That’s how Matt McLauchlin, former Montreal candidate for the NDP, transit know-it-all and Webmaster of metrodemontreal.com, describes the federal and provincial governments’ attitude toward public transport. The same can probably be said about their attitude toward cities. So when the federal election was called on May 23, I worried that the issue would be shunted aside in favour of the sponsorship scandal or that ubiquitous election topic, health care. Then, a week into the campaign, Paul Martin triumphantly released the Liberal Party’s platform on cities, which they call “The New Deal: Sustainable Cities and Communities.” It assures us quite confidently that “the New Deal is a real deal.”
Whew. After months of vague promises from the Liberals and the gradual transformation of a new deal for cities into a “new deal for communities, big and small,” at last here was a concrete action plan from the party most likely to form a government on June 28. Right? Well … maybe.
Canada’s cities are crumbling, new deal proponents argue. In some cases, that’s quite literal—just look at Montreal’s streets—but physical decay is only one aspect; the problems facing our cities are many and diverse. They range from stagnation, decay and aboriginal despair in Winnipeg to poverty, an overburdened transit system and the challenge of accommodating more than a hundred thousand immigrants a year in booming Toronto. According to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, there’s an overall $60 billion infrastructure deficit in Canadian cities.
Part of the problem can be blamed on cities’ place in the constitution. According to the 1867 British North America Act, cities are creatures of the provinces. They’re regulated by municipal acts or, in some cases, by city charters. The result for many cities is a weak voice in Ottawa, little power and the downloading from provincial governments of such costs as public transit and social services. Property taxes, the main source of municipal revenue, are regressive, encourage bad urban planning and have stagnated while provincial and federal revenues have skyrocketed. Fed up, the mayors of Canada’s big cities have banded together to demand more money and more power from the federal government.
Toronto has had a particularly rough ride. For eight years, this metropolis of more than 5 million people—2.5 million of whom live in the city alone—suffered under a hostile Progressive Conservative government that garnered most of its support from the suburbs and countryside. The city’s transit system, which carries 1.4 million riders a day, receives virtually no funding from the province. Instead, it manages to squeeze 82 percent of its revenues from fares, compared to around 50 percent for most other transit systems. This eats a huge hole in riders’ pockets and leaves barely enough cash to duct-tape the entire system together. More distressingly, poverty seems to be on the rise in Toronto, with a growing number of people living on the streets and increasingly distressed pockets of immigrants living in suburban ghettos.
The situation in Montreal isn’t much better. McLauchlin, whose devotion to Montreal’s metro once earned him an internship with the Société de transport de Montréal, is distressed by the increasingly decrepit state of the subway system. “The most recent lump investment provided to the metro [by the provincial government],” he says, “was not so much generous as absolutely required in order to update the metro’s obsolete communication systems.” Its rolling stock is the oldest in North America: the same trains that welcomed Expo crowds in 1967 are still being used today. As in Toronto, though, public transport is hardly the only concern. McLauchlin ran in the 2000 federal election and in a 2002 by-election in the southwest Montreal riding of Verdun–Saint-Henri–Saint-Paul–Pointe-Saint-Charles (now more sensibly named Jeanne-Le Ber) and while campaigning in this densely populated working-class area, he discovered an urgent need for new social housing. As neighbourhoods gentrify, Montreal is becoming less affordable; hundreds of people now become homeless each Canada Day when they can’t find or afford new apartments.
Last year, Paul Martin’s Liberals seemed keen to address these urban woes. In their February budget, the Liberals eliminated the GST on all municipal expenditures, a move they now describe as a “down payment” on a $7 billion package to be delivered over the next ten years. In their newly released platform, they promise to give cities five cents per litre from the federal gas tax “within five years,” an additional $1.5 billion over five years for affordable housing and more respect for cities at the federal level—making sure, for instance, to consult them before tabling a budget.
Jack Layton’s NDP is the only other party that has a clear urban policy. It would hand over the five cents from the gas tax immediately, establish a $1.7 billion infrastructure program and spend an additional $1.6 billion on affordable housing. Layton knows his stuff: he has written a book on homelessness, and he served as a Toronto city councillor for two decades and as the president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities for a year. Unlike the other party leaders, he actually leads a sustainable urban life in the middle of Toronto, getting around on two wheels instead of four. Editorial writers, though, have derided the NDP’s platform, tossing around terms like “lavish spending” and “irresponsible.” Even the Toronto Star, the paper that launched the crusade for a new deal at the national level, dismisses the NDP’s cities platform and calls its spending plans “exuberant.”
Some question the entire notion of a new deal. The Globe and Mail’s Jeffrey Simpson, ever the prudent one, has insisted on several occasions that a good old cash handout would be enough to appease cities and fix some problems. Any sort of guaranteed long-term funding would be a burden on the federal government, an insatiable, multibillion-dollar black hole just like health care.
Royson James, the Star’s leading city columnist, begs to differ. Faced with a recession and a huge deficit in the early nineties, the federal government drained money from cities by downloading costs and cutting transfers to the provinces. But the deficit turned into surpluses and the economy’s doing much better. “Now it’s time to put some of that money back in,” James told Maisonneuve in an interview this week. He points out that relying on handouts keeps cities in an awkward position; it’s sort of like an allowance-hungry teenager vulnerable to the whims of a fickle parent. Funding for cities must be stable, flexible and permanent, he insists. The current situation couldn’t be more different: while cities like Toronto struggle to get by with barely any funding from their provincial government, others, like Vancouver, receive a relatively generous amount.
That’s where the Liberal plan fails. Filled with ifs and buts, it proposes a new deal that isn’t all that different from the old one. Cities might get a portion of the gas tax five years from now if negotiations with the provinces go well. That isn’t enough. Funding for cities needs to be sure and stable; they should be given sources of revenue that grow with the economy, such as a portion of the federal income tax. A consistent and effective method of communication between cities and higher levels of government is needed. Constitutional reform would probably be ideal, but that’s a taboo no politician will touch. Still, additional power and stable funding for cities can be achieved within the archaic framework of the constitution, as long as a government is committed to cities.
Unfortunately, the outlook isn’t so good. For cities, the best realistic election result would probably be a Liberal minority government with a strong NDP ready to advance a pro-urban agenda. The fact that the Liberals are desperate to hold onto their seats in Toronto might make them more likely to pull through on their new deal promises should they win. The worst-case scenario? A Conservative government with support from the Bloc Québécois, as some pundits are now contemplating. The Tories have only made hazy promises of giving cities a few cents from the gas tax, and they don’t seem too interested in any sort of real new deal. The left-wing Bloc may support sustainable transportation and urban planning, but neither it nor the Tories would be happy with cities gaining power at the provinces’ expense.