Canada's "upside-down and backwards" government structure denies municipalities the power and the money to deal with the big problems that land on their doorstep, says Sen. Paula Simons.
Cities are on the front line of public health, immigration and refugee settlement, the effects of climate change, and the work of reconciliation, she told Episode 176 of Speaking Municipally, but they are "the children and sometimes the stepchildren of their provincial governments" with few ways to raise money aside from property taxes.
"All of the major issues that our country faces are being tackled at the municipal level," said Simons, a former journalist who was appointed to the Senate in 2018. "So why don't our municipal leaders have the tools, the flexibility, the funding, to actually do that work?"
A constitutional amendment is "nigh on impossible," but she said she is doing what she can by making a Senate inquiry on the challenges and opportunities of Canadian municipalities.
"I'm not sure that there is a piece of legislation that I could draft that would solve these problems," she said, noting the incremental and indirect nature of any kind of work in the Senate. "But I think what I can do is do my own small part to put these issues on the public agenda."
The idea is to get eight to 10 other senators from across the country to speak to the issues facing municipalities, which may lead to a deeper study.
"Every municipality, large and small, faces the same quandary. They don't have the taxing powers that they need to have. They are very much beholden and need to come cap in hand to the province. And they have this funny relationship with the federal government in which there is often federal funding, a pot of money here, a program there ... but there's always that provincial government running interference in the middle."
Some areas are in federal jurisdiction and thus easier for municipalities to lobby for. Edmonton has already taken a step in that direction by asking for an exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act that would decriminalize simple personal possession of illegal drugs, which is part of its harm reduction strategy. Other potential wins may be found in Indigenous relations and immigration, Simons suggested.
Although big cities face different problems than smaller municipalities do, they should not let go of the opportunity to find common cause, Simons said.
"When you start speaking to enough small-town mayors and county reeves, there is a lot of very deep anger at the way that they have been taken for granted," she said.
She noted a surprising amount of solidarity among municipalities in the Edmonton region, which was not necessarily what she observed when she was the city columnist for the Edmonton Journal.
"The municipalities of Metro Edmonton work together far more collegially and constructively than I ever would have imagined possible 15 years ago ... and have come to realize that we must work together as a metro region, and that we're all in this together, whether we're St. Albert or Beaumont or Stony Plain or Fort Saskatchewan, that we have to function as one economic and cultural node in order to compete in a global economy."
She cited the collaboration on developing hydrogen in the region, with the participation of not only municipalities like Sturgeon County and Fort Saskatchewan but also the Enoch Cree Nation.
In preparation for the Merv Leitch Memorial Lecture, which she delivered earlier this year to the law faculties at the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary, she found herself looking back at all the groundwork laid by Peter Lougheed's government in 1972.
"Fifty years ago, there was a vision for this province that was cohesive and coherent, and set the table for everything that came afterwards," she said. "What kind of city are we going to have 50 years from now, that is not going to be car-centric, that is still going to have housing that people can afford to live in? ... And what are the pieces of the puzzle that we need to put in place to build a city and a province that will sustain us past the end of oil?"
Hear more about these issues, as well as her opposition to Bill C-18 (a proposed link tax on Google and Facebook to funnel money to news media companies), her Alberta Unbound podcast, and her love for the Talus Dome on the April 29 episode of Taproot's civic affairs podcast.