Retrospective: Mind the Gap

In Canada the city is a poor cousin, an afterthought, a beggar

By Chris Turner

In the spring of 2011, Naheed Nenshi flew off on his first big overseas junket as mayor of Calgary—a trade mission to China. His destination was Beijing, and he arrived after a gruelling flight in the same scuzzy state as any long-haul passenger, exhausted and aching for a shower. Still not used to the jetsetting holder-of-high-office circuit, he’d made the trip in a T-shirt and jeans. He was met at the baggage carousel by a Chinese government escort and whisked into a black SUV with tinted windows, which raced the newly minted VIP toward his first meeting down special traffic-free lanes reserved for senior officials. It took some cajoling, but Nenshi convinced his reluctant minders to stop off at his hotel so he could at least change into a suit.

A few double-time, VIP-lane minutes later, a more present-able Mayor Nenshi was led into the palatial working quarters of the Mayor of Beijing. Bleary but beaming, Nenshi strode into his Chinese counterpart’s office to find it full of sober, dark-suited men awaiting His Calgarian Worship’s arrival.

Out of the corner of his eye, Nenshi spotted a familiar face: Doug Horner, the deputy premier of Alberta. Horner had positioned himself several deferential steps behind Nenshi, in keeping with local custom. In China, the mayor of a major city is a far more powerful and more revered official than some lowly provincial apparatchik. No one was much interested in the vagaries of provincial government; the mayor was the dignitary they’d come to meet.

Back home in Alberta, of course, the power balance is exactly the opposite. Naheed Nenshi’s office—and every other mayoral office at every city hall in the province—exists only by fiat of the provincial government. Under Alberta’s Municipal Government Act, provincial officials control city governments.

To read the entire article, from the April 2012 issue, click here.

Turner revisits “Mind the Gap”:

Since this story ran in 2012, Alberta has undergone an unexpected political transformation, with the 44-year Progressive Conservative dynasty falling to the New Democrats under Rachel Notley. For the province’s big cities, however, the change was not revolutionary but merely incremental. Building on a process begun under the vanquished PCs, Notley made new city charters for Calgary and Edmonton a top priority.

In August 2017 the province unveiled a detailed plan for the charters. Changes enacted in the fall granted new power and authority to Alberta’s largest municipal governments. City councils in Calgary and Edmonton gained greater control over workaday civic issues such as speed limits, bike lanes, bylaws and liquor licensing, and have more flexibility on matters such as affordable housing and environmental stewardship, as well as more stable and predictable funding for major infrastructure projects. The mayors of both cities were vocal advocates for the charters and happy enough to finally have them.

For all of that, the charters mark no radical embrace of decentralized government or local control, let alone all power to the Soviets. Under Notley the provincial government has mostly stayed the course in its relationship with Alberta’s big cities, remaining hierarchical and paternalistic in its general disposition.

In particular the most important power and the one most problematically absent from the status quo—the cities’ ability to levy taxes on anything other than property—was a non-starter. With only property taxes (which don’t increase city hall revenues at anywhere near the same rate as the cities’ populations grow) to rely on, Calgary and Edmonton will remain junior partners. The single biggest factor crippling the ability of Alberta’s large cities to deal with such growth in a smart and sustainable way is their reliance on the political whims of higher levels of government for so much of their funding, and this was never seriously considered even by a cosmopolitan NDP government. It surely says something that the lack of new taxation powers was the only aspect of Notley’s plan praised by the United Conservative opposition.

Meanwhile, the squabbling over budgets that I documented in my 2012 piece continues. Back in March, for example, Mayor Nenshi took to the press to criticize the Notley government for failing to pass along $300-million in infrastructure financing from the federal government’s New Building Canada fund, instead shifting the money into general revenue—where, the province weakly reassured the mayor, it would trickle down to big infrastructure projects in Calgary eventually.

More than a century after the province’s founding, our big cities still find themselves needing to beg at the Legislature door.

Chris Turner is author of The Patch (2017).

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