Lawrence Solomon's Next City Part Five: Advice to cities: take control of your province

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
February 7, 2002


This is the last of a five-part series on what should be done about our cities. Part Five: Cities must force provinces to adopt policies conducive to urban interests.

Large cities in urbanized provinces are beginning to throw around their weight, to counter what has been, since Confederation, an enormous anti-urban bias in the running of the country. With about 80% of the population then rural, rural folk and rural industries – chiefly farmers, loggers and miners – rigged the rules of the game to benefit themselves at the expense of urban industries and urban dwellers. Cities were not even recognized in the Canadian constitution; in law they were and remain mere corporations that provinces can create – or abolish – at will. As put by David Collenette, federal Transport Minister and the Minister Responsible for the Greater Toronto Area, "We have a 19th century Constitution for a 21st-century nation state."

Today, with 80% of the population in urban areas, the tables are turned and the cities – and ministers like Mr. Collenette – know it. City governments are demanding more money from senior levels of government and the governments, feeling the heat, are providing it. City governments are also demanding a range of new powers that would end the senseless subservience of cities to the provinces. Many argue that municipalities become recognized as an order of government within the Canadian constitution, and some that our major cities become full-fledged provinces. To thwart an open rebellion by Mayor Mel Lastman and Toronto councillors, the Ontario government brought in legislation prior to Toronto’s last municipal election that prevented the city from holding a referendum on seceding from Ontario, or becoming a city-state.

Cities – the forums for spontaneous trade, finance and other aspects of the modern economy – need to be freed from the yoke of governments beholden to resource industries and other largely protectionist rural interests. But constitutional change is the wrong way for cities to pursue liberation, despite the apparent attractions.

Yes, provincial status would immediately benefit residents of our major cities. Toronto taxpayers, for example, today provide $4-billion a year more in taxes to the provincial and federal governments than those governments spend in Toronto. As its own province, Toronto would be plundered by the federal government alone, rather than by both the federal and Ontario government. So, too, with a province of Vancouver, which accounts for more than half of B.C.’s GDP, and a province of Montreal, which accounts for almost half of the Quebec economy.

But creating provinces of Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal would soon hurt Canada as a whole by creating largely rural, have-not provinces from the balance of Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec. The country would become less entrepreneurial, more subsidy-ridden, less viable. Whatever short-term gain cities might realize could soon be negated by an all-pervasive national culture of dependency, of the kind that has for so long held back the Maritimes.

Constitutional change that falls short of provincehood, such as acquiring a wide array of taxing powers, could also counter sound governance. Because the other levels of government won’t easily give up their existing ability to tax, taxpayers would then face a confusion of higher and less transparent taxes from three levels of governments not easily held to account.

Fortunately, Canada’s constitution is not about to be changed – provincial governments are unlikely to abandon their taxing powers, let alone part with the cities that generate their wealth. Also, fortunately, Canada’s major cities have a far better option that requires no constitutional change: They can take over the provinces. Their ally in this takeover, ironically, is a force that in the past was their enemy: urban sprawl.

Canada’s urban dwellers have historically received the short end of the stick because city residents have been underrepresented, and thus misrepresented, in their legislatures. At the federal level, for example, rural P.E.I. has four MPs, even though the province as a whole is little more populous than some ridings in Toronto and Vancouver. At the provincial level, an MLA from Saskatoon represents twice as many voters as an MLA from Athabasca, in northern Saskatchewan.

But because so many people have migrated to Canada’s urban areas in recent decades, and because the urban areas have sprawled to encompass a large number of once-rural ridings, the stage is set for a political realignment that rights the urban-rural inequities. In Ontario, for example, the great majority of provincial ridings are now urban and many others – those that cater to cottagers or the tourist trade – identify more with urban needs than with those of the resource industries. If cities used their political organizational skills to foster a new, urban-oriented political party, or to convince an existing provincial party to adopt an urban-friendly political plank, they would soon see in power a political party conducive to urban interests, willing to redraw political boundaries to eliminate inequities.

The role of the province in an urban society could then be looked at afresh, and be seen for what it is – largely irrelevant and in need of a makeover. Apart from delivering medical and educational services, today’s provinces provide little value to the majority of their urban residents. The provinces’ main role involves redistributing wealth from the cities to the countryside to prop up marginal farms, logging towns and other unsustainable settlements. In the process, they destroy the rural environment while undermining the urban economy.

The most extreme case of a major Canadian city that has in this way suffered great harm is Winnipeg, a once-vibrant city that accounts for two-thirds of Manitoba’s GDP and yet suffers from stagnant population growth. Winnipeg’s 670,000 people are sorely held back by their need to support the balance of Manitoba’s population – Manitoba farmers, for example, receive more in provincial subsidies than their farms earn in profit and Manitoba foresters and miners also depend on transfers from Winnipeg to stay in business. If Winnipeggers over the last century were not forced to support unproductive rural activities, much of their wealth would have remained in the city, where it would have promoted economic development and sustained the city’s culture. Manitoba’s unproductive rural workers, meanwhile, would have migrated to find useful work in the city, simultaneously increasing the efficiency of both the rural and the urban economy.

It’s not too late for Winnipeg, or for other cities in decline, Saint John and Regina among them. And it’s none too soon for successful cities, which are being held back from a much finer future. Rather than be limited by an unsustainable rural economy, all cities can organize – not by lobbying for handouts from senior levels of government but by seizing the provincial governments and ending the handouts.

Other articles in this series:
Lawrence Solomon’s Next City Part One:
Globalization equals urbanization
Lawrence Solomon’s Next City Part Two:
Don’t tax, toll

Lawrence Solomon’s Next City Part Three:
One million more Torontonians
Lawrence Solomon’s Next City Part Four:
Learning the wrong lessons from U.S. cities

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