Big City Mayors: Walking the talk?

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On September 2, 2015, a three year old Syrian boy tragically drowned as his family tried to flee to Europe. A shocking photograph of Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body washed up on a beach went viral. The world mourned, prompting an international outcry. Leaders around the world, including several of Canada’s big city mayors, expressed a desire to do more to address the Syrian refugee crisis.

On September 4, 2015, the Big City Mayors Caucus – a group of mayors from Canada’s largest cities – issued a formal press release, indicating that “Canadian cities are ready to address this crisis” with a call on governments to work together to take action. The call happened to fall just weeks before a federal election, and attracted considerable attention from the media and political parties alike. Flash forward a few months, and Canada had a new government and new plan to welcome more than than 25,000 Syrian refugees.

Joe Garcea, a political scientist from the University of Saskatchewn, has studied this case, with a particular focus on the response from Canada’s big city mayors. Garcea asks a simple question: did Canada’s big city mayors walk the talk?

The short answer, based on his research, is yes.

Garcea examined the actions of Canada’s big cities to support the resettlement of Syrian refugees. He found that Canada’s mayors did walk the talk and lead “remarkable” efforts in our cities, including advocacy, service provision, coordination between bodies, and both in-kind and financial contributions.

Garcea presented these findings at the Canadian Political Science Association conference today, and posed a number of larger questions. Does the response of cities to the Syrian refugee crisis suggest that cities are taking a greater role in immigration generally? Was this an exceptional circumstance, or does it signal a shift in the role of cities within multi-level governance in Canada? Of course, it’s too early to tell — but Garcea’s work suggests there is cause for optimism.

There is no question that this is an important case worth paying attention to. Immigration and international relations are decidedly federal matters, and yet this case demonstrates that local leaders – particularly big city mayors – can and do play a critical role in policy making in Canada. Big city mayors often punch well above their weight in their ability to attract media attention and speak in a direct and compelling way to Canadians. Their role is not limited within the geographic bounds of their jurisdiction, and their voices are not constrained to ‘local’ matters.

Garcea’s research is interesting because it critically examines an urban response to a global crisis, within the context of a national political framework. It raises big questions about the role of cities and local leadership in our country.

It may be a sign of change to come – or maybe not. Only time will tell.