Mayors Don Iveson and Calgary’s Naheed Nenshi joined forces to educate — and at times entertain — a sold-out audience at the 10th annual Hurtig Lecture held at the University of Alberta last week. Titled “Cities and the Future of Canada,” the mayors stressed the importance of exporting the best Canada — the Canada to which we all aspire — to the rest of the world. Although the mayors frequently supported one another, they differed in their opinion of the most important issue facing Canadian cities today. For Nenshi, it is increased investment in public transit; for Iveson, it is providing affordable housing.
After a few light-hearted comments about how grumpy he was to be in Edmonton, Nenshi stressed the crucial role of Canadian cities on the world stage. Nenshi explained that despite our rural misconceptions, Canada is one of the most urbanized nations on the planet with over 80 percent of Canadians living in cities. Growing up in Calgary, what Nenshi lacked in money he “made up for in opportunity.” When he wasn’t busy studying, he explored the city via public transit and gained an appreciation for its ability to influence and create what he calls “a great Canadian life.” “If we don’t do it right now, if we don’t build our LRT systems now…then it will be too expensive to do it later,” he said.
For Nenshi, the completion of public projects, like LRT expansions and more accessible transit routes, creates a return on investment with benefits felt far beyond Canadian borders. “In an environment where interest rates are close to zero and construction costs in places like Calgary and Edmonton have dropped by nearly a fifth resulting in unemployment, it makes tons of sense to accelerate our capital plan.”
Nenshi believes that the return on investing in Canadians and their cities comes in the form of a heightened “Canadian-ness,” where citizens have the opportunity to create their own “great Canadian life.” With higher numbers of Canadians leading more successful lives and benefiting from such projects, Canada finds itself in a more favorable position to assist other nations in their city building endeavors. With the news that Justin Trudeau’s Liberals will lead Canada for the foreseeable future arriving just two days prior, Nenshi mentioned Trudeau’s election campaign promises to allocate billions of dollars to public transit and other infrastructure projects. Nenshi added that he and Mayor Iveson would do their best to ensure that the new federal government makes good on their promises.
Unlike his southern counterpart, Iveson stressed the lack of affordable housing in Edmonton and Calgary. A lack of social housing, he added, presents a local humanitarian crisis affecting low-income families, immigrants, First Nations people, and refugees, creating a burden on the health care system and the justice system. “If you care about the Syrian refugees and you want them to come here, which I think most of us do, then where are they going to live?” Iveson added.
Both mayors stressed that municipal governments are taken for granted and are the best suited to implementing fast, tangible change. Nenshi and Iveson invited the audience to imagine a world where municipal governments disappeared — and with them clean water, sanitation, roads, transit, first responders, and the arts — to stress that Albertans would notice its absence much quicker than with any other level of government.
Iveson noted that governments at the municipal level work more efficiently than their provincial and federal counterparts because of their close proximity to the people and their issues. Unlike federal and provincial governments, municipal governments do not have institutionalized opposition. Understanding issues, such as poverty and First Nations reconciliation, becomes more about the facts and less about how those facts fit into a political ideology.
“City building is nation building” Iveson added before explaining that local leadership is leading public opinion and activism. Iveson believes that the great changes needed in respect to poverty and climate change do not come from the national or international level, but from the street level – or, as he put it, “from the bottom up.”
Perhaps the highlight of the night was when Iveson decided to clear up some misconceptions regarding the percentage of tax dollars municipalities receive, which Canadians believe to be much higher. “In terms of the tax dollars, what we actually collect is between six and eight cents across the country, so Canadians are overestimating by a factor of three or four how much money our local governments have and they still think we’re the most responsible with it.” Iveson was quick to point out that Canadians believe municipal governments are the most efficient at delivering services and infrastructure when compared to other levels of government, and yet, “[Canadians] think we have four times the resources.”
Iveson added that in the 19th century, nation building was done through the construction of railroads. In the 20th century, it was done through highways and ports. Now, in the 21st century, the next level of nation building comes with implementing mass transit and affordable housing in our largest cities.
In an ideal world, Iveson and Nenshi hope to pitch to the provincial government what they believe to be a win-win situation. Closing the lecture, Iveson invited the provincial government to “give us the dough — if it works, you can take credit. If it fails then you can blame us, because we have to try something. Give us the other 20 cents and let’s see what we can do.”
Photography courtesy of Ed Ellis and the University of Alberta Faculty of Arts.