In 1608, what was it that Samuel de Champlain founded? The answer: a great deal ”” a colony, an imperial outpost, a site of cooperation and conquest of indige- nous peoples, a nation, a broader country and more ”” all this we can imagine and debate. But incontestably he founded a city. It has been the fate of Quebec City to repre- sent more than itself, like capitals around the world. This is as clear in this summer of 2008 as it was in 1908, when the Tercentenary of the Founding was celebrated.
As the historian H.V. Nelles leads us to understand through The Art of Nation-Building (1999), a brilliant account of the framing and staging of the 1908 celebration, it wove together strands of history and memory and visions of both the past and the future.
But in 1904 the idea of commemorating the 1608 found- ing was conceived by Honoré-Julien-Jean-Baptiste Chouinard, the City Clerk of Quebec and a rather conservative national- ist. It was propelled initially through the Société Saint-Jean- Baptiste, but soon involved the Mayor, John George Garneau. The notion of the commemoration could not be contained locally. It rapidly enmeshed Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier, (also serving as the MP for Quebec East), and the Premier of Quebec, Lomer Gouin (whose government ultimately con- tributed $100,000, as did that of James Whitney in Ontario), and also, perhaps most significantly, Earl Grey, the Governor General of Canada and custodian of imperial interests in this country. All used the event and the city for their purposes.
And the city used them. For the Quebec City administra- tion, wrote Nelles, ”œthe tercentenarycelebration was an ideal vehicle to lever much-needed civic improvements out of the higher levels of government, continue the revival of the local economy on the basis of the new tourist industry, and incidentally attract the attention of influential Canadians and foreigners to the investment opportunities of the new Quebec.” In short, the City of Quebec had assets to parlay, but it needed help. Perhaps not much has changed!
My purpose here is to trace a couple of historic develop- ments among municipalities in Canada, and to lay out some current issues in this area of policy.
Historically, a most striking fact about Canadian cities and municipalities in general is how young they are. Newfoundland is reported to have had settlements from about 1610 on, but St. John’s was incorporated only in 1888, and although the Local Affairs Act of 1890 provided for the incorporation of municipalities, it was only in the 1950s and 1960s that it came to be much used. Nova Scotia’s Towns Incorporation Act was passed in 1888, more than 100 years after the Loyalists flooded in, and 130 years after the first elected assembly met. In 1921, the population of Calgary was a mere 66,729.
According to the census, Greater Montreal did not surpass a half-million inhabitants until 1911; Vancouver did so only in 1951; Calgary did so in 1981. Arguably, Canadian cities are only now maturing, to both require and demand more active and responsible government.
Second, there is currently much attention to the rapid growth of cities in Canada and around the world. But our urban growth rates have been much higher in the past. Around the turn of the twentieth Century, and during the Wheat Boom and the 1920s, census metropolitan areas were growing at double and triple the rates they are now. In contrast, an unprece- dented problem is the relentless shrinkage of populations in Canada’s rural areas and especially in the provincial norths. This phenomenon threatens the very viability of many towns and rural municipalities.
In functional terms, the greatest change over the past 50 years has been the dissociation from municipal gov- ernments of social programs. The expansion of the welfare state in the post-Second World War period was accompanied by the provincialization of many functions. These include the administration of justice, public health and hospitals, social assistance, and education, all of which were formerly controlled at the local level, if not always directly by municipalities.
The reasons are straightforward . Municipalities are very diverse in their fiscal capacities, with many unable to provide services at the level that a mod- ern economy requires. Competition between them inhibits unilateral increases in service levels. Economies of scale often cannot be captured by local provision. Provincial administra- tion allows greater expertise in pro- gram design. It also was thought to eliminate the favouritism and discrimi- nation to which local administration is subject because of proximate pressures; hence, for instance, property-tax assessment has almost universally become a provincial responsibility.
But the expansion of the welfare state was accompanied by the growth of the managerial state. As the scope of public policy expanded, functions and programs created new interdependen- cies. For instance, there are inter-rela- tionships that must be managed between planning, environmental management, roads and transit, and water provision and sewage disposal.
Municipalities have always been subject to strict provincial con- trols on the functions that they can deliver and especially on how their finances operate. These have generally been overseen by the main provincial ministry responsible for municipalities ”” Community Services in British Columbia, Municipal Affairs and Housing in Ontario and so on. But now municipal administrations have become constrained by a myriad of regulations and guidelines emanating from many other line departments such as those responsible for natural resources, agri- culture, transport, health, the environ- ment and others. In conforming to these rules, municipalities devote a great deal of resources to implementing poli- cies that are provincial.
All of this has caused a great deal of chafing and disgruntlement in munici- pal administration. One only has to peruse the resolutions emanating from provincial associations such as the Union of British Columbia Municipali- ties or the Association of Municipalities of Ontario to establish this fact. Each year brings a litany of griefs and suggested modifications.
In recent years, though, many constraints have been lifted. Municipalities may still be obliged to follow provincial prescriptions, but their room for autonomous manoeuvre has been sub- stantially expanded. This has been due, in part, to Supreme Court decisions (in Nanaimo [City] v. Rascal Trucking Ltd.  and 114957 Canada Ltée [Spraytech, Société d’arrosage] v. Hudson [Town] , for instance) that affirmed ”œbenevolent construction” as a principle in determining municipal powers and demanded a high standard to strike down municipal bylaws for conflicting with federal and provincial law.
But more important have been amendments to provincial statutes allocating powers to municipalities. Since their inception, in most provinces, these basic laws narrowly prescribed particular activities that municipalities had to carry out or that they might carry out. Now, recent amendments in provinces containing the bulk of Canada’s population (Ontario, Manitoba, British Columbia, Nova Scotia and Alberta) have moved to confer general powers on municipal corporations, sometimes including ”œnatural person powers” that give more commercial freedom.
In Ontario, for example, local governments now are meant to foster ”œthe current and future economic, social and environmental well-being of the municipality,” and they can leg- islate within ten broad areas of juris- diction. Manitoba municipalities are Robert Young empowered to provide good govern- ment for the ”œsafety, health and wel- fare of people.”œ
This change will take time to filter through the system. All municipalities want more money. Some also want a ”œseat at the table” when policies affect- ing them are being determined in provincial capitals or in Ottawa. Others ”” the big cities ”” have agitated for more autonomy as well. Now, a great many municipalities have more latitude for action. Will they use it? In the view of experienced observers David Siegel and Richard Tindal, many municipal governments, despite their complaints, have existed for a long time in a state of ”œcomfortable subordination” to the dic- tates of provincial administrations. An attitudinal change will be necessary for them to occupy their new powers with ”œassertive maturity.”
So what about the big cities? In recent years they have led the move for more autonomy, notably through the Big City Mayors’ Caucus (which groups 22 big cities). These demands generally have met positive responses. Amendments to the longstanding Vancouver Charter have broadened the city’s powers. The City of Winnipeg Charter of 2003 did the same. Montreal has a special arrangement with the provincial government which was laid out in the Contrat de Ville. And the flat- teringly titled ”œStronger City of Toronto for a Stronger Ontario Act” of 2006 strengthened the mayor’s office, widened taxation powers and recog- nized ”œthe importance of providing the City with a legislative framework within which the City can build a strong, vibrant and sustainable city that is capa- ble of thriving in the global economy.”
All of this is promising for those who regard City Power as the wave of the future. The argument often runs that in a globalizing world, the loci of the important flows ”” people, goods, services, money and corporate power ”” are the big cities (or ”œWorld Cities” or ”œglobal city-regions”). Inevitably, they must take on authority commen- surate with their economic status.
This is not going to happen in Canada. A generic explanation, devel- oped by my colleague Andrew Sancton, is that city-regions are inherently inca- pable of defining and controlling their borders. Dealing with the externalities they generate is a job that must fall to sub-national or national governments.
The Canadian reason is that, con- stitutionally, provinces are omnipo- tent. Provincial governments are responsible for municipalities, period. Now this is a two-edged sword. Provinces control the municipal sys- tem and the big cities and can inter- vene as they see fit. But they are also responsible in the sense that provincial governments have too much at stake to ignore or neglect the needs of munici- palities and particularly of the big cities that drive provincial economies.
But of course these ”œneeds” are provincially defined. While the cities have gained more autonomy in recent years, provincial power is everywhere apparent. Nova Scotia created the Regional Municipalities of Halifax and Cape Breton. Quebec’s National Assembly legislated amalgamations in Montreal and Quebec City and later allowed de-amalgamation. The Harris government created the megacity; per- haps more important, it was Queen’s Park that defined the ”œGreater Golden Horseshoe,” established a huge green belt and dictated planning guidelines for the whole region, and has set up a body to design the regional transit sys- tem. The Alberta government ”” finally ”” established the Capital Region Board early this year to force co-operation among the fractious municipalities in the Edmonton region. And it’s the province, not the City of Vancouver or Metro Vancouver, that is driving Olympic preparations and the Pacific Gateway. Provinces rule.
Another remarkable trend, howev- er, has been the presence of the federal government in the municipal file. It was a confluence of factors that produced Paul Martin’s ”œNew Deal for Cities and Communities” ”” the global city-regions theorizing, demands from Harris-punished Toronto, and general financial pressures in municipalities across the country (as well as electoral opportunism). The big components of the New Deal were financial. They included much expanded infrastruc- ture assistance, relief from the GST, and the transfer of a portion of the federal gasoline tax. But the Martin approach was also more directly interventionist, with several experimental initiatives and a broad approach to tripartite Urban Development Agreements. These were signed with provincial gov- ernments and the cities of Winnipeg, Vancouver, Saskatoon and Regina. By late 2005, many more were to come.
But this was finished by Stephen Harper. Direct federal involvement with municipalities was anathema to a gov- ernment committed to ”œOpen Federal- ism” and the respect for jurisdictional boundaries that this entails. In early 2006, the Infrastructure and Communi- ties department was rolled into the ”œTransport, Infrastructure and Commu- nities Portfolio,” and ”œcommunities” has largely disappeared from view. Some locally oriented and tailored pro- grams continue. The urban Aboriginal strategy is one. But there now is no effective champion of cities or munici- palities more generally in the federal government. Ottawa’s presence ”” and it may yet be an electorally rewarding one ”” is felt through the infrastructure programs.
On the municipal front, money is the common issue. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities, which has been a remarkably effective organiza- tion, finds no difficulty in uniting its members around demands for finan- cial assistance.
Municipal spending in Canada grew rapidly from about 1961 to 1985. The growth rate dropped almost in half in the 1986-95 period. Then it dropped again, very sharply, between 1996 and 2000. The ultimate cause was cuts by Ottawa to provincial transfers. But there were rather deep cuts to provincial-municipal transfers everywhere. In Alberta, for example, provincial transfers accounted for about 22 percent of municipal rev- enues before 1992. By 1996, this dropped to 13 percent and by 2004 to 10 percent. As a consequence munici- palities were forced to raise fees and prices and, very reluctantly, to increase property taxes.
This fiscal pressure fuelled demands on Ottawa ”” the only alternative source of funds. And after 2004 there was a response, one that, along with increases in transfers in some provinces, has gone a considerable way to resolve the finan- cial stress of Canada’s municipalities.
So one municipal story in Canada is that the system is in pretty good shape. The provincial govern- ments have been adapting their leg- islative frameworks, freeing up space for municipal autonomy. The long- standing principle of equal treat- ment for all municipalities has been broken at last, and most big cities have much more scope to flex their policy muscles. Some audacious mayors are breaking new ground. The brutal funding crunch is easing.
On the other hand, the essence of the system remains. Except for sending cheques, Ottawa is distant from most urban issues. The provinces continue to dominate municipal activi- ty when they see larger interests at stake.
And there are very serious problems. In much of rural and northern Canada the population haemorrhage continues to erode the foundation of local governments. In the cities, the lack of affordable public housing is a serious impediment to both social stability and economic growth (and there is no sign of a federal re-entry to this field). More generally, the dra- matic rise in economic polarization is a clear danger in urban areas, and the social exclusion of many recent immigrants and of the rising num- bers of Aboriginal urban dwellers is a problem that must be addressed in a concerted manner.
The municipal systems in Canada have evolved appropriately in recent years. But if the best is yet to come for Canada’s municipalities, there is a lot of work to do.
But this is for the future. Right now, on this 400th anniversary, let’s celebrate. Vive la Ville de Québec!