Register Saturday | September 22 | 2018
Urban Stall Illustration by Tim Parker.

Urban Stall

Canadian cities are expanding, but their municipal powers haven't caught up. Why our city halls can feel like a parody of parochialism.

THE CITY COUNCILLORS are slowly returning from their lunch break. They mill about the horseshoe-shaped council chamber and wait for their monthly meeting to resume.

Council’s speaker, Frances Nunziata, tries to get everyone’s attention. “'Kay, members of council, if I could have everyone take their seats ... Okay, if I could have quiet.”

She bangs her gavel, trying to calm the room down—the public gallery is quite full. Then, some mutters, scattered clapping, giggles. Coming in from behind the speaker’s desk: Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker. He is holding an inflatable shark.

De Baeremaeker walks around the semi-circle of desks until he arrives at his designated seat. The shark—it’s about three feet long, and shiny—bobs up and down in his right hand. And then he lets it go.

The shark floats several feet above the councillors’ heads, turning this way and that. Its tail waggles.

Belly laughs are heard in the public gallery. A couple of councillors pull out their phones and start snapping photos.

Nunziata, quieter now, somewhere between exasperation and defeat, says, “Okay, can you have that removed?” (More tail waggles.) “Okay, Councillor De Baeremaeker, you know what the rules are, I’m sorry. Councillor De Baeremaeker.”

A security guard follows the shark around, staring up. It floats higher. Then De Baeremaeker interjects. “I have reviewed the procedural by-law and there’s nothing in the pages of the procedural by-law that bans a councillor from having a balloon animal.”

The speaker is known for being a stickler. “Okay, what I’m going to say ... I want to say to the members of the public, under council’s procedures you can’t disrupt this council meeting. I’m asking you to respect council’s proceedings and act appropriately. Now, if this continues then I will be asking members of the public to leave.”

Her warning isn’t entirely without merit: several members of the public are dressed in fuzzy shark costumes. Nunziata continues: “And members of council, please ... please try not to provoke it.” It is unclear whether “it” is the public or the shark.

Nunziata then tries to carry on, returning to the item they had been debating before lunch. Another councillor, Michael Thompson, rises from his seat. He looks up at the shark grimly. “I would ask that you ask the councillor that is actually stick-handling the, uh, the mechanical toy, to basically stickhandle it down to the ground.” The shark is making its way to the upper floor of the council chamber.

Giving in to the inevitable, the speaker calls a ten-minute recess. During the lull one last colleague intervenes. Councillor Shelley Carroll turns to De Baeremaeker. “Glenn, you’re going to have to go up to the other room and pull it through.” Solemnly, she tells him: “It’s stuck.” 

IT FEELS LIKE A COUNCIL MEETING as scripted by Beckett in one of his goofier moods. Torontonians might recognize the story, though: it’s one they saw on their newscasts back in 2011. A bit quirkier than most council meetings, to be sure, but not entirely off the charts. In Toronto, and across the country, city hall can be a weird place.

Municipal politics is generally considered the sleepy backwater of government, a realm where oddballs can get elected on the strength of pet issues, or simply because nobody pays much attention. The policy portfolios are smaller and so are the budgets. The real work, we generally believe, happens elsewhere: in the more polished, more professional legislatures and assemblies.

That conventional wisdom belies a crucial fact about our civic life. Municipal politicians and civil servants define everything from the width of our streets to the frequency of our trash pick-ups. They quite literally shape our day-to-day experience as we navigate the cities many of us call home.

Which brings us to a very important problem. Canada is a country that has long been defined by the vastness of its space. We are, first and foremost, huge, and perhaps the greatest feat in the narrative of our nation’s building is simply that people traversed those great distances to make one country at all. New Canadians get a 50 percent discount on rail travel for a year for the same reason—the sheer expanse of landscape is what distinguishes us.

That’s not really true though, not any longer. We are now defined not by our open spaces but by our cities: Canada is one of the most urbanized countries in the world. Though 81 percent of Canadians are classified as urban, that’s a misleading statistic— it includes anyone living somewhere with a population of at least one thousand and a population density of four hundred or more people per square kilometre. The more telling figure: in 2011, 46 percent of us lived in census metropolitan areas of one million residents or more.

But our political priorities have not caught up with our changing demographics. Canadian cities have little real power. They are, legally speaking, “creatures of the province,” with no constitutional standing and limited capacity to raise their own revenues or chart their own futures. Cities can be created and disbanded by provincial governments on a whim, and though there is an increasing number of cities asking for new powers, nothing compels most provinces to grant them.

In 2006, Ontario passed the City of Toronto Act, which gave Toronto limited new powers, such as the ability to levy certain taxes. But the City is still hamstrung: a provincial board can overturn municipal planning decisions more or less at will, and it’s still up to the province to decide who can vote in local elections and whether more substantial tax changes will ever be permitted. Meanwhile, Alberta has been promising a big city charter— one which would grant new powers to Edmonton and Calgary—for years, but negotiations have been halting.

Our smaller cities aren’t agitating for new powers, and they don’t really need them: the growth is manageable and their issues relatively contained. It’s our large cities that are in the lurch: they face massive infrastructure deficits, bear the brunt of so- cio-economic shifts and are playing an increasingly large role in environmental policy. But they don’t have the tools to adequately address these challenges, and their needs are too often neglected by provincial legislatures whose riding distribution disproportionately favours rural areas.

FOR AS LONG AS I’ve been covering Toronto City Hall, people have asked me why I bother. It’s juvenile and asinine, a high-school student council meeting run amok. Observers complain that the most mundane issue—whether to install a new pedestrian crosswalk or allow a bar to expand its patio—can be debated for hours, held up by a councillor from the other side of town to satisfy a decades-old grudge.

All of that is true. But municipal politicians aren’t somehow less mature, by nature, than those working in other branches of government. It’s just that they have their fights out in the open. Federal and provincial governments are highly regimented parliamentary bodies, with strong party systems that include confidence votes, whips and sanctions for straying too far from the pack. Our city governments, by and large, lack these structural features. It’s not that provincial and federal politicians aren’t capable of stunning acts of immaturity, they just work out most of their issues be- hind closed doors, when they caucus. By the time they reach Question Period, everyone has been handed their lines and given their cues. The debates we watch, as members of the public, are rarely more than carefully-scripted play-acting. 

For all their absurdity, city councils are at least transparent. Some negotiations happen offstage, and some strategies are formulated in back rooms, but many weighty policy decisions are still made on the floor of council, right in front of the public gallery and, often, for live TV audiences. Councillors will actually change their votes, or craft compromise motions on the fly, on the strength of a point made in debate. They do it because they can—they might anger some allies, but they’ll be back in the fold soon enough, or the balance will shift and new centres of power will form. It’s messy, but it’s real.

Voters shouldn’t let the flying sharks scare them. A few hours after De Baeremaeker’s stunt, city council voted overwhelmingly in favour of a ban on the possession and sale of shark fin. Several months later, that decision was overturned in provincial court.