Leaders from our country’s communities gathered en masse at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) in Vancouver this week and attempted to map out their collective future in a nation that continues to see its cities as the runt of the litter in political jurisdictions. The irony of it all is that 8 out of 10 of us live in these very communities that are perpetually overshadowed. It brought the Federation to talk about the “historic disconnect” that has resulted from Canada maintaining a kind of constitutional federalism that no longer suits the modern age. As one FCM publication says:
Why would the federal government want to take on long-term political and fiscal liabilities unless it had to? Looking at many of the ad-hoc and short-term federal interventions over the last 20 years through this lens helps explain why so few delivered meaningful structural change or addressed underlying problems.”
There was something oddly sad about watching all these local politicians and civil servants who care about their respective communities attempting to get the other two senior levels of government to even take notice of the growing complex and at times alarming problems confronting those places where we live – ever the bridesmaid, never the bride.
And yet they can’t just go home and pretend such problems don’t exist. In order to heal, reform and regenerate their communities, civic leaders simply can’t afford to ignore the bigger world around them, even if they feel overlooked by the feds and provinces themselves.
In the last few weeks I have met with five young Londoners who asked for a personal meeting to inform me they are going to enter the local race the next time a municipal election rolls around. They were seeking advice, contacts, policy ideas, and above all affirmation that their efforts can really count for something in the political process. Recently some of them spoke up publicly at the first anniversary of a Pints and Politics event in front of their peers and received encouragement for their honesty.
There will be two essential ingredients required if our next city council is to have any success in parlaying our past difficulties into tomorrow’s opportunities. The first is a sense of respect and cooperation that goes far past anything we have seen recently from our Council chambers. In this I can confidently state that each of those who spoke to me about running have, as one of their highest orders of business, a desire to make civic politics respectable again and are amply qualified.
But the second needed criteria is, in many ways, much harder to come by. The problems resident in our cities cannot be fully solved within our municipal borders or regional county lines. Our communities are part of a larger federation and it takes a lot more to be a city councillor than the mere knowledge of streets, cultures, businesses and possibilities in our communities. Affirming this reality were the words of Karen Leibovici, President of the FCM:
When we look at Canada today, what do we see? Do we see a country where all orders of government, regardless of jurisdiction, work together to apply their knowledge and resources to the full range of challenges and opportunities that play out in our communities?”
The answer to such questions is a clear no … at least not yet. Such a goal shouldn’t be some kind of nirvana, but a concrete and doable partnership among jurisdictions that will bring out the best possible outcomes for all citizens. Clearly, for that to occur, provincial and federal politics must begin paying attention to this country’s communities. Yet the opposite is also true – it’s not all one-way. We require city politicians and regional reeves who develop an interest in other governmental jurisdictions and develop a working knowledge of the policies and historical practices of those domains. A politician who only understands the city might be of little service to her or his community since the majority of funding and legislation emanates from other levels of government entirely.
I have occasionally said in these pages that I grow disillusioned at times when I note just how many Canadians care little about what occurs overseas, as if such things have little bearing on our domestic landscape. Nothing could be further from the truth, and yet such is the nature of humanity that the majority focus primarily on the world immediately around them. One of the worst things that could happen to a local community would be to have councillors or representatives who possess little knowledge of provincial legislation, federal environmental policies, or shared funding arrangements. It is of no help to our communities that local candidates run on platforms calling for an end to homelessness, comprehensive labour reform, environmental standards, or research investment that only call upon local initiatives. We have to raise our sights higher.
To all of those willing to run and put their names forward for local elections I express a deep appreciation that you are willing to step out in a jaded age. But to have maximum effect on the communities you love, you will be required to view your community’s place in the larger world, especially as it relates to shared costing among the three levels of government. Don’t care for your community by serving it in isolation, for, as Blaise Pascal noted, “Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries, and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.” Concentrate on your community alone and it will surely end up alone – just as our communities are at present.