Our self-image is charmingly out of date. Canada is no longer the breadbasket of the world, a land of limitless resources, abundant forests, pristine lakes and virgin wilderness with a few smokestacks etched against the skyline.
Eighty per cent of us live in cities or their suburbs. Most Canadians wouldn’t know how to plow a field, chop a Douglas fir or survive very long in the bush. Young people growing up in Canada would find life without clubs, bars, galleries, restaurants, condos and all-night grocery stores unimaginable.
It’s not just our cultural identity that is disconnected from reality. The way we govern ourselves is out of sync with who we are and how we live.
Canada is one of the few developed nations with no urban agenda. Ottawa has no minister of cities, no department of municipal affairs, no national housing policy and no national transportation strategy.
That suits Prime Minister Stephen Harper fine. Like his predecessors, he regards municipalities as a provincial responsibility.
But both of his rivals are offering to put cities at the forefront of nation building. Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau have unveiled the major planks of their urban agenda. They’re virtually identical.
No matter whether Canadians elect New Democrats or Liberals, they’ll get:
• A national housing program.
• A national transit plan.
• Long-term, predictable funding for community infrastructure.
• Ongoing investments in wastewater treatment, green technologies and the retrofitting of aging buildings.
• Digital connectivity for all citizens.
• Affordable access to education and skill training.
• A new partnership with the provinces and municipalities.
To make the choice more difficult, the urban affairs critics for the two opposition parties are more alike than different. Both Matthew Kellway of the NDP and Adam Vaughan of the Liberal party are political rookies. Both are from Toronto. They’re three years apart in age. Kellway broke an 18-year Liberal stranglehold on Beaches-East York in the 2011 election. Vaughan won Trinity-Spadina, which the NDP had held for years, in a 2014 byelection. Both see smart, sustainable, globally connected city-regions as the key to Canada’s economic and social success.
In terms of policy development, Kellway has the advantage. He spent three years working with urbanologists, municipal and provincial politicians, community groups and citizens to draft an agenda rooted in the priorities of the people whose support he will seek in October’s election. In November he released an NDP white paper entitled: Our Vision for Canadian Cities and followed up with a parliamentary motion calling on the government to establish an urban agenda.
He can also claim that his vision is built on Jack Layton’s legacy. The former leader of the NDP, who died shortly after Kellway was elected, did more than any other politician to put cities at the heart of Canada’s political agenda.
In terms of salesmanship, Vaughan has the edge. His eight years at Toronto city hall coupled with his 19 years as a broadcaster and writer taught him to express complex ideas in short, punchy sound bites (an ability that Kellway, an economist, admits he lacks) and attract media attention.
He can also tap into his party’s experience building an urban agenda. In 2002, a Liberal task force came up with 52 recommendations to make Canada’s cities stronger and more resilient. In 2005, former prime minister Paul Martin announced a “new deal for cities,” created a Ministry of State for Infrastructure and Communities and began rolling out investments in city-building. He lost power while implementing the initiative and Harper promptly dismantled what he had done.
What voters still lack are detailed, costed-out policies and explanations from both parties of where the money will come from. Until they divulge this information, rational decision-making will be next to impossible.
Assuming the New Democrats and Liberals do their homework before the writ is dropped, Canadians will have an opportunity to reinvent federalism, modernize the tools of government and tackle the challenges of globalism — climate change, income inequality, aging infrastructure, skill shortages — at the ground level.
Our tourist propaganda may remain stuck in the past. Our national road map must change.