“This is where east meets west. We’re the heart of Canada.”
It was Saturday night, on a rooftop patio in downtown Winnipeg – a perfect opportunity for learning about the city through the tried-and-true research method of going to bars and talking to locals.
This man had lived in Winnipeg for all of his life. He had a solid working knowledge of the city’s downtown, and his face lit up as he told me stories about the buildings that surrounded us. The punchline seemed to be that the city’s development reflected a fusion of cultures – the ‘east meets west’ idea – as a place defined by being in the midde. And although there is some dispute about where the exact geographic centre of Canada actually is, Winnipeg is without question the Canadian city that comes closest. It’s our middleman.
Interestingly, being the middle of Canada seems to be about more than geography. It’s also about being average. Winnipeg, and Manitoba, are strikingly close to the Canadian average in many respects. A recent book describes Manitoba as “Canada’s most middling province – a label that serves more as an identity than a criticism” and argues that “these centrist tendencies constitute a unique, enduring, albeit quintessentially moderate, Canadian political culture.”
So maybe the guy in the bar really did know what he was talking about.
Manitoba is Canada’s 5th largest province (right in the middle, go figure) with approximately 1.3 million people. What is unique, however, is the position of its capital city. Winnipeg is home to nearly 720,000 people, making it the only city in Canada with more than half of its province’s population. The next largest city in Manitoba is Brandon, which isn’t even close at just around 50,000 people. Winnipeg generates almost all of the province’s population and economic growth. Combined, these factors mean that Winnipeg occupies arguably a greater position within its province than any other Canadian city.
With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that Winnipeg also has unusually strong model of local political leadership.
In the 1970s, 12 municipalities amalgamated with their metropolitan government, creating the ‘unicity’ of Winnipeg and making it The Big City in the province it is today. Winnipeg has its own municipal legislation and is a rare example of a Canadian city with what could be described as ‘strong mayor‘ features.
Under the Winnipeg Charter, the mayor is the “head of council and chief officer of the city.” The mayor has unilateral authority to appoint a deputy mayor, acting deputy mayor, all committee chairs, and – perhaps most importantly – the members of the Executive Policy Committee (EPC). The EPC is a powerful part of Winnipeg’s political structure, and seems to work kind of like a cabinet. EPC prepares the budget and make recommendations to council on a variety of major city-wide issues (see page 3 of the Organizational By-Law). All standing committees report to council through the EPC, and there are matters in which EPC is the final authority. There are also what is known as ‘IEPC’ meetings, or ‘Internal EPC’, which are closed informal meetings of EPC members with senior administration. IEPC meetings were described to me as “the worst kept secret at City Hall” as everyone knows they happen and they are viewed as a needed forum for informal dialogue outside of the political arena. This in an unusual institution in a local government, but not unlike what exists in federal and provincial political processes.
The mayor is the locus of power within EPC (and IEPC). Under the Charter, Winnipeg’s mayor has unilateral ability to appoint people to EPC and terminate their appointments at any point in time. This, combined with the $23,000 pay increase provided to EPC members, means that in practice members of EPC tend to support the mayor’s agenda (or in the words of one interviewee, “although there’s nothing saying they can’t disagree with the mayor, it’s well understood that the will of the mayor is best to be respected”).
This arrangement makes the role of the mayor in Winnipeg quite different from in other Canadian cities, on the high end in terms of formal power. As we know, Montreal’s mayor is also on the high end, but under quite different conditions. The ability to appoint a cabinet of sorts makes the role look more like that of a premier – and maybe even more powerful. With a much smaller elected group, the mayor can extend appointments to a much larger percentage of elected colleagues than can a premier, which in practice is like leading a permanent majority government and without a formally organized opposition. Not a bad gig.
Now, to be clear, this doesn’t mean that Winnipeg mayors rule like dictators. As with all other mayors in Canada, they are subject to the control of council and there are examples in the past where this control has been exercised. But, it is rare.
Interestingly, I’ve heard nothing but support for this model during my interviews so far. People described it using words like “efficient” and “organized.” The current mayor has raised the idea of allowing all of council to make appointments, a suggestion met with strong warnings from political scientists.
Winnipeg mayors have decidedly more formal authority than their counterparts in other Canadian cities. There may be a governance argument on why this is a good thing – but I’m not yet convinced that any one model is uniformly better than any other. More mayoral power certainly hasn’t made Winnipeg immune to many of the big issues faced by other cities. So I think it’s a more complex consideration. But, I don’t want to get ahead of myself here. I’ll finish the research process before landing on conclusions. Stay tuned!
In the meantime, I’ve enjoyed all that Winnipeg has to offer. I was fortunate to attend the annual Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) conference while in the city. This conference is the only event each year providing an opportunity to connect with more than a thousand municipal leaders from across Canada, hear from the Prime Minister and leaders from other major political parties on local issues, and formally establish national scale positions on municipal issues (plus: it’s also a ton of fun). As a host city Winnipeg did not disappoint, providing extraordinary experiences including a visit to the spectacular new Canadian Museum for Human Rights and a unique closing gala showcasing many dimensions of Winnipeg’s local culture.
It’s been a treat to be in the centre of Canada, as my journey transitions from east to west. For people interested in mayors and local leadership in Canada, it’s a critical case to examine as an unusual model in a place noted for being so usual and quintessentially Canadian.
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the masterpiece of architect Antoine Predock. In his words, “The journey through the museum parallels an epic journey through life.” This overarching idea is evident in every design choice and translates into an extraordinary visitor experience, beginning with a “a descent into the earth, a symbolic recognition of the earth as the spiritual center for many indigenous cultures […] and of ancient gatherings at the Forks of First Nations peoples, and later, settlers and immigrants” and culminates in a tower built to showcase “life affirming hope for positive changes in humanity.”
Illuminated alabaster ramps, just one example of the stunning and meaningful design choices in the Museum.
One more internal shot from the Museum.
Winnipeg gets big points in the category of friendly and welcoming people. We enjoyed a glimpse of the impressive Pride parade during the conference. What’s nicer than being given a flower from a stranger?
Winnipeg loses a few points (in my books, anyway) for having a totally not pedestrian-friendly main intersection at Portage and Main. This is a map telling me how to literally cross the street from my hotel to a bus stop, which includes several flights of stairs and an underground roundabout. Not my favourite.
FCM President (now Past President) Raymond Louie thanks Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after his address at the FCM Conference. “We’re all in this together, building a great country.”
A downtown view from inside the Winnipeg Convention Centre.
Surprise fireworks surrounded the Convention Centre at the end of the FCM Gala. It was a powerful moment to feel very much in the middle of it all. Well played Winnipeg, well played.