Municipal governments are vital to a successful response to the current pandemic. Cities across Canada have declared states of emergency, enforced physical distancing measures, prioritized essential transit and transportation systems, designed financial assistance programs for residents and businesses, and repurposed local facilities to support vulnerable populations.
These efforts have required an extraordinary level of intergovernmental coordination. Climbing out of the massive financial hole created by the pandemic may require even deeper cooperation, whether in the form of greater federal leadership, increased provincial transfers or a complete reimagining of service responsibilities, particularly in the areas of public health and long-term care. Yet early reports on what COVID-19 means for Canadian federalism pay little or no attention to the role of cities and municipalities. What are local political leaders saying about our collective response to COVID-19?
Despite exceptional challenges, mayors and councillors across Canada report that, from their perspective, all levels of government are working together remarkably well. An intergovernmental system often criticized for working against the interests of municipalities is, at the moment, doing just the opposite. But there are also warning signs on the horizon.
Over the first two weeks of April, we fielded a survey to mayors and councillors across Canada as part of the Canadian Municipal Barometer project. More than 500 local leaders, representing more than 300 municipalities, responded with insights about how their communities have managed the pandemic response and how well intergovernmental coordination has worked amid the crisis.
We found overwhelming support, from municipal political leaders across the country, for the actions of Canada’s federal and provincial governments (figure 1). Nearly 80 percent of respondents approved of the federal government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic thus far; an even greater proportion, 90 percent, felt the same about the performance of their respective provincial governments.
Nearly three-quarters of local leaders also described their coordination with the federal government as effective; here, too, the number rises above 90 percent with respect to provincial governments (figure 2).
These numbers are even more striking when we compare them with responses from the Canadian Municipal Barometer’s annual survey, completed a few weeks before the pandemic was declared. Almost half of the local leaders who completed the earlier annual survey told us that their municipality’s relationship with federal or provincial governments was “poor” or “fair,” and nearly 80 percent called for greater municipal powers from their provinces. But now, even among these previously dissatisfied respondents, strong majorities are satisfied with the collective response. Habitual calls by mayors for a “seat at the table,” perpetually ignored by senior orders of government, have quieted. Governments appear to be listening to each other.
Municipal leaders expressed a remarkable level of agreement with the core principles of the pan-Canadian pandemic response: strict physical distancing, travel restrictions and widespread closures of nonessential businesses and public buildings.
Still, there are signs that such solidarity may be short-lived. In the coming months, as the public health emergency is brought under control and the urgency to cooperate fades, new tensions will no doubt emerge. Mayors and councillors told us they’ll need even more assistance from provincial and federal governments in the days ahead: better data collection, more resources to help enforce physical distancing measures, more personal protective equipment for front-line workers and rapid expansion of local testing capacity, particularly in smaller communities.
Not surprisingly, the number one priority for local political leaders is financial aid — both direct and indirect. Some mayors and councillors would like to see municipalities qualify for the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy program in order to prevent staff layoffs. Others highlight the need for further direct assistance for individuals and businesses, especially small businesses, so that cities can avoid defaults and huge drops in property tax revenues. Some call for changes to provincial legislation allowing municipalities to run operating deficits — changes that have already been enacted in some parts of the country.
Cities and communities will be grappling with precarious balance sheets and crippling service demands for many months, if not years. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities is calling for at least $10 billion in emergency funding from the federal government, as a start.
Decisions will be difficult, and intergovernmental tensions will likely resurface. For the moment, however, the level of intergovernmental trust generated by the COVID-19 crisis should leave provincial and federal policy-makers optimistic that Canadian municipal leaders are supportive, engaged and ready to contribute.
The Canadian Municipal Barometer COVID-19 survey was completed by mayors and councillors in municipalities with populations greater than 9,000 residents between April 3 and April 17, 2020. A total of 551 individuals in 306 municipalities completed the survey, for a response rate of 16 percent. For more details, visit the Canadian Municipal Barometer website.
This article is part of the The Coronavirus Pandemic: Canada’s Response special feature.