With a propensity of Liberal MPs representing major urban centres, expect the Liberal Party's priorities to reflect those of Canada's urban populations

Cities and urban issues found a prominent place in the last federal campaign. Each party leader jockeyed to speak to those of us living in and around cities – vote-rich areas of the country many concluded would decide the election. The Liberals understood the electoral importance of our city-regions well and directed large portions of platform to urban issues, such public transportation and infrastructure. In fact, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau staked his political future on a plan that would see his newly elected government run deficits for three years in order to deliver much needed infrastructure investment in our big cities.

Urban voters rewarded Trudeau’s Liberals with seats in nearly every city in Canada. The Liberals won every riding in Toronto and much of the surrounding 905 region. In Vancouver, Halifax, St. John’s Winnipeg, Montreal, and even Calgary and Edmonton, the Liberals won seats on the strength of their pledge to invest in cities. As a result, many are now wondering what they can expect from the federal Liberals when they formally take office on November 4th.

A quick look at the Liberals’ past efforts with urban affairs may give us a glimpse into how they plan to move forward. Canada has seen two concerted, formal federal efforts to address urban issues: The Ministry of State for Urban Affairs, which was initiated by Justin Trudeau’s father Pierre, and the Minister of State for Infrastructure and Communities, an initiative developed while former Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin was in office. Neither ministry had a long life span: the first collapsed under the weight of provincial-federal tension and the other was amalgamated with the Ministry of Transportation when Stephen Harper took office. Needless to say, there are lessons to be learned from both and looking back may give us some clues as to how the Trudeau Liberals will shape their new “urban agenda”.

The Ministry of State for Urban Affairs was created amidst an “urban awakening”. Urban activists in the 1960s argued in favour of increased urban livability – the creation of neighbourhoods designed to be walkable, expanded public transit, environmental sustainability and the creation of affordable housing – and called on the federal government to begin directly funding major urban initiatives.

Pierre Trudeau, however, was very much a reluctant urbanist. He believed the provinces had sole responsibility for municipalities and did not want to get embroiled in further jurisdictional battles with provincial Premiers. His critics, however, argued that the federal government was already deeply involved in municipal policy areas through several different ministries, such as Immigration and Transportation. These efforts, they argued, were just not coordinated or formalized.

With mounting pressure from his caucus, Canada’s Mayors, and opposition parties, Trudeau finally relented and created the Ministry of State for Urban Affairs (MSUA) in 1972. The ministry’s role was initially seen to be limited to planning, coordination and research. Its activities were largely restricted to enhancing cooperation between different levels of government.

MSUA’s early achievements centred on hosting a series of tri-level meetings across the country, bringing together municipal, provincial and federal leaders to discuss issues pertinent for cities. For some participants, these meetings were the first time that they sat together with their colleagues from other levels of government. In these cases, MSUA closed the distance between municipal representatives and their federal and provincial counterparts.

The provinces were very hesitant about participating in any of MSUA’s activities. In fact, at the first MSUA tri-level meeting, Saskatchewan Premier Alan Blakney put the federal government on notice by flatly reminding them that, “we want our constitutional rights respected “.

The provinces were concerned that MSUA would eventually encroach on their jurisdiction. However, MSUA adhered to its original mandate, establishing not only inter-governmental working relationships, but also intra-governmental committees designed to coordinate the many departmental decisions affecting urban Canada.

When Barney Danson replaced Ron Basford as MSUA minister in 1974, the ministry began to move into direct project funding. In the 1974-75 fiscal year, MSUA got involved in land use planning and project development. MSUA helped Toronto develop its waterfront. In Calgary it assisted in the design and development of 400 acres of publicly held land. In Vancouver it supported the expansion of the city’s airports. When Andre Ouellet replaced Danson in 1976, the pace of this development and funding increased, much to the chagrin of provincial leaders who increasingly felt that MSUA was overstepping its boundaries.

This shift in focus from coordination and research to funding was the death knell for MSUA. The ministry was shut down just prior to the 1979 election. H. Peter Oberlander, MSUA’s former Deputy Minister, describes the reasons for the demise of the ministry in his 1987 obituary of the federal government’s first effort at addressing urban Canada: “the Provinces, having been alerted to the increasingly strong Federal position in urban issues, perceived a dire threat in a Federal/municipal alliance on urban affairs…the Ministry was offered up upon the altar of Federal-Provincial relations.”

According to Oberlander, inter-governmental tensions were not the only cause of MSUA’s downfall. The ministry also suffered from animosity from other federal departments who feared MUSA would take away from their policy responsibility.

In 2001, Prime Minister Chrétien appointed Judy Sgro to chair the Prime Minister’s Caucus Task Force on Urban Issues. Sgro’s committee issued two reports that argued Canada needed a national “urban strategy” along with long-term, stable funding for affordable housing, transit and infrastructure.

Sgro’s report was clear: Canada needed an urban ministry. Chrétien, much like Trudeau, was also a reluctant urbanist. When asked about the prospects of creating an urban strategy, Chrétien noted that, “the cities are under provincial responsibility; we are not in a position to give them more power.” This was not unexpected however. Chrétien was at the cabinet table as MSUA was assaulted from all sides during the 1970s and finally succumbed to inter-governmental feuding. It is no wonder he was reluctant about repeating the experience.

Despite drawing the line at creating a federal ministry to address urban issues, Chrétien did take some steps forward, such as the creation of the Office of Infrastructure and Crown Corporations in 2002 with a mandate to coordinate the public service’s existing infrastructure and the creation of the Canadian Strategic Infrastructure Fund.

The end result of Sgro’s work wouldn’t come until Paul Martin was appointed as Prime Minister and created the Ministry of State for Infrastructure and Communities (MSIC). Martin, however, was also aware of the inter-governmental challenge that establishing a renewed federal effort in urban affairs would entail. He treaded cautiously at first, reminding the country that, “without the full co-operation of the provinces a ‘new deal’ [for cities] doesn’t have a chance to get off the ground”.

MSIC began as a coordinating partner, described as being primarily responsible for assisting with project management, leaving the heavy lifting to the provinces and municipalities.

The change in direction from MSUA was not only theoretical, but also practical. Once a project was identified, it did not proceed without the establishment of a federal-provincial/territorial management committee. Memoranda of Understanding were signed to clarify the roles and responsibilities of both the provinces and the federal government. There were no surprises this time: it was made very clear the provinces were in the driver’s seat. MSIC also overcame the inter-departmental bickering experienced with MSUA by creating two interdepartmental working groups to help manage expectations from other ministries. Despite its record of relative success, however, MSIC was folded into the Ministry of Transportation in 2006.

The Ministry of State for Urban Affairs began as a coordinating ministry but quickly moved into direct project funding with municipalities, often at the exclusion of the provinces. Other ministries in the federal government also feared jurisdictional intrusion and worked to undermine the ministry’s efforts. The Ministry of State for Infrastructure and Communities, on the other hand, remained a coordinating partner and did not enter into project funding without provincial approval – a decision that afforded it much more success.

For many years, Canada has been without a formalized urban voice in cabinet. There is some indication this will change, but the urban efforts of previous governments will probably guide this new Liberal administration’s path. Any reviewed effort will likely be cautious, but not timid, highly collaborative and be guided by a focus on targeted, rather than broad-based, funding.

A renewed federal urban agenda would be very welcome. While much of MSIC’s infrastructure remains in place today through the Ministry of Transportation, the importance of having a Ministry of Cities does not come solely from the bureaucratic weight behind it, but by the presence of a dedicated cabinet minister, advocating on behalf of cities at the cabinet table. Canada lost this crucial voice once but, with some political will, can reclaim it once again.

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