How are we shaping the future of Alberta cities?
A roundup of the most compelling ideas, themes and quotes from this candid conversation
1. Alberta is the second most urbanized province in the country
As the second most urbanized province in Canada, Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson suggests that municipalities of scale can, and should be trusted to do more. He gives the example of the Black Lives Matter protests this year, in which community members are asking governments to step up and put more money into systems impacting the social determinants of health. Yet many of these systems—housing, mental health, childcare, and the justice system—are provincial responsibilities. According to Iveson, meaningfully moving the needle requires “bringing cities in to deliver more of that work in partnership with agencies on the ground, at the community level, in a more transparent and accountable way.”
2. Reimagining the structure of the local government
According to Grand Prairie Mayor Bill Given, the pandemic offers us an opportunity to reimagine the structures of local government. Municipalities have already stepped in in areas where they don’t have authority, to continue to meet the needs of Albertans. But cities cannot have additional authorities without the proper corresponding resources and capacity. “We need to get provincial governments out of the way…. I find myself often wondering what exactly it is that the Province does that appropriately structured local governments couldn’t do on their own. The question is not whether local governments have enough authority, it’s whether provincial governments have too much.”
3. Regional harmonization is critical
Red Deer Mayor Tara Veer emphasizes that we don’t live, work, and recreate within municipal borders. Albertans are fluid in their travel patterns. And as the level of government closes to the people, cities know much more about how people live in a multi-municipal context. The lack of harmonization and coordination between orders of government, and patchwork policy responses among municipalities in a region creates challenges for flattening the curve of the pandemic.
4. Enhancing reconciliation within local government
Lethbridge Mayor Chris Spearman talks about the importance of embedding reconciliation into the structures, policies, and practices of municipal government. “We’ve done things like adopt Oki, which is the word welcome in Blackfoot, as our official greeting for the city of Lethbridge. We have monthly reconciliation meetings with every Indigenous community. We’re trying to build ways of working together on economic opportunity, addressing social issues.”
5. Fostering cooperation, not competition
All the mayors talked about the importance of intermunicipal cooperation. But Mayor Veer highlights that this is easier said than done. “The way that the current fiscal frameworks and government funding work, how municipalities are defined, and how infrastructure dollars are awarded, actually positions us as competitors and not neighbors. For example, we had a 90-million-dollar overpass that was funded by the Province because our neighbor is a rural municipality…. If it had been within our borders, [it would have had to be paid for] through the property tax base. So as much as there is a spirit of cooperation and willingness, there is a protectionism and a territoriality, because if you follow the money, it rewards that unfortunate division and divides us as competitors.”
Note to readers: This video session was transcribed using auto-transcribing software. Manual editing was undertaken in an effort to improve readability and clarity. Questions or concerns with the transcription can be directed to email@example.com with “transcription” in the subject line.
Mary Rowe [00:00:00] We are a national organization interested in connective tissue and how we actually foster a conversation about Canadian cities coast to coast, and we’ve been in Edmonton all week. We’ve been hearing the best and the worst and the challenges and the opportunities and everything that Edmontonians are wrestling with, coming to terms with, experimenting with. It’s really been very, very exciting for us. We had hoped, of course, to be literally there. But the COVID reality, I mean, we couldn’t be. But one of the little silver linings, hard to imagine, there are very many, but one of the silver linings of the COVID situation is that we can virtually gather like we are now. We don’t have anybody complaining about travel time. We don’t have anybody missing planes. We all are having this collective national conversation and it’s been really, really instructive for us to watch how COVID has accelerated our sense of collectiveness around urban Canada and how important it is for us now to extend our conversation today beyond Edmonton, but to these other sister cities in the region. So, I’m obviously participating from Toronto. And I could show you my outdoor. You’ll see we don’t have any snow and that it’s a little chilly here to stan. And Toronto is the traditional territory of many First Nations as we know. Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishinabek, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee, and the Wendat peoples now home to many diverse First Nations, Metis, and Inuit people across what was and is still called Turtle Island. Toronto is covered by Treaty Thirteen, which is fine with Mississaugas of the Credit and the Williams treaties that were signed with multiple Anishinabek nations. Also, because we’re participating in Edmonton all week, that is treaty six territory, the Merimee, correct me on this, but this is land that’s been occupied, traveled and cared for by a number of indigenous peoples places, traditional meeting, ground gathering place and traveling route for the Cree, Anishinabek and I am not going to be able to pronounce these things. So, Mayor Iveson, I’m going to rely on you to give us a land acknowledgment for Edmonton so that I don’t completely cock it up. And just to say that we are coming to terms here in our work as urbanists in every environment we find ourselves about the legacies of exclusion and the challenges that we all have to build our cities differently and to try to move forward out of this extraordinary moment, this global pandemic moment, to see what our cities need to look like in the future. And so, we’re very appreciative to have four of Alberta’s leading civic leaders who are championing their own cities, but also thinking regionally about what the future. So, I’m going to go to you first Mayor Iveson to correct my botch at the land acknowledgment. And then if you could start talking to us a little bit about what you see as the sort of pressing challenge Edmonton is coming to terms with through COVID and how you imagine you’re going to emerge and how much you’re going to need. And then I’m going to go to your colleagues, and we’ll have a broader conversation. So over to you first Mayor Iveson.
Mayor Don Iveson [00:02:57] Well, I’ll, I’ll say Tensei aush did it. Lanita bonjour and hello. Some of the languages you hear in this territory, which is treaty six territory, Metis region zone for and pleased to be joined by colleagues from Treaty eight and Treaty seven territory here in Alberta, as well as all of us here join you as part of the extended Red Dear Metropolitan Region, which, as Tara will note, is really the center of central Alberta. And so, all roads lead in Alberta to one of our cities that are on this call, from Lethbridge to Red Deer to Grand Prairie and the Alaska Highway from here runs all the way up to through Grand Prairie and all the way up to the north. And the canamex trade corridor runs from Edmonton South through Red Deer and Calgary and Lethbridge all the way to the Montana border. No traffic lights all the way to Mexico. So, we are all critical parts of the logistics and trade infrastructure of this country from north to south, and of course, all the east west connects through here, too. And what I’ll say maybe about the pandemic is that it has exposed the fragility of all municipalities, particularly cities. And it’s not just to expose the fragility of municipal corporations, and we can talk about those specifically, but of our communities where people concentrate who are most vulnerable. And I’m going to say first, actually, and I will talk about vulnerable human beings, but I’m going to say vulnerable businesses. Small businesses in our community are struggling immensely. And at the earliest stages of this crisis, back in March and April, I chair the big city mayors in this country and both in our conversations at that table and with our neighbors in the region here in Edmonton Metro, so much of our conversation was about small business and what this is going to mean for our entrepreneurs and our community and also what it’s going to mean for vulnerable people. And I want to say that consistently in this crisis, municipal leaders have put the interests of our vulnerable parts of our business community and vulnerable parts of our social fabric ahead of our own needs, sometimes to our detriment, while making sure that they got the support they needed from senior orders of government as well as from us, whether it was for housing or whether for rent subsidy for businesses or evictions supports for vulnerable people to prevent them from being evicted. And so, I think all of the frailties of our systems have been exposed by this, particularly where vulnerable people and vulnerable organizations concentrate, which is in our cities. And I should just say not to diminish at all the challenges this is having in rural parts of the country and the issues with broadband connectivity is an essential service and other issues that have come to the fore. But for cities, I think as the organizations of government closest to the ground, we’ve seen up front the impacts on Main Street to businesses that have already failed or concerned that failure is around the corner. And we’ve seen on the ground the challenges with after more than a decade of bringing homelessness down through housing first and showing that you can not only drop homelessness in half, but actually set a credible goal to end it, at least functionally from one day to the next, that homelessness has started to rise in light of COVID and cities are hubs where people come when they’re struggling. And I think that that’s going to put even more pressure on us in the coming months and years here. But then fundamentally fiscally for us, the inflexibility of property tax, both for the taxpayer and for the city, that’s come to light. And the limitations we have with respect to dependency on senior orders of government to do what needs to be done has really been exposed and where all orders of government pulling in the right direction you can do extraordinary things in this country. If they’re not, and we can say a little bit more about that, serious now life and death problems come into focus and so lots that we can talk about. I’ll leave it there because I think my colleagues will have important things to add and then I look forward to the discussion. Thank you, Mary, for bringing the Canadian Urban Institute to our city and our region.
Mary Rowe [00:07:19] We’re learning a ton and we’re very appreciative of all the things that you’re trying there and the lessons that you’re learning and all that. We used to talk in urban life about pilot. We want to try something. Let’s try a pilot. Now we’re all on one big pilot. You know, urban life is one big pilot everywhere. If I can encourage people to participate in the chat, it’s great that you’re telling us where you’re coming from. Always interesting for us. Adjust your settings, though, so that it says to panelists and everyone, it’s the top thing. Our panelists and attendees, I think so that we can all see what everybody is saying back and forth. And just remember that we videotape these sessions, and we record the chat. And so, whatever you put up there stays there, just saying. Ok, so I’m interested if we would now go to you Mayor Given because you and I had a little bit of a chat before we started about Grand Prairie or seventy thousand in your core city, and then another twenty-five in the region. I’m appreciative that we want to hear the regional perspective. And I appreciate the geography you gave us there, Don, because it helps us orient and understand the kind of access points and how these economic conditions are felt regionally. We know. And also, your shout out to what’s happening independent and small businesses. We at CUI I’ve been doing Bring Back Main Street with a lot of your participation and support. And we really feel that is a universal challenge in every community of every size, interestingly, across the country. Downtown Toronto, downtown Montreal and Grand Prairie and Red Deer, and I’m sure I’m going to get the same about Lethbridge. So, let’s go. Bill, Mayor Bill, talk to us.
Mayor Bill Given [00:08:48] Yeah, well, you know, it’s interesting. You’ve really got an Albertan panel here, which is great to see. And all of us really exist in a regional context. You know, Don’s regional context a little bit different from the other three of us. But I think the impact of the pandemic on cities is one thing. But cities are, I think they’re an anachronism, actually. I think metro areas or what we need to be thinking about in Don’s case, and not that I’ll tell him what he should be thinking about. But I think across the province, you know, we know so much more about how economies work across boundaries. We know so much more about how we’re all impacted by things like climate change and water quality and air quality. We understand that people live their lives in a multi-municipal context. But here in Alberta and certainly really across the west, our local government structures are set up on the basis of how far you could travel in a horse and wagon in a day. And I would suggest that that is not the most relevant way to structure local governments for the modern world where we need to deal with things like pandemics, like global financial crisis, like climate change. And so, I really think that for our province, this pandemic and the fiscal crisis that we have here in Alberta really should offer us a chance to reimagine local government structures in a modern way that could be more effective on all those different dimensions. Sadly, I think we’ve seen in this province that there has not been the courage from the provincial government to actually take any active steps towards doing something about that to help structure modern local governments that would have the appropriate capacity to deal with the challenges that we face in the 21st century. In other provinces, I know when provincial governments do decide to take an active role, I know the results are mixed. But here in Alberta, I think it’s really very opposite. We’ve seen a lack of action from successive provincial governments, and that means that Alberta municipalities are not equipped to be able to compete in this globalized context that we’re in.
Mary Rowe [00:10:59] Boy, Mayor Given, you’ve just introduced a whole new notion of is the city the archaic form? Do we need some other form? We had a City Talk earlier this week about charter cities and more power for cities and actually Mayor Iverson’s Chief of Staff was on that call talking about navigating charters, and is that a useful tool or not? We had a conversation across the country, and we had an academic Canadian transplanted to Texas who said what we really need is provincial governments to get constitutions and to start talking about establishing different relationships with their municipalities, that kind of blue the water out of the park.
Mayor Bill Given [00:11:37] The other thing that you could say is we need to get provincial governments out of the way. There are things at a national scale that need to be handled nationally, and I absolutely believe that. I find myself often wondering what exactly it is the province does that appropriately structured local governments couldn’t do on their own. So, the question is not whether local governments have enough authority, it’s whether provincial governments have too much.
Mary Rowe [00:11:58] That’s a chatty little topic. OK, well, you know, the thing about this that’s so interesting, though, is it’s forcing us to really look carefully at who should be doing what. who is best suited for designing policy, figuring out what the problems are, figuring out what the solutions are, and then how does it get paid for? And then how do we as residents who pay taxes, how will we then hold someone clearly accountable for what’s not happening? One of the things I want to talk with you about is homelessness and housing, because I feel like you’ve collectively kind of decided to go your own way and solve it and not wait for anybody to give you permission to do it. So, there’s some wiggle room that I’m observing that I feel in true Albertan get it done kind of attitude, you’re taking matters into your own hands. But as you say, maybe it takes a while for the structures to catch up with what actually you’re already doing. So, Tara, can we hear from you, please? Your perspective on this. Do you think that it’s time for municipal governments to be there? Are they archaic? That form?
Mayor Tara Veer [00:12:57] Well, that’s a great question. Thank you so much. I’d like to start off by thanking the Canadian Urban Institute and welcome everybody has joined us. Honored to be on the panel today with colleagues and my friends. I have had a chance to work with all three mayors in terms of advocacy to the provincial government. It’s a loss to their communities and to Albertans that Mayor Given and Mayor Iveson have opted not to run again. But we wish them well in their future endeavors. So, I just want to say that just incredible leaders who really have transformed the municipal landscape in our province and have set the stage for what is to come, as you know. So, I’ll just address your question in general and then hone it down to the specific question you’ve raised around the pandemic. It is time for a new arrangement. I mean, municipalities for many years have sounded the alarm, trying to end the traditional non-constitutionally recognized relationship. This parent type of child is systemic frustration that we experience. And we’ve tried different methods to deal with that. But I concur with Mayor Iveson’s point in the fact that the very points that we’ve made for many, many years, the pandemic has completely exposed the very points that we’ve been making, and we find that the time to plan for an emergency is before the emergency. And thankfully, our city’s been in fairly strong position, in fact, because we’ve run through the scenarios. In fact, sometimes we do such great emergency planning. We’re three for three and the emergency plan ends up happening.
Mary Rowe [00:14:43] What are you planning for next?
Mayor Tara Veer [00:14:46] Yeah, I know, I’ve said stop planning. But we’ve seen the public weaknesses and the private weaknesses. So publicly it’s exposed that the fiscal frameworks and decision-making tools and the systemic structures that municipalities are working for no longer meet the expectations of our public in terms of who and what they want municipalities to attend to because we’re the government closest to the people. But on a second point, publicly, it also demonstrates through the lack of harmonization between this complex bureaucratic navigation, between a federal order of government saying this and a provincial order of government doing one thing and then the in some of those gaps of public policy gaps, municipalities having to step in. It’s also exposed, as was referenced with respect to the private sector with what households and businesses are able to sustain in a non-diversified economy and as well as the vulnerable. Those vulnerabilities are being exacerbated by the pandemic. The final point that I’ll make in terms, I just want to pick up on this point of harmonization in the regions. As Mayor Given referenced, we don’t live, work and recreate with borders. And as Albertans, actually, it’s not even on a regional basis. Albertans are very, very fluid in our travel patterns throughout our province. But, you know, the pandemic really exemplifies that. We have a lack of harmonization provincially or regionally, even with our pandemic response. And yet we all share the same hospital. And, you know, when we have a patchwork of response to it, really, we all share the same hospital. And if our objective is to flatten the curve and minimize hospitalizations, that regional harmonization is even more critical.
Mary Rowe [00:16:44] I mean, you’re right that this crisis, everything bleeds into everything else. So just the comments that Bill was making, watersheds don’t actually correspond to municipal boundaries, nor do pandemic travel. We have an interesting situation in Ontario where the provincial government made a choice a couple of weeks ago to lock down certain municipal bordered areas, right. So, it locked down a region in Toronto. The dilemma, of course, is that people then just drive outside of the region and it’s hard to get a regionally consistent response. People appreciate what he was trying to do. But it just ends up, I think, the absence of any kind of formal mechanism that would have been in the deliberations about that decision, that’s what’s so often is missing. You all have to deal with decisions that are taken where you weren’t consulted, where there wasn’t the understanding that you are all different. It’s very tricky. Go ahead, Mayor Spearman. Let’s hear your views on this and generally tell us a little bit, if you could, about Lethbridge and what you’ve been dealing with.
Mayor Chris Spearman [00:17:45] We’re the most southern city. We’re about an hour north of the US border. Highways two, three, four and five flow through Lethbridge. So, there’s a lot of commercial traffic through our city. We’re a hub of southwest Alberta and in fact, at one o’clock, which is in about 11 minutes, I’m hosting a regional meeting of the municipalities in southwest overlap. So, we are in the traditional land of the Blackfoot people and we don’t talk about the treaty because to the Blackfoot people, the treaty is an insult. So, it was how their rights were limited. So, it’s the land of the Blackfoot people, not treaty seven land in our case. So, one of our one of our key initiatives in this council term has been to enhance reconciliation. So, we’ve done things like we adopted Oki, which is the word welcome in Blackfoot, as our official greeting for the city of Lethbridge. We have monthly reconciliation meetings with every Indigenous community. We’re trying to build ways of working together on economic opportunity, addressing social issues. These are all things that, again, are borderless, but we do the same with the surrounding towns. When it comes to economic development, we want to be focused on strategic, catalytic economic development. So, we need to work with the province and with the federal government on things like airport development. That’s key to our future. We’re building in Agri-food Hub in Lethbridge, which is a technology enhanced agriculture and a learning center in partnership with our university and our college. So, we’re lucky to have both a university and a college, which are highly thought of by our local businesses and have great partnerships. But Lethbridge has some significant social issues and high levels of poverty and racism has been a factor in overcoming that, which is why reconciliation is so important to us, and making sure that everybody has the same opportunity. Our city motto is Gateway to Opportunity, and that should be a gateway to opportunity for everyone who lives here, regardless of race, background, place of origin. We’ve got to make sure we know that everybody wants the same outcome. They want their younger people to be happy and secure. And we certainly have some challenges in achieving that and we need to work with the province to make sure that we have affordable housing. Our homeless numbers have doubled through the pandemic and it’s just a tremendous pressure. I’m sure the other cities will say, you know, when you have an outbreak at your homeless shelter, you’re very limited in what your options are. We don’t have backup plans and we’re struggling to accommodate challenges like that. So, the people who are marginalized, the underprivileged, those people will be suffering the most. But certainly, as a hub city, we have additional responsibilities. And it’s been brought to my attention, I’m sure we’re going to be discussing it this afternoon, we have a regional hospital. But as we approach the point where the regional hospital can’t accept any more people. All the people in the local hospitals, in the areas around us that can no longer be sent into our hospital where we have the equipment, this pandemic is going to negatively impact people in rural areas. To this point, they felt in many cases that it wasn’t going to impact them. But as we’re seeing the numbers rise in rural areas throughout the province, the onus is going to be on cities like the hub cities like Lethbridge, Red Deer, Grand Prairie, Calgary and Edmonton to accept and absorb some of these issues from the surrounding areas. So that’s what I see.
Mary Rowe [00:22:06] When you say Hub City Mayor Spearmon, is that an actual term that is formally adopted in that there are a number of cities that you are called hub cities in Alberta, or are you just adopting that because you have similar kinds of connectivity traits.
Mayor Chris Spearman [00:22:22] Yeah, in Alberta we have over 20 mid-sized cities and they have populations from twenty thousand up. Some would be suburbs, I don’t want to say that in the drug derogatory sense, but some are very close to Calgary and Edmonton.
Mary Rowe [00:22:42] Right.
Mayor Chris Spearman [00:22:43] So and then there are others that are like Calgary, Red Deer, Grand Prairie that are regional hubs. So, the areas around us depend on us for services. We have things like regional hospitals, and we are the major shopping hubs and that type of things. There’s a lot of flow in and out of our cities and the areas around us.
Mayor Bill Given [00:23:06] I think that’s a term of art that Chris has coined. But I think it’s based in the facts on the ground about the way our communities work. But it isn’t recognized in legislation, which is maybe kind of my point, that it should be.
Mary Rowe [00:23:20] So it’s not recognized legislation. Go ahead, Karen. What were you going to say?
Mayor Tara Veer [00:23:22] I was just going to say, historically, the government of Alberta has had a phrase which as midsize city caucus mayors generally weren’t in favor of. The government, refers to Edmonton, Calgary and ROA, meaning the rest of Alberta. There’s three hundred sixty-five plus municipalities in Alberta and everybody has unique needs and interests. So, arising out of our midsize caucus, of which there’s about 22 urban centers, is certainly not in the same metro size as Edmonton or Calgary. But that regional hub community’s perspective really was a response to the new reality that many of us have made over the past few years is the fact we don’t live, work and recreate with the border. And regional hub cities, Mayor Spearmen had referenced which ones they are specifically, do play a different role. So, our hope is to transition the government’s viewpoint so, you know, Edmonton, Calgary, regional hub cities and then perhaps some other term for the remaining three hundred sixty municipalities.
Mayor Bill Given [00:24:40] Or less.
Mayor Tara Veer [00:24:41] Or less if Mayor Given gets his dream.
Mayor Bill Given [00:24:45] I think we can do it with under one hundred.
Mary Rowe [00:24:48] You all made this point about all the fragility. I’m recognizing that Mayor Spearman may have to step away. But Don, you talked about all the fragility and Mayor Spearman just talked about here’s an example where there is a complete interdependence in these regional hubs for health care support and this fragility existed before and now COVID is going to make it really clear that these kinds of arrangements just aren’t resilient right enough, right? So, what kind of potential changes would you imagine, as one of the two named cities in the Alberta regime of Edmonton, Don? What do you see?
Mayor Don Iveson [00:25:26] Well, first of all, I think you’ll see why I like working with these other mayors so much. And there are more great mayors in Alberta. And when you put the mid-sized cities in Edmonton and Calgary together, you got three million people who want to live in great cities of various sizes and large towns across the province. And one thing that’s not well known about Alberta, that I’ll frame what I’m going to say next that will actually answer your question, is that this is, I think, the second most urbanized province in the country. And the postcards and the travel Alberta esthetic is not that. And we have a brilliant and proud rural and agricultural past and present. But this is one of the most urbanized places in the country. And we tried to get the legislation to reflect that. So the Municipal Government Act has made some good steps forward. A lot of things that Edmonton and Calgary were trying to get in the city Charter ended up coming to all of us in the Municipal Government Act because they made sense for all municipalities. But I really do think that municipalities of scale, and that includes everyone on this call, not just Edmonton, Calgary, can be entrusted to do more and in fact, that we are leaving better results on the table and leaving money on the table by not working together more effectively. And I’ll give you a concrete example of this, which is that when the Black Lives Matter and defund the police rallies were happening around the world and across our country and in each one of our communities, incidentally, folks came forward and said, we’re not doing a good enough job of supporting people who experience discrimination on the basis of being racialized, either Indigenous or people of color in our communities, and that they need to be empowered more with supports and key infrastructure, housing and mental health and child care and community development. And the call, interestingly, came to us, as defund police so we can fund those things. And my first response to this was not very well received civics lesson on well, most of the things you want I want, and I’ve been advocating for the provincial government to act in its area of jurisdiction to do more of the right preventative things in each one of those areas, through our anti-poverty strategy, through our end homelessness work. So, I’m sort of agreeing that there’s a deficit in those areas, but also pointing out that you’ve actually got to fund those things and get better results. So, the case I would want to make is that bringing cities in to delivering more of that work in partnership with agencies on the ground, at the community level, in a more transparent and accountable way, I’m sure that with the money that’s in the system today that goes into trying to move the needle on the social determinants of health, that if cities were driving that with federal and provincial investment and reporting on our results. I’d hundred percent love to compete with each of the other folks on this call for delivering the best results I can to build better lives for people so that I can reduce their interaction with police, reduce their interaction with the justice system, reduce their interaction with the health care system. And by the way, the premiers just ask the federal government for a 50 percent permanent increase in the health and social transfers because of COVID. And their fiscal situation is almost as devastated as ours, but they can run deficits, we can’t. So, we have a more immediate limitation. But nonetheless, I have some sympathy for their call, for the need. But until we really get strategic about how we’re going to move the needle on healthier and safer communities from the bottom up, not from the top down, we’re just going to keep pouring money in for mixed results at best. So, I really do think that if we empowered communities at a regional scale to work systemically and strategically, that we could get for the money that’s in the system way better outcomes on health, way better outcomes on justice. And then in turn, police could actually chase the real bad guys who are victimizing the people, experiencing poverty and victimizing the people who are being re-traumatized every day. Survivors of residential schools and folks who moved here as refugees, former child soldiers, veterans with PTSD, that’s our homeless population, stories of trauma. And there is a better way to support those people than the way the billions and billions of dollars are being spent today. And I think if you put some of it in the hands of cities with real coordinating, convening power, I’m sure we could do a better job for Canadians.
Mary Rowe [00:29:59] Let’s talk a bit about this regional approach that you’re doing. And I just want to respond to something that’s animated on the chat because I sometimes do. Just for Christopher Wilson’s benefit, we’re in Calgary all week next week. We’re doing a residency this week. I would have been sorry if there was a little bit of Calgary, Edmonton stuff going on. And so, we’re in Edmonton all this week. And we’re in Calgary all next week where we have City Talk with Calgary as well. And Mayor Nenshi has been on not one but two City Talks, including one about three weeks ago. So, we are very appreciative that there are a diverse number of views and we want to get as much municipal leadership input as we can. So, let’s talk a little bit about the regional piece if we could. You’re already saying informally, you’re already kind of doing it. We are hearing from our consultations that it sounds as if your region may well be the first in Canada to actually eliminate homelessness, even though I’m hearing from your experience that it’s particularly challenging. Can I get a sense from you, are there other areas where you think you as municipal leaders are particularly innovative? Other things that you’ve been doing really, really well and smartly that we need to be watching and paying attention to.
Mayor Bill Given [00:31:05] Yeah, well, you know, I think one of the areas that municipalities could be doing more, if the structures were appropriately set up, would be environmental initiatives. You know, certainly in Alberta, the province and our current provincial government is looking to reduce the scope and size of the provincial government’s footprint. I think that that’s pretty clear. And that is a choice that they’re making. I think if municipal governments were structured appropriately, we would have the capacity to deal with environmental initiatives in a much more intuitive way that is more aligned with local needs and priorities. I appreciate that we need to have strong environmental regulations at much larger scales than even regional municipal governments could do. I fully acknowledge that and appreciate that. But I think in terms of the actual on the groundwork with NGOs, with citizens, I think that the idea of subsidiary and trying to ensure that services and functions of government are delivered by the level of government most closely to the people. I think there’s lots of different areas where local governments are doing great work and are better suited than provincial governments doing it.
Mary Rowe [00:32:18] This is this European concept and I see comes up repeatedly on city talk. We’re all becoming experts on subsidiarity, which is basically, as you just suggested Bill, it’s the idea that the service that’s quote, the service is delivered by the order of government closest to the recipient of the service. And that needs to be funded and designed and implemented there. One of the things that we had to push back on is that one might think that a conservative government of any description might be amenable to this because it’s about getting more decentralization in power to the people. Does anybody want to comment on trying to have that conversation with Europe, with particularly with the conservative folks, not just in your provincial government? I know you have conservative council members, too, for sure. Tara, how do you navigate that?
Mayor Tara Veer [00:33:05] So I will say this, I think on principle, what we often hear is this idea of partnership and working together and leveraging of resources. And I will say know over the past couple of years and perhaps over the past decade, our infrastructure grants are generally looked more favorably as a regional-hub city when we can show that it’s serving the region as well. Some of our key advocacy initiatives that we’ve done in terms of core provincial infrastructure that our community needs, if it’s serving the region instead of just city of Regio proper, that’s often looked at more favorably. But I think that the challenge of it is, Mayor Spearman and I, and Mayor Scott from Buffalo have a immanency from Calgary, we have a classic example right now where, you know, the conservative principle of regionalization or decentralization in a time of economic scarcity, we’re seeing a shift towards consolidation. Ambulance dispatch is the issue I’m referencing where historically, it actually makes far more sense to deliver that on a regional basis, get the economies of scale, but it’s also closest to the people. But in any new economic normal, we’re seeing this complete centralization of a service that should be delivered on a regional basis. And that we’ve said we’re willing to even foot the bill if it comes to that, because that’s what’s right for the people. I’d like to respond and add to what Mayor Given had said in terms of where our municipalities, in terms of what can we pivot and do better or quicker. Mayor Iveson will often talk about where constitutionally municipalities aren’t recognized and we have this consequence of that. But yet the expectations of our citizens, we’re the government closest to the people. I think our public will understand on paper, we can say, well, this is federal jurisdiction, and this is provincial jurisdiction, and this is municipal jurisdiction. But people at the end of the day, they don’t really care. They just want they want great services. They want a quality of life, and they want us to address problems. To a certain extent, it is an inherent tension of being a municipal leader because you have to tell the truth and you don’t want to blame shift, but you have to tell the truth and call out the systemic challenges that we’re faced with in terms well, that that’s the feds or that’s the province and not resonate with people for leaders to finger point. So it’s an inherent tension where you’re always pointing the finger to the correct jurisdiction. But then you can only do that insofar and make the point on principal, where then as a leader, you have an ethical imperative to say, OK, we’re not getting the shelter or housing infrastructure we need, so we’re going to pivot locally and respond.
Mary Rowe [00:36:17] And just do it.
Mayor Tara Veer [00:36:17] And that’s a great example. So, I’ve really seen a transition where the lines between jurisdiction haven’t been redrawn, but they have been in a de facto way and municipalities talk about downloads. But at some point, we just say, well, we have a problem. It’s not getting fixed. This is the 10-year social infrastructure deficit so we’re just going to do it. Same thing on environmental initiatives or economic diversification. So, it is an inherent tension that we’re faced with where we’re trying to, on one hand, resolve this systemic inequity or structural issues, but at the same time be a responsive, ethical leader in responding to the challenges of our time.
Mary Rowe [00:37:01] So during COIVD, you haven’t spent 10 seconds saying, sorry, we can’t do that. It’s not in our jurisdiction. You just have to do it.
Mayor Tara Veer [00:37:07] Well, that’s a great example. There are times where we’ve said, look, we watch the press conferences daily and then we have a debrief and say we need a day or two to figure out what this means for us. And then we might add our own local enhancements to that. So, it’s trying to respond to what the health authorities saying, but also saying that we have to look at our own local circumstances and do what we think is right to keep people safe and healthy.
Mayor Bill Given [00:37:33] Well, and I think it’s important, too, to recognize that in Alberta, municipalities aren’t delegated any responsibility for public health. I know in Ontario, we see Ontario municipalities with public health officers. That’s not something that Alberta municipalities have any jurisdiction over. And so, we’re actually caught often, certainly at the mid-sized city scale of trying to interpret provincial direction and medical advice and understand what that means for things like mask mandates and other things and appreciate the work that local governments are doing in the absence of good quality information. And so, I’m not sure that I would want to ask for additional authority without the resources to be able to do it, to be clear. But I think many Ontario municipalities are able to respond more effectively because they have health professionals working for them, because that’s a responsibility of municipalities in those areas. And in Alberta, that responsibility is held closely by the provincial government and getting information out in a timely manner can be difficult and a real challenge in responding.
Mary Rowe [00:38:34] You know Bill, t’s going to be a tough question to talk about now given that you have to wait a few months till you can actually have that conversation because you’re in the throes of coping with the system you’ve got. But going forward, are you going to be able to go back and say, if we were resourced differently, we would have contained differently.
Mayor Bill Given [00:38:50] Mayors across the province are saying that now.
Mary Rowe [00:38:51] They are saying that.
Mayor Don Iveson [00:38:52] And I think I think Albertans are saying that’s what they want us to do. And the challenge is, we don’t quite have the tools and even some of the tools we have under emergency management legislation, we can put in place states local emergency, we can pass orders under our emergency management authority, but those can be countermanded by the province. And so, we’re in pretty precarious and paternalistic scenario there. So, we really do rely on the province and again, in a region like mine, and we went back and forth on this around masks, it would have made a lot more sense to have a mask rule for Edmonton Metro because people live in the county, work in the city, visit relatives in the town just outside of our boundaries. And that’s why you want a consistent approach to these things. In the end, it was quite clear the province wasn’t going to go anywhere near masks. And five months later, they have, finally, but only in response to these numbers that we’re seeing now. And frankly, we bought them time by going ahead in the major centers in Edmonton and Calgary. But the virus leaked out in a borderless way to rest of the province. And it’s just an illustration of the fact where the right level of authority for some of these things really is at the metropolitan scale because of integrated transportation and labor movement patterns, infrastructure systems, economies, businesses you would want to treat equitably in terms of restrictions from one community to the next, from a level playing field point of view. And so, I think that’s where the case for metropolitan scale, whether it’s Grand Prairie region or whether it’s Edmonton or Calgary region, that the virus keeps proving that point. And so, if it was to be delegated, I’d want it to be delegated to a regional authority that could act swiftly and decisively, or I would want my province to well, I’ll save comment on how I would like the province to do it, though I’m providing feedback even today on what I would like to see happen, at least at the metro scale here. But again, you’re back in the situation that Tara said. If the action doesn’t come, my public is screaming for stronger measures right now. I’ve got businesses asking to be shut down so that they can maximize their access to federal aid. We’re always left in this unenviable frontline position and yet I marvel at the work that folks like these and our city councilors and our civic administrators do in that next to impossible situation with way less resources than the other orders of government.
Mary Rowe [00:41:23] As I was saying before, we’re all in this one big pilot right now where we’re learning what’s working and what isn’t. And it’s a cautionary tale that it takes a crisis like this with lives lost, that may be the thing that we need to actually realign who’s doing what and how we get things paid for. I appreciate very much the perspective you folks have offered around the metropolitan level. And as you said, Don, that you’re actually the second most urbanized part of the country, which is important for people to recognize. So, again, I think people will look to the lessons and you have, Tara you just mentioned it, we are aware that you went ahead and have just started solving things, whether they in your jurisdiction or not. And that’s the kind of resourcefulness that I think the rest of us need to listen to and that we hope that the provincial level, not just your province, but other provinces and of course, the federal government, will recognize that there’s all sorts of examples of this kind of thing. We’ve only got two more minutes left. Is there anything that you want to add in before I release you to get back to your budgetary negotiations or whatever it is, or the public health challenges that you’re facing? If anybody want to add anything. Tara anything from you.
Mayor Tara Veer [00:42:27] Lino, I noticed here just had asked about inter-municipal cooperation. And I think that’s a great question because it’s a question all three of us now have fully addressed. I do think that there is a general spirit of cooperation. But I will say this, the way that the current fiscal frameworks work, government funding, current definitions of municipalities and the way that infrastructure dollars are awarded, it actually positions us as competitors and not neighbors. So systemically, we’re competitors and we’re not neighbors. We have a great example of a 90 million dollar overpass that was funded by the province because our neighbor is a rural municipality and the government pays for that. If it that had been within our borders, that would have been through the property tax base. So as much as there is a spirit of cooperation and willingness, there is a protectionism and a territoriality, because if you follow the bunny, it rewards that unfortunate division and divides us as competitors, unfortunately.
Mary Rowe [00:43:44] Well that’s pretty interesting. How do we move to a collaborative cooperation as you say, and would a regional understanding help us? Don, what did you want to add in?
Mayor Don Iveson [00:43:51] Well, I was going to say something different, but I’ll pick up on this. Our police chief has a great way of talking about this. He says collaboration without accountability is just talk but partnership requires real accountability. It’s the difference between dating and getting married. And what we really need is to solidify relationships and accountabilities to really deliver better results. Otherwise, we’re just talking about this stuff. So that’s the systemic change I hope that comes out of this on the fiscal arrangements for all orders of government and how we measure and deliver better integrated services for people at a scale that makes sense. So, I also hope that that will be one of the things that gets adjusted out of this amidst the scarcity that particularly provinces are soon to face. I remember talking to Bill Morneau early in the crisis, and he told me at that point that several provinces, including ours, were unable to get anyone to buy their debt. And they were basically on the dole of the federal government at that point, as were we, because I was phoning him to beg for money to save transit systems and rec centers. And so, there’s going to be a major reordering of these, but that’s an opportunity to really realign this to get better results for people who are mentally, socially and economically.
Mary Rowe [00:45:01] Last word to you Mayor Given.
Mayor Bill Given [00:45:02] Yeah, well, just one thing. I believe that there’s a lot of urban policy geeks on this call. I know you’ve got at least three of them on screen. I’m going to put you in there, Mary, that’s four. And I would just invite everybody to have a look. The Alberta Urban Municipalities Association has launched a multi-year project to look at the future of local government in Alberta and actually the local governance it. We’re working with the Calgary School of Public Policy, looking for ideas from all across the country to reimagine what local government could look like in an Alberta context. A lot of these issues that we’re discussing may come up there. And so, for all of you policy geeks like me, like Tara, like Don, would encourage you to see if you can connect in with that initiative, because I think we have a moment in Alberta maybe resulting from the dual crises that we’re facing, to really reimagine what local governance could look like and how that could benefit Albertans. And I’m sure that there are models and information from across the country that would be helpful in that initiative.
Mary Rowe [00:46:01] I hope our city talkers that not only are they learning about subsidiarity, but they’re also learning about governance and what governance is. So thank you very much for joining us, all three of you and Mayor Spearman who had to leave. And we particularly appreciate you taking time at a particularly challenging time in terms of your own fiscal position, your budget, but also what Alberta is coping with in terms of the second wave. So, we are thinking of you. Appreciate you taking the time, Don. Thanks for having us in Edmonton. I got a few more sessions now to go and listen to. And as I said, I’m hoping Christopher Wilson will tune in next week. We’re in Calgary all week and we have a City Talk on Friday, a week from today, specifically on how community leaders are inspiring change in Calgary. And we look forward to having you join us then. Thanks, everybody.
Mayor Tara Veer [00:46:45] Thanks so much.
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From Canadian Urban Institute: You can find transcripts and recordings of today’s and all our webinars at https://canurb.org/citytalk
14:31:08 From Canadian Urban Institute : Welcome! Folks, please change your chat settings to “all panelists and attendees” so everyone can see your comments.
14:31:21 From Canadian Urban Institute : Attendees: where are you tuning in from today?
14:31:27 From Nolan Crouse to All panelists : Alberta always has blue skies
14:31:40 From Mayor Bill Given : Hey Nolan!
14:31:42 From Laurel Davies Snyder : Hello from Stratford, ON!
14:31:51 From Leah Goodwin : Regina
14:31:54 From Abby S : Hello from Toronto!
14:31:56 From Toby Greenbaum : in very gray Ottawa!
14:31:57 From Mayor Bill Given : Hello ON!
14:31:57 From Zev Klymochko to All panelists : hi from Calgary
14:32:00 From Christopher Wilson : Grand Cayman
14:32:01 From Mayor Bill Given : Sask
14:32:08 From Russ Golightly to All panelists : Hello from many in Calgary, AB
14:32:08 From Krista Allan to All panelists : Edmonton AB!
14:32:15 From Nolan Crouse to All panelists : Bill Tara Don and Chris – you picked 4 of the best Mayors in Alberta
14:32:24 From Nolan Crouse to All panelists : St. Albert
14:32:44 From Puneeta McBryan : Tuning in from Edmonton, and originally from Grande Prairie!
14:32:52 From Cindie LeBlanc to All panelists : Edmonton
14:33:04 From P Reddy to All panelists : Hello , Durban, South Africa
14:33:15 From Kate Gunn : Hello Mary and panelists from snowy sunny Edmonton!
14:33:29 From Nolan Crouse : St. Albert here
14:33:50 From Mayor Bill Given to Puneeta McBryan and all panelists : Hey Puneeta
14:33:56 From Pam Colling to All panelists : Good afternoon from sunny Lethbridge
14:34:01 From Judith Maxwell to All panelists : Judy Maxwell in Ottawa
14:34:24 From Canadian Urban Institute :
Mayor Don Iveson, Edmonton
Mayor Bill Given, Grande Prairie
Mayor Tara Veer, Red Deer
Mayor Chris Spearman, Lethbridge
14:35:22 From Kirsten Goa : Joining from Edmonton as well!
14:40:32 From Marie-Josée Houle : Hello from Ottawa! I work in housing loss prevention. I grew up in Alberta, and my family lives there. Thank you to all panelists!
14:42:27 From Nolan Crouse to All panelists : Bill – great great comment regions – how do you spell New Zealand during challenging financial times – they went to regions for governance. But of course there is lack of support for regional governance
14:43:30 From Kirsten Goa : 👍
14:45:11 From P Reddy to All panelists : Canada is a large country geographically and consequently three spheres of government are needed – it brings government closer to the people.
14:46:47 From Nolan Crouse : It is time for a regional arrangement in Canada and not a municipal or provincial arrangement. Municipalities beg for money and beg for handing stuff to them (the closest order of government to the people) and when downloaded it is downloaded to the right order without the wherewithal to pull it off
14:47:04 From Mayor Bill Given : P Reddy fair enough, but the question should be where should the majority of power lay? I’d contend that local govts are currently under weighted in the system.
14:48:03 From Mary W Rowe to P Reddy and all panelists : re-enter your comment to attendees?
14:51:29 From Erik Backstrom : Agrifood is an important economic opportunity for cities across Alberta.
14:52:07 From P Reddy to All panelists : Mayor Given – you are correct – local government is construed as being equally in all respects, but lack the financial resources to be independant and autonomous.
14:52:24 From Nolan Crouse : and Erik – only way to do Agrifood initiatives is regionally ONLY regional will yield success
14:53:30 From Mayor Bill Given : P Reddy, in Alberta its also the fragmented structures that make coordinated actions on meaningful issues really difficult
14:56:44 From P Reddy to All panelists : Question to Mayor Given – has the oil industry in Alberta benefitted municipalities and the province comparatively?
14:57:10 From Christopher Wilson : Would be a more “pan Alberta” panel, Mayor Given, if the largest city in the province was represented. You tried to get the province to approve charter cities as you have none apart from Lloydminster. It didn’t happen because cities are looking for powers to tax the province has. Three of you have now said you need to work with the province to sort out problems in your cities. But Calgary regards you are ROA regarding health care
14:58:08 From Mayor Bill Given : P Reddy… OG development has largely benefited rural municipalities specifically. Many per capita reserves greater than the province of AB
14:58:36 From Mayor Bill Given : That is exclusive to rural (counties and Municipal Districts)
14:58:43 From Shiv Ruparell to All panelists : Hi there! My apologies I only just joined. Do we submit questions to the panelists here or through another medium? Thanks
14:58:58 From Gloria Venczel : While natural ecosystems and their health are fundamentally important, that biological structure cannot supplant or replace the very complex, ever evolving layered relationships of successful, dynamic and innovative cities. We need to start studying how successful, green and socially resilient cities work where as much of the economic activity is re-integrated into the community, as per the balanced three legged stool of sustainability. Let’s do our homework….
14:59:46 From Scott Carnall : would a cross province transit (train) provide a more cohesive community
15:00:09 From Mayor Bill Given : Christoper Wilson, we work quite closely with Mayor Nenshi and YYC council on many issues and I think you’ll find the 4 of us on screen are largely in alignment with the views of YYC.
15:00:42 From Christopher Wilson : So you are delegated to speak for him on this panel?
15:01:24 From Mayor Bill Given : Christoper – I was invited on my own behalf but you could check with him to see if my comments ring true.
15:01:32 From Abby S : the need to allow funding to be disbursed to and allocated by those closest to the issues is a theme that has emerged again and again.
15:02:02 From Mayor Chris Spearman to Abby S and all panelists : Thank you for the opportunity
15:02:25 From Mayor Tara Veer to All panelists : Hi Christopher not officially delegated, but I speak with Mayor Nenshi once a week and know his position well on many issues we work with him on.
15:02:36 From Mayor Chris Spearman to Abby S and all panelists : I must go to another meeting
15:07:53 From Abby S : But it is incumbent upon citizens to understand who makes decisions and to vote accordingly.
15:08:12 From Mayor Bill Given : Scott – re train…. I think a train system (and regional transit generally) are needed infrastructure/services that are worthy of investment…. but they alone don’t solve intermunicipal jurisdictional issues.
15:08:39 From Shiv Ruparell : three questions:
15:09:13 From Gloria Venczel : @Mayor Bill + @ Mayor Tara, absolutely correct that municipalities are the closest to people and are best suited to deliver fine tuned decisions, programs etc. and create resident “buy-in” and “social license” from everything from covid measures, climate change initiatives to pedestrian oriented density. It doesn’t work otherwise….The former Ontario Municipal Board is case in point.
15:10:17 From Abby S : That’s actually shocking that there is no municipal health authorities.
15:10:51 From Lino Renomeron : One option that I see is to create inter local cooperation among municipalities and conglomerate themselves to address issues within their respective boundaries.
15:11:50 From Mayor Bill Given : Lino – there are efforts to “encourage” that kind of collaboration but there is too much protectionism for it to really go far enough.
15:12:46 From Mayor Bill Given : Lino – see: Alberta Intermunicipal Collaboration Frameworks
15:13:07 From Mayor Bill Given : Abby – big difference indeed.
15:13:50 From Shiv Ruparell : yes I have one question!!
15:13:54 From Shiv Ruparell : sorry just typing it
15:14:47 From Shiv Ruparell to All panelists : 1) What path forward do you see for future and meaningful investments in active transportation infrastructure in Alberta municipalities? (Closed car lanes, shared streets, renewed talk of 15-minutes cities, a cycling boom … COVID-19 has brought the active transport conversation from the backrooms of urban planners to the forefront of city discourse. But it’s also a politicized, culture war issue. How do we move forward on this?)
15:14:52 From Shiv Ruparell : 1) What path forward do you see for future and meaningful investments in active transportation infrastructure in Alberta municipalities? (Closed car lanes, shared streets, renewed talk of 15-minutes cities, a cycling boom … COVID-19 has brought the active transport conversation from the backrooms of urban planners to the forefront of city discourse. But it’s also a politicized, culture war issue. How do we move forward on this?)
15:16:21 From Lino Renomeron : Thanks Mayor Given will look into it. I think that is a good framework policy if it gets implemented
15:17:15 From Mayor Tara Veer to All panelists : Shout out to our former Alberta Mayoral colleague, Nolan Crause.
15:17:22 From Canadian Urban Institute : You can find transcripts and recordings of today’s and all our sessions at https://www.canurb.org/citytalk
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15:17:53 From Gloria Venczel : Does anyone have any thoughts on any checks and balances for maintaining the fine scaled democracies at the muni level with future changes?
15:18:12 From Christopher Wilson : I will.