamental shift happening right now. In big cities and in small towns, Ottawa is turning to municipal leaders like never before. We’ve become indispensable partners in building tomorrow’s Canada. It just isn’t possible to build a better country without the order of government closest to Canadians, so local governments are taking their rightful place at the nation-building table.
There’s no better example of this than Federal Budget 2017, tabled in March. This was the culmination of 18 months of unprecedented dialogue between FCM and the federal government. We met regularly with senior officials, cabinet ministers, and the Prime Minister himself. We talked about local leaders as nation builders, and as capable managers who can deliver cost-effective results. And, we asked them to work with us to build the next generation of livable, competitive communities as the foundation of a better Canada. That’s exactly what happened.
Budget 2017 is a game-changer for the municipal sector – and for Canadians. It empowers local governments to deliver the outcomes Canadians want: economic growth, shorter commutes, more affordable housing, and action on climate change. The budget includes long-term, allocation-based investment in the next generation of public transit expansions. It responds to FCM’s urgent call for a significant federal re-engagement in protecting and expanding social and affordable housing. It opens the door for new green infrastructure investment in local projects focused on climate change mitigation and adaptation. And, it confirms an unprecedented plan to invest in the infrastructure priorities of rural, remote, and northern communities.
What matters about Budget 2017 isn’t only the investments, either, it’s how the federal government is investing. The budget recognizes that cities and communities are this country’s social and economic engines, and it puts more tools in the hands of municipal leaders. Empowering the order of government closest to Canadians enables the sort of growth that will improve the country’s fiscal position for years to come. It means that, together, we can build more thriving, livable communities – and a better Canada.
Budget 2017 was a watershed moment for the municipal sector, to be sure. It wasn’t the only time the federal government has partnered with municipal leaders for their expertise. We saw this in last year’s budget as well, which took FCM’s advice and announced historic commitments to infrastructure. And, we saw it in last November’s fall economic update, which first committed $2 billion to a dedicated fund for rural, remote, and northern infrastructure. In February, I was in Ottawa with Infrastructure and Communities Minister Amarjeet Sohi to launch a pair of new programs entrusted to FCM, the Municipal Asset Management Program and the Municipalities for Climate Innovation Program.
Previous governments of all political stripes have partnered with FCM as well in securing the federal Gas Tax Fund (permanent, and indexed to inflation), for example, as well as the 100 percent GST rebate for municipalities (which continues to provide important revenues for stretched municipal budgets).
This growing collaboration is what Canadians expect of their governments. If we’re going to deliver the outcomes Canadians deserve, all orders of government will have to continue working together. That includes ensuring provincial governments step up with full-cost sharing, so that public transit expansions aren’t stopped in their tracks by local fiscal limits. Municipal leaders will continue to be an active partner in tackling 21st-century national challenges, from economic growth to climate change. After all, municipalities own and operate 60 percent of this country’s infrastructure and influence half of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. We understand local needs. Local governments understand what’s at stake for the young parents in Toronto who struggle to find a home they can afford. Or for the entrepreneur in Watson Lake who needs high-speed internet to get her goods to market. When municipal leadership and expertise help drive solutions, it’s Canadians who benefit.
I wrap up my year as FCM president at our Annual Conference this month in Ottawa. I leave with incredible optimism over the state of the municipal sector. Thanks to the gains we’ve made as a strong and united sector, local leaders have a strengthened place at the nation-building table – and a real opportunity to shape the future of this country. Now, more than ever, it’s clear that the road to a better Canada runs through our cities and communities.
So, as we celebrate Canada’s first 150 years, I’m more confident than ever that the next 150 years belong to our municipalities. MW
CLARK SOMERVILLE is President of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities – Canada’s national voice for local governments. He is also a town and regional councillor in the Town of Halton Hills and Halton Region, Ontario.
as published in Municipal World, June 2017