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Canada’s political parties present
urban agendas ahead of election

By Kevin Bourne, Canada Editor*

12 April 2011: The 2011 federal election in Canada has marked a turning point in the country’s political landscape. Nicknamed ‘The Twitter Election’, this campaign has seen an unprecedented number of candidates using social media websites, especially Twitter. The parties they represent have also turned to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other Web 2.0 strategies to reach a broader audience, including the youth vote. This election has also been different in the role that cities have played from the onset. Once the election was called Canada’s big cities became the immediate focus with Toronto, Montréal, Vancouver, Edmonton, and Québec City being the major battlegrounds.

This strong focus on social media, Web 2.0, and cities have also led to an unprecedented focus on municipalities and the urban agenda.

During this election the Globe and Mail, Canada’s largest national newspaper, is periodically running articles on the needs of municipalities and even conducted a live chat with the Globe's urban affairs reporter Siri Agrell and Carol Wilding, president and CEO of the Toronto Board of Trade asking the question, “What’s holding Canadian cities back?” Both concerned residents and even a Member of Parliament participated in the discussion. The urban agenda received an additional boost as the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) ramped up its social media presence for election time, using websites like Twitter to critique and celebrate the parties’ agenda’s for cities and to promote the release of their platform for cities.

Members of the Federation have reason to worry with 40 per cent of federal investments in municipalities set to expire in the next 36 months, including the Build Canada Fund, used by municipalities to fund infrastructure projects. The problems of Canadian cities are compounded as they face a $123-billion infrastructure gap, with many mayors stating publicly they can not address their cities’ needs due to limited resources.

As a result FCM has made strong demands of federal parties. Their platform, called Strong Cities, Strong Communities, Strong Canada, focuses on five key priority areas: infrastructure; transportation and public transit; rural, remote and northern Canada; policing and community safety; and housing. FCM is calling on all federal party leaders to commit to renewing expiring investments in infrastructure, policing and housing, indexing the gas-tax transfer to keep up with economic growth, and legislating 10-year targets to eliminate homelessness. They are also asking the Federal parties to commit to providing cities with $1.9 billion per year.

FCM President Hans Cunningham said, “It’s time for leadership - traffic gridlock is choking our cities, local police services are overstretched, and 175,000 Canadian families are on affordable housing waiting lists. Municipalities just don’t have the funding tools other governments have, and they can’t afford to meet these national challenges all on their own...Across the country, voters are waiting for Party Leaders to outline their plans for building the strong cities and communities our country needs to strengthen its economy and protect its quality of life.”

One by one, parties have begun to communicate their strategies for cities. The Liberal Party has promised $275-million-a-year to create an “Affordable Housing Framework.” The policy would work to reduce homelessness and build and maintain social housing, but would be financed by discontinuing the Public Private Partnership Infrastructure Fund. Municipalities have not responded favourably to ending the program. Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi weighed in on the Liberal plan telling the Globe and Mail, “It’s a bit of a shell game. I was surprised to see it in their platform. Their platform certainly says some good things about affordable housing, but it says basically nothing about infrastructure or transit or any of the other issues that are important to cities, which I found a bit surprising.”

FCM Vice-president, Claude Dauphin, was also surprised by the Liberal platform. “We’re not in favour of abolishing a cent. We would like to make sure that any penny available in any programs to municipalities will remain available...Every penny that could be available for our municipalities in Canada, we want to get it.”

The Conservative plan for cities includes making a long-term investment in infrastructure beyond the life of the Build Canada Fund and introducing legislation to ensure that cities have a permanent source of infrastructure funding through the Gas Tax Fund. FCM has responded favourably to this announcement.

“FCM strongly supports today´s commitment by the Conservative Party to work with us to develop a long-term infrastructure plan to replace the soon-to-expire Building Canada Plan and enshrine the permanent Gas Tax Fund in legislation. This commitment was first announced in the March 22 federal budget, and today the Conservative Party is telling Canadians it is serious about following through on it.”

The Green Party promises to establish a national affordable housing program, to invest in our national railway systems, youth employment, education, and to create six “municipal superfunds” covering community housing and mass transit promotion.

The New Democratic Party (NDP), who was the first federal party to promise new money to municipalities, has provided the most benefits to Canadian cities in their platform. Led by former Toronto city councillor Jack Layton, the NDP have also promised to direct more of the gas tax revenues to new buses, subways, and commuter rail to replace the recently expired federal infrastructure funding; to provide significant new funding for affordable and social housing; and to double and make permanent the Police Officer Recruitment Fund which would enable municipalities to hire more police officers.

The FCM President commented, “Today's NDP platform is the first in this election campaign to call for new, long-term investments in Canada’s cities and communities. We applaud the NDP´s commitment to make permanent federal investments that help municipalities fight growing traffic gridlock and put more police on local streets. The NDP's commitment to permanently invest $400 million per year in public transit would help cities fight rising commute times.”

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*Kevin Bourne was born and raised in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and is now a resident of Ottawa, Canada. Prior to moving to the Capital, Kevin operated a small consulting firm assisting small businesses and non-profits in Policy Development, Organizational Development, and Communications. His passion for cities came about as he travelled and worked all over South Western Ontario. Most recently Kevin interned as a Communications & Operations Assistant on Parliament Hill. In 2007, he graduated from Glendon College, York University with a BA in Political Science and a Bilingual Certificate in Public Administration & Policy. He founded and maintains the blog Reinventing Ottawa.


Calgary's new mayor Naheed Nenshi is critical of some urban policies put forward by politcal parties


Also by Kevin Bourne
Canada slow to build high-speed rail routes
Since its origins in Italy in the late 1930s high speed rail, also known as HSR, has come a long way. Today there are 20 countries around the world with a high speed rail system, but Canada, home to one of the world’s leading train manufacturers in Bombardier, is not one of them. In fact, Canada is the only country in the G8 group (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, UK, USA) without at least one HSR or express line.

There are obvious benefits to high speed rail. It is environmentally friendly, giving people the opportunity to use the train instead of their cars on long distance trip. It also provides healthy competition to the air travel industry, keeping fairs relatively low. This would be welcomed in Canada where air travel is expensive relative to other countries around the world.

Up to this point Asia and Europe have dominated the high speed rail race while North America has lagged behind. Why is Canada so far behind in the game? Is it our conservatism in incurring debt, which has become our claim to fame during the global economic downturn? Is it that we like to work in partnership with, or take our cues from, the United States? More