What are city councillors seeing at the local level?

Featuring Sharmarke Dubow, City Councillor, Victoria, BC; Druh Farrell, Councillor, Ward 7, Calgary, AB; Émilie Thuillier, Mairesse, Ahunstic-Cartierville, Montréal, QC; and Kristyn Wong-Tam, City Councillor, Ward 13, Toronto, ON.

5 Key

A roundup of the most compelling ideas, themes and quotes from this candid conversation

1. Strengthening democracy at City Hall

Cities have suffered decades of underfunding and cuts, and now in a time of crisis, existing problems are magnified. As such, we need to democratize the economy and include the public in the municipal-budgeting process. “We all recognize that the budget is the apex of every single policy tool,” said Toronto City Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam. Greater public participation in the budgeting process engages residents on municipal issues and holds higher-level governments accountable in their allocation of funding.

2. The ‘arc’ of the crisis

The crisis is an “arc.” In the beginning, there was tremendous cooperation and participation. Now, as municipalities reach the middle of the arc, people are exhausted, disillusioned, and questioning the efficacy of unprecedented public-health measures. The arc of the crisis has also highlighted differences in privilege, as “some want to have a haircut, and others cannot afford food,” noted Calgary City Councillor Druh Farrell. As well, there is a growing tension between those who want to return to normal, and those who recognize that the “old normal” is not good enough.

3. The role of the police

The discussion of police funding is important in a time when municipal budgets are stretched thin and in response to recent incidences of police brutality. Victoria City Councillor Sharmarke Dubow said there is no better time than the present for the public to rethink what policing can look like and to revisit the fundamentals of public safety, investing in preventative measures that have an impact on both crime and health. The City of Victoria, for example, took excess funding from cancelled events that would have required a police presence and used it to house people and improve public sanitation. “The social determinants of health are almost identical to social determinants of safety,” added Councillor Wong-Tam.

4. The nimbleness of cities

Councillor Farrell said that “austerity doesn’t work in a pandemic,” and cities are finding themselves having to be pragmatic in getting things done, but doing so creatively and nimbly, breaking the silos of jurisdiction. Councillors are finding themselves to be public health ambassadors, as key decisions right now must be approved by local public health authorities. Cities are tackling issues that usually are not within their jurisdiction, and “the little things that you couldn’t do, are now possible” added Montreal City Councillor Émillie Thuillier.

5. The tension between cities and provinces

Limited by the Canadian constitution written in 1867, municipalities are creatures of the province and do not have the fiscal autonomy necessary to tackle COVID-19 and as well as recovery. The councillors spoke about their municipalities’ relationship to their provincial governments and how intergovernmental support impacts crisis responses. Councillor Druh Farrell pointed out that the City of Calgary and the Province of Alberta have had differing views on aspects of the COVID-19 response.  The City of Calgary, for example, had arranged to rent hotel rooms to house those in the shelter system, but the province intervened and overrode that decision, preferring to continue housing homeless and underhoused people in shelters.

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