Let’s try governing to the realities of an urban Canada

A couple of weeks ago, Tom Mulcair asked me to be the Urban Affairs Lead for our Federal NDP caucus.  The role involves leading a national consultation on urban issues and working with various critics in our caucus to develop a federal policy agenda for Canada’s cities.  I am thrilled with the assignment because of the promise it holds for making the federal government more relevant to Canadians.

Much has been said and written over time about the political disengagement of Canadians from federal politics.  Ample evidence suggests that when we turn our mind to politics, it is most often to municipal matters and occasionally to what’s going on at the provincial level.

Very rarely do we consider federal politics.  Certainly it has been suggested that the moments in which we do serve to be more discouraging than captivating.  Such is the present state of affairs, no doubt.

I have my own very clear sense of what’s true, right and important amidst the scandal and accusations flying across the floor of the House of Commons these days.  But I can’t escape a sinking feeling, the sense that we all – MPs and Senators, the institutions and the politics we practice – are sinking into a huge steaming pile of something unpleasant.

But these are moments. And while very unhelpful to my conviction that politics matters, the pathology of disengagement has a different explanation.

I believe the issue is really one of relevance.  Canada has left its federal government behind. We’ve had successive federal governments that govern to the postcard, to the travel brochure, to images and myths and probably sometimes to something actually historical – but not to the reality that most Canadians live.

That reality is largely an urban one.  Cities are where 80 per cent of us live.  They’re where we work or search for work.  They’re the environments we’ve built for ourselves to live in.  They impact our health.  They’re responsible for 80 per cent of our greenhouse gas emissions.  They are the places where we create most of our wealth.  And they are Canada’s gateways along a transnational network of people, goods and culture.

We have not, and have never, fully and seriously accounted for this reality in federal politics.  When we settled on the division of powers for this country in 1867, only 15 per cent of Canadians lived in Canada’s cities.  It has been said that poultry in the streets and public drunkenness were the great urban issues of the day.  An exaggeration, no doubt but…Federally, we still govern to the letter of the Constitution.

Grudgingly, paternalistically and only very recently – since, in fact, what the Federation of Canadian Municipalities calls the “doomsday” budget of 2003 – has the Federal government acknowledged an urban infrastructure deficit born of their own neglect, cutbacks and downloads, perpetuated by a fiscal imbalance.

But still cities remain, in all of this, simply municipalities – a separate order of government in need of some form or other of transfers and/or exceptional revenue tools.  In none of this are cities taken seriously and the urban reality of Canada accounted for.  In none of this do we recognize the very true and simple equation of national success with urban success.

We need to recognize that we have a national interest in the success of our cities.  When we catch up to – and govern to – this reality, we’ll find an urban agenda at the forefront of our national agenda.  And then our communities will be reconnected with federal politics and Canadians will find, I believe, something more relevant in federal politics again.


Matthew Kellway is a NDP MP representing Beaches/East York

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