The tao of Toronto: Sickness becomes it

Toronto's mayor is as hazy as late afternoon look from Ward's Island

Toronto’s mayor is as hazy as late afternoon look from Ward’s Island

A mayor of a major metropolitan centre of Canada may skip a meeting of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) for any number of reasons. He might, for example, be overwhelmed, juggling the urgent and competing demands of his office: negotiating with city workers, plotting the placement of new parks, fretting over the whereabouts of a certain video.

But Toronto honcho Rob Ford’s refusal to attend the FCM’s recent summit in Vancouver had more to do with principle than practicality. He just doesn’t like the cut of the organization’s jib, which, he thinks, luffs way too far to the left.

“Eighteen (Toronto) councillors flew out on Thursday,” he opined (according to the Globe and Mail) during this past Sunday’s edition of the radio show he co-hosts with his brother Doug, a Toronto councillor. “You know, the same councillors said ‘aw, you know, the city’s falling apart.’ Well where were they Thursday? Where were they Friday? You could shoot a cannon off at city hall.”

Mr. Ford’s implied contention that the FCM is a costly distraction from the real business of running a metropolis is oddly brave, given his own richly diverting circumstances these days. Beyond this, though, it misses the point. Canadian cities are, to varying degrees, facing serious challenges to their viability. And these challenges are, again to varying degrees, common right across the country.

The FCM is correct when it states in its 2013 Report on the State of Canada’s Cities and Communities that “The current division of powers encourages short term, informal and ad-hoc federal policies in the municipal sector, often designed without meaningful consultation with either municipal or provincial/territorial governments. The result is policies that respond to short-term political pressures and opportunities rather than address structural issues.”

The Federation wants Ottawa to “recognize the role of cities and communities in national prosperity, the challenges they face, and the national interest in vibrant, competitive and safe communities.” To do this, it demands a new deal with the feds that will “lead to the collaborative development of policies and programs that focus on those issues that remain unaddressed under outdated policies and jurisdictional obstacles.”

Those issues include: aging, even crumbling, transportation infrastructure; policing and public safety; affordable housing; and environmental protection.

The FCM’s 2012 report card notes that “a significant amount of municipal infrastructure rank between ‘fair’ and ‘very poor’—on average about 30%. The replacement cost of these assets alone totals $171.8 billion, nationally. . .More than half the roads surveyed fall below a rating of ‘good’: 32% are in ‘fair’ condition, and 20.6% are in ‘poor’ to ‘very poor’ condition, for a total of 52.6%”

Meanwhile, “A mixed picture emerges for wastewater infrastructure, with 40.3% of wastewater plants, pumping stations and storage tanks in ‘fair’ to ‘very poor’ condition, and 30.1% of pipes in ‘fair’ to ‘very poor’ condition. The replacement cost for the wastewater infrastructure in ‘fair’ to ‘very poor’ condition is $39 billion. . .With wastewater infrastructure now subject to new and more stringent federal regulations, even good or very good wastewater infrastructure may require upgrading or replacement.”

Those, like Mr. Ford, who insist that none of this should yield a closer and more  productive financial partnership with Ottawa fail to appreciate that, in the hierarchy of indisputable federal responsibilities (forget economic development or science and technology funding) to Canadians, apolitical support for infrastructure ranks near the top. There is nothing Liberal or Conservative about a bridge that’s about to collapse or, for that matter, a downtown events centre in Moncton that may never get built.

Of course, politicians of all stripes make partisan hay reminding people about their proud rural traditions. That’s because the message is clean and simple, unsullied and uncluttered by the diversity of opinions and opportunities that cities cradle.

Still, increasingly, Canadians are a decidedly urban folk. Citizens and resident immigrants, alike, are heading to the cities, not the countryside, to make lives for themselves. It stands to reason that relevant public investment should follow them there.

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