By Karen Unland
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.