Perspectives on City Charters


How much power and autonomy should cities have? This is perennial question about local government in Canada – and one without a clear or simple answer. Canadian cities today are all over the map. Their basic structure and powers vary by province, and sometimes even within provinces. Some Canadian cities have unique legislation – typically in the form of a city charter or other special act – while others do not. The push for a city charter is an active conversation in some places, but seemingly not on the radar in others. It’s a complicated picture, and easy to get lost in the technical details of the many variables involved. What is clear is that the appropriate level of power and autonomy for Canada’s cities remains an open question.

A heavyweight panel tackled this question yesterday during a special session on city charters at the Canadian Political Science Association conference. It was a fascinating opportunity for debate among experts who, in some cases, have spent the better part of their careers examining these fundamental questions about urban governance.

Here’s my feeble attempt to capture the insights they shared.

The discussion started with political scientist Zachary Spicer, who presented a paper examining the present state of city charters in Canada. He outlined the difference between city charters and special legislation, and provided an overview of how they vary in the legal, fiscal and political powers they afford to their respective cities. He emphasized the ‘gives’ and ‘takes’ involved in the relationship between the provincial and municipal governments (in Spicer’s words, “a city charter requires two to tango”), highlighting that even when new powers are granted to cities, they may not be used and are often restrictive in nature.

Stephanie Kusie is the Executive Director of Common Sense Calgary. The City of Calgary (and City of Edmonton) signed a framework agreement for a city charter with the Province of Alberta in 2014, with a commitment to have the new legislation in place before the 2017 municipal election. The Alberta government is also currently in the final stages of a major review of its general municipal legislation – so the power of cities and municipalities is a hot conversation in this community. Kusie, a career diplomat with strong political connections, presented the basic tenants of the See Charter, Think Tax movement which advocates against any new tax power for Alberta’s big cities, and for citywide referendums before any new taxation powers are granted. She argued that “Albertans and Calgarians should be very concerned about city charters”, predicting they would provide new tax powers which big city councils “would not be afraid to use.” She aptly pointed out that it’s not as simple as being ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ city charters; it’s all about what the charter includes. As always, the devil is in the details.

Next up was Alan Broadbent, best known as the Chair of the Maytree Foundation and CEO of a private investment firm. Broadbent is also a heavy hitter in local government circles, as the author of Urban Nation, a founder of the Institute of Municipal Finance and Governance, and a leader in Toronto’s civic movement for greater local autonomy. In the late 1990s, Broadbent, Jane Jacobs and a several prominent business, academic and civic leaders convened a two day meeting “on taking control of the destiny of Canadian cities” (and if you’re interested, there is a very good little book which captures the essence of these conversations, as referenced in my Toronto blog too). This work attracted considerable media attention and contributed to the City of Toronto being recognized with its own legislation just a few years later. Broadbent assessed the City of Toronto Act, asking: did it work? His basic answer is no, as it didn’t address core big city issues of insufficient financing tools, limited powers, and the basic design of the Constitution. However, Broadbent recognized that progress has been made, and the work “has put the ideas in the hands of a new generation of people.” Broadbent argued that the problem is not just with the provinces in not extending power to cities; the problem is also with cities. He referred to municipal politicians sometimes “acting like they are in the minor leagues” and focusing too much attention on trivial matters like dog parks and bike lanes. He cited Jane Jacobs, saying “if you treat people like children, they will behave like children.” Broadbent contextualized the point this way: “When you get used to begging, and the only new tools made available to you are marginal, why would you take the political risk of asking for new tax powers? It’s better to keep blaming the province, or blame the Feds, and open a new doggie park” [Author added: mic drop].

Joe Garcea, a political scientist from the University of Saskatchewan (who is doing some mighty cool research, in my rather biased opinion), tacked the question from a different angle. He argued city charters are about semantics, symbols, substance and significance. He spoke to the historic symbolism of charters, as the earliest form of urban authority in Canada, extended from the Crown to communities dating back over 300 years. He argued modern city charters should start with a serious conversation about what the purpose of the charter is, and not conflating some of the core concepts related to governance and power. Garcea brings the perspective of experience, as a past chair of municipal legislation review processes in Saskatchewan. He warned that cities need to “be careful what they wish for” and consider the impacts of any new powers or revenue tools for cities on the rest of their provinces. “If we’re doing something for one unit, one city, we need to make sure it’s not at the cost of the whole.”

The final speaker was Andrew Sancton, a leading Canadian local government scholar who has written extensively on the topic and has been involved in many city-specific conversation about charters. Sancton stated decisively that city charters in Canada have been mostly symbolic. He illustrated this point by speaking to how cities sometimes want what other cities have, pointing to examples of mutual envy between Montreal and Toronto. He explored the larger underlying questions: the open debate about what services are most appropriately provided by cities; the extent to which the public and provincial governments trust municipal politicians to take on greater responsibility; the extraordinary political challenge of actually implementing new municipal taxes when not accompanied by reduced taxes for other levels of government. In Sancton’s words, “I think there is a way through this dilemma, and that is to reconceptualize our provinces as urban authorities.” He spoke to the important role of provinces in urban issues, citing the example of the Greater Golden Horseshoe, home to approximately three-quarters of Ontario’s population, and the Ontario Government’s involvement in nearly every big urban issue in the territory. He tackled Broadbent’s point about municipalities paying too much attention to issues like bike lanes and doggie parks, arguing that these are important matters which affect people’s lives. “The details of city life are important. And that’s why municipalities are important.”

A benefit of academic conference sessions is the level of expertise in the audience. The group did not disappoint, raising key governance, legal, political and ideological questions for the panel and for one another. And as with most of these sessions, one leaves with more questions than answers.

How much power and autonomy should cities have? There probably isn’t a single answer for this – and why should there be? Canada doesn’t have a system of local government; we have systems of local government which have evolved over time in our provinces. Local government today is marked by its diversity, presenting what is potentially both its greatest challenge and strongest asset. Conversations about city charters are important because they bring key questions about urban governance and local leadership to the forefront, forcing us to confront the very nature of our political system. I’m thankful to each of the panelists and organizers for keeping this conversation going.

Big City Mayors: Walking the talk?


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.

Who do local leaders listen to?


Note: it’s a big week for local government conferences. The Canadian Political Science Association (CPSA) Conference, part of the broader Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, is taking place at the University of Calgary, and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities Conference (FCM) conference will be in Winnipeg over the weekend. I’ll be sharing a few of key learnings related to mayors and local leadership over the coming week.

When we think about who makes decisions about cities, the mayor and council usually come to mind. But often it’s just as important to think about who the mayor and council listen to, and who or what influences those decisions.

University of Toronto historian Richard White presented a fascinating case study exploring this very idea at CPSA yesterday during a session on urban governance. White’s recent book, Planning Toronto: The Planners, The Plans, Their Legacies, examines all regional, city, and neighbourhood plans for the City of Toronto over a 40 year period, from 1940-1980. White pays close attention to which plans were implemented, which ones were not, and what influenced their success or failure. It’s a study of translating vision into reality, and the often tenuous journey between the two.

White spoke about a particular master plan from 1943 which, in his words, was “completely rejected, offering an ideal case study of demise.” The master plan was developed by a panel of external planning experts, engaged by the Board of Trade, who devised an ambitious city-wide plan reflecting leading planning principles of the day. The drawings were displayed at a major department store, attracting interest from tens of thousands of residents. Council was less enthusiastic about the plan, claiming it was too extravagant and sufficient resources were not available. The mayor of the day was quoted as stating that the plan would have been better had it been developed by city staff, as it would have been more modest. Ultimately, the plan was rejected, and its ideals were not reflected in Toronto’s next official plan.

White’s presentation raised critical questions about the role of expertise. In his words, “We’re really conflicted by expertise. We rely on it, more than we realize […] but at the same time, we’re cynical about it. We tend to see self interest in it.” He argued that the rejection of this plan reflected a broader undercurrent of disdain for educated experts among the general public, and of elected officials “not wanting to be told what to do.”

Although this case is almost 75 years old, it raises questions which remain pertinent today. What is the appropriate role of expertise in political decision making processes? How much weight should be given to the perspectives of subject matter experts? How do we define ‘expert’ and ‘expertise’, anyway?

White told a fascinating story about a specific case, but with insights extending far beyond its time and place. His book is well worth checking out for anyone interested in the development of cities, urban planning, and local governance.


Toronto, Ontario


Last Friday night, Canadians gathered around televisions across the country to cheer on the Toronto Raptors in what would be the final game of the NBA Eastern Conference finals. Even people who don’t usually follow basketball had become enthusiastic fans. It was the first time in history a Canadian team made the NBA finals, and you could feel the support of the nation behind them. Social media flooded with expressions of encouragement tagged #WeTheNorth, a wildly successful 2015 Raptors marketing campaign which had quickly become synonymous with Canadian pride. #WeTheNorth was bigger than basketball, often used or adapted to cheer on Canadian olympians and during other major sporting events. When a CBS poll referred to the Toronto Raptors as “other”, a brilliant letter from the Mayor of Toronto to CBS went viral and #WeTheOther entered the Canadian lexicon.

The point of this story is that Toronto is vitally important to Canada, whether we like to admit it or not. Toronto is Canada’s largest city and the capital of our largest province. It is our nation’s most significant economic engine, generating more than $250 billion of Canada’s GDP, and fuels one of the largest economic regions in North America. Toronto is celebrated for its diversity and regarded as one of the most livable cities in the world. In many ways, Toronto is an emblem of Canadian culture. From sea to sea to sea, Canadians like to claim a shared heritage with the likes of Frank Gehry, Christopher Plummer, Keanu Reaves, Jim Carrey, Margaret Atwood, Drake, Lorne Michaels — and the list goes on. Well, those people are all from Toronto.

In a 2000 essay, Jane Jacobs and Mary Rowe put it this way:

“Toronto has become a region of global significance. […] The Toronto region generates wealth, incubates culture, fosters innovation, harbour capital, educates and trains people, welcomes thousands, employs hundreds of thousands, and transports millions every year. Toronto matters – and not just to those who live or work in it. It matters to everyone concerned with the economic and cultural vitality of Canada and North America.”

The bottom line: Toronto matters. And so does its leadership.

No discussion about Toronto politics is complete without mention of two key events in the city’s recent history: first, the 1998 amalgamation which merged the regional Metro Toronto and six lower tier municipalities into a single municipality, often called the “megacity”; and second, the passing of the City of Toronto Act (COTA) in 2006, making Toronto the first and only municipality in Ontario to have its own legislation and providing some new powers to the municipality.

Both of these events marked significant points of change in the governance of Toronto. They created focal points for decades-old discussions about what municipal governance could and should look like; what powers mayors and councils could and should have; and most significantly, what powers cities could and should have.

Yes, these discussions were about Toronto. But they were also about local government in Canada. True to its important position in our country, Toronto has been something of an urban laboratory for key questions about cities and local leadership in Canada for most of its history.

Today Toronto is governed by a 45-member council, which includes a mayor and one councillor representing each of the city’s 44 wards (with about 55,000 residents in each). Council oversees an annual operating budget exceeding $11 billion. Each member of council sits on a variety of standing committees, as well as one of four geographically based community councils which have delegated authority to make decisions about local issues such as some planning and transportation matters. In the words of one interviewee, “this has the effect of clearing the deck of the council agenda from local issues […] taking care of about 1,900 agenda items a year.”

Under the COTA, Toronto’s mayor holds the same powers as every other mayor in Ontario: the mayor is the “chief executive officer of the municipality” with broad duties to uphold the purposes of the municipality, promote public engagement, and represent the city and advance its interests. However the role of the mayor is unique in other ways. Toronto mayors can rightly claim to have been directly elected by more people than any other politician in Canada. Toronto’s mayor is supported by a larger office and more resources for his office than any other mayor in the province.

Interestingly, even some of my most experienced Toronto interviewees were under the impression that the COTA provided the mayor of Toronto with more power. I had to seek expert clarification on this, as I couldn’t see any difference between Toronto’s legislation and that of other Ontario municipalities. Indeed, it was confirmed that the COTA did not provide any additional powers to the mayor of Toronto; however, a report from a special advisory panel around the same time recommended Toronto council broaden the mayor’s scope of responsibility. Many of these recommendations were implemented, including providing the mayor with the ability to appoint deputy mayors (of which there are four) and committee chairs.

My study is about the role of the mayor; it is not the people in the job. But, as would be expected, I heard an earful about specific mayors during my Toronto interviews – and in particular, the polarizing leadership of Mayor Rob Ford. Since being elected mayor in 2010, Ford was embroiled in scandal. It started with a conflict of interest lawsuit resulting in temporary removal from office, and climaxed with an internationally reported substance abuse scandal. Calls on the province to remove the mayor from office or take away his powers were met with hesitation to get involved. And so in November 2013, Toronto council voted to strip the mayor of most of his authority. Perhaps in title alone, Ford continued on as mayor until the next municipal election in 2014.

The Ford saga is important to this study is because it generated intense conversation about the role of the mayor. Was Ford’s notoriety hurting Toronto, or helping it? How does who the mayor is impact a city? Who has (and should have) the authority to grant or limit the power of mayors? Who sets the parameters of what the role of the mayor looks like? What is the role of the mayor, anyway?

These are not just Toronto questions; they are Canadian local government questions. I heard many interesting, sometimes competing, and always well considered perspectives on these bigger picture issues during my Toronto interviews, all of which will go a long way towards shaping the final product of this study.

I’ve now interviewed dozens of people in six provinces. Clear patterns are emerging. And while every interview offers new insights, I can usually tell within a few minutes when I’m speaking with someone who has clearly given the role of the mayor a lot of thought and has unusually insightful reflctions to share. Here’s one example from a Toronto interviewee:

“A mayor represents the collective psyche of a city at a particular moment in time. Sometimes it’s during the election. Sometimes it’s a longer period. That’s a really significant obligation, to be the owner of that spirit and the representation of collective will. […] It’s different than being “the face of the city.” The mayor is the embodiment of hopes, of dreams, sometimes anger. Being a mayor is about honouring that spirit.”

This individual went on to describe what this means in practice – the challenges it creates, the tensions it establishes, the pressures it puts on the person in the job – offering several specific examples. Now, not everyone sees the role this way. But, it struck me that the mayor of Toronto may be in an usual position of needing to honour the city’s spirit, and have some role in honouring the spirit of Canada. Whether that means writing a letter to CBS or calling on federal leaders to welcome more refugees, the mayor of Toronto has a one-of-a-kind bully pulpit which can be used for good and bad. Toronto matters to Canada, and so does its mayor. We don’t usually think of mayors as having national importance, but to me, Toronto is the most extreme example (among many) of how we have seriously underestimated the role of mayors in the leadership of our country.

My #WeTheNorth t-shirt arrived in the mail today. I just couldn’t help myself. I don’t own a single basketball jersey or other piece of sports paraphernalia, but this one I’ll wear with pride. Like many, I’m a fair weather sports fan who cheers loudest when it’s less about the sport and more about the what and who the team represents.

And, I now have something to wear when the Toronto Raptors bring home the NBA championship next year.




Toronto City Hall.



Toronto, from the sky.



A couple worthwhile reads about Toronto politics. There’s one more not pictured here that should be: Some Great Idea by Edward Keenan. It’s my favorite little book about Toronto politics. The keeners among you should check it out.



Every blog post seems to need a food shot. So here’s my Toronto recommendation: get the salted caramels and a good red wine from Nota Bene. I promise you will thank me.



As I said, I’m an enthusiastic fair weather fan.

#WeTheNorth! Oh – wrong sport. #OurMoment!!!



Montreal, Quebec


What do you call a place with 19 mayors, 7 political parties and 5 layers of government that used to be 27 municipalities and then it became 1 city and then it became 19 municipalities?

You call it Montreal.

Or you call it complicated. Or confusing. Or crazy?

For people who think local government is basically the same across Canada, think again. As (I hope) this blog is demonstrating, there are significant and important differences across provinces, and no where is this more true than in Quebec.

Quebec is Canada’s second largest province, home to 8.2 million people and nearly a quarter of Canada’s population. Quebec has 1,134 municipalities – the most of any province, by a long shot. Most municipalities are governed by the Municipal Code of Quebec. Quebec’s 224 cities and towns are governed by the Cities and Towns Act.

Almost half (47.6%) of the province’s population live in just 10 of these cities, and the largest, of course, is Montreal.

Montreal is an old city. Founded in 1642, it was originally called Ville-Marie (“City of Mary”) and for centuries it was the largest city and unquestioned commercial capital of what would become Canada. In wasn’t until the 1970s that Toronto surpassed Montreal as Canada’s largest city. Today Montreal remains Canada’s second largest city, with more than 1.8 million people.

The official language of Montreal is French, making it the second largest French-speaking city in the world after Paris. The city is well known to Canadians and international travelers alike for its many charms: cobblestone streets in the old city, stunning basilicas and architecture, a thriving nightlife (which, combined with a drinking age of 18, makes it a popular spot for student weekend benders), and delicacies such as crepes, poutine and smoked meat sandwiches. Based on my experience this week, I would add man buns to this list. They. Are. Everywhere. Congratulations to the men of Montreal, you’ve totally mastered this one.

The political structure in Montreal is unlike any other in Canada. I did my homework before this leg of the trip to make sure I understood the basic mechanics, but still I find it a bit perplexing. I told this to one of my Montreal interviewees. He laughed and said, “well, it’s simple really.” And then it took him 15 minutes to explain the structure to me.

Maybe it’s me that’s simple.

So while I’m certainly no expert here, let me try to explain how it works.

On January 1, 2002, the Province of Quebec amalgamated 27 municipalities on the Island of Montreal into one unified city. As has been the case with forced amalgamations elsewhere in Canada, this decision was met with much resistance and created extensive political turmoil – so much so that in 2006, after a series of referendums, the Province allowed an unprecedented de-merger, splitting the unified city back into independent smaller municipalities, called boroughs (or ‘arrondissements’ in French, as they are called in Paris). Although it’s been 10 years since the de-merger took place, it is clearly still an active conversation in Montreal. I heard about it – the good, the bad and the ugly – in almost all of my interviews this week.

Montreal city council is a 65-member body which, to my knowledge, makes it the largest city council in Canada. It includes a mayor (who is also the mayor of the borough of Ville-Marie), 18 borough mayors, and 46 councillors.

To Ontarians, this might sound like what we would call a region – but importantly, it’s not a region. The City of Montreal – together with Laval, Longueille and other neighbouring municipalities – is part of the Montreal Metropolitan Community (Communaute de metropolitaine Montreal, or ‘CMM’). It is this body, the CMM, that provides regional planning and coordinating for services such as public transit, garbage collection, and economic development for metropolitan Montreal.

As you would imagine, based on this unusual structure, the role of the mayor in Montreal is unique. He is simultaneously mayor of the Ville-Marie borough, the City of Montreal, and president of the Montreal Metropolitan Community. He holds key positions, as do other mayors, in the leadership of arms length bodies such as boards and commissions. And if that wasn’t enough, he also plays a pivotal role in one of the defining institutions of Montreal politics: local political parties.

Municipal political parties are a different beast than what exists at the federal and provincial levels. For example, the Liberal Party of Canada is 155 years old, enduring for decades as leaders come and go. In contrast, the longest standing active local political party in Montreal is 12 years old, and they tend to rise and fall with their leaders. On Montreal City Council, the party with the most seats is Equipe Denis Coderre (Team Denis Coderre) named for the current mayor, Denis Coderre. In this way, Montreal mayors play an organizing role in municipal politics not seen elsewhere in Canada.

Equipe Denis Coderre was founded for the 2013 municipal election, and today counts 28 of Montreal’s 65 councillors as its members. This group meets before council meetings, in closed session, to review the agenda items and discuss positions. The party has a budget, funded in part by the City of Montreal, and full time staff.

The mayor of Montreal has other power levers not available to other urban mayors in Canada, including the ability to unilaterally appoint an executive committee (which also meets weekly, including in closed session). The mayor selects people for other positions which are unusual in Canada, such as a president of the executive committee (revered by interviewees as a highly influential and powerful role) and a council chair (referred to as a ceremonial appointment because they “have to chair council meetings, so they can’t be as influential” … which made me secret-laugh a bit because in other parts of the country, this is viewed to be a defining part of the mayor’s role).

The mayor also has more formal power than elsewhere in the country. Check out this description from the Cities and Towns Act about the role of the mayor:

The mayor shall exercise the right of superintendence, investigation and control over all the departments and officers or employees of the municipality […] as the executive head of the municipal administration, the mayor shall have the right, at any time, to suspend any officer or employee of the municipality.

Rights of superintendence and control? Suspending any employees? So much for Canada having ‘weak mayors’ (a term I think we should stop using anyway). The legislation goes on to say the mayor must report to council about suspending an officer or employee, and the council can overturn the suspension, but the legislation states that the individual is to receive no salary during this time and it doesn’t require that the council decision take place within a specific period of time.

One of the biggest challenges in conducting a study on the role of the mayor is what to do with the variables associated with personality. Certainly the mayor of Montreal has more formal power – through legislation, through the party structure, through executive committee appointments – but the current mayor, as a person, is also a prolific figure. He’s a former federal cabinet minister and known to have extensive political connections within and beyond Canada’s borders. In the words of one interviewee, “over 35 years in politics, he’s shaken the hand of everyone he’s met.” It was also described to me that “federal and provincial leaders know they are, and always will be, in his shadow in Montreal” (and if you have any doubts about this, you should probably watch this clip of the mayor taking a jackhammer to a federal government installed concrete pad for a community mailbox, later stating “I think I made my point”).

How much of mayoral power is about the person, and how much is the role? It’s difficult to know. This same challenge is faced by people studying American presidents or any other type of leader. In reality, it’s probably a combination of features – legislative, institutional, personal, and more – which shape the power of the role.

(But – if you have a brilliant idea about how to treat the personality variable, EMAIL ME).

The role of the mayor in Montreal is unique, but as we’re learning, it’s unique in every city. I was struck this week by how open people are in talking about the challenges of local government in Montreal – the struggles of amalgamation and de-amalgamation, the notorious history of corruption, the sense that the city has been in a state of decline for several decades – but also the many innovations occurring within local government, including the regional approach to transportation and economic development. Montreal’s unique structure also raises broader questions about the trade offs between openness and transparency and the efficiency of decision making. Montreal certainly is an interesting case, with many lessons for the rest of Canada.

I’m now on the train heading home, marking the half way point of this journey with completed visits in five of Canada’s ten provinces. Already this has experience has provided an education of a lifetime about local government in Canada, and I’m humbled by the many people who have shared their time and insight with me along the way. There are some clear patterns emerging, but I’m trying to keep an open mind and not come to any conclusions until the research is complete. This is proving harder than it sounds.

For now, I’ll enjoy a few days at home. My bag has a (well wrapped) Montreal smoked meat sandwich in it for my husband, which I will try to use as leverage when I ask him to consider growing a man bun (and if you know my husband, you’ll know I probably shouldn’t hold my breath on this one). I’m glad to be taking home a little taste of Montreal after getting a taste of the city’s complicated, confusing (and crazy) politics.




Montreal City Hall.



… and if you thought that was nice, you should see it at night!



My badge of honour. #keener



A delicious dinner at Le Club Chasse & Peche.



La vie est belle.


An Interview with Richard Florida on City Leadership: “It’s the most important challenge facing our world today.”

Richard_2X6C6311_05-5-300x400Richard Florida is Director of Cities at the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. He is also Global Research Professor at New York University and the founder of the Creative Class Group. He is a senior editor for The Atlantic, where he co-founded and serves as Editor-at-Large for CityLab, the world’s leading media site devoted to cities and urban affairs.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of meeting with Dr. Florida at the Martin Prosperity Institute. During our interview, he spoke about the important role mayors play in building prosperous cities. He argued that the role of the mayor is critically misunderstood and underdeveloped, and that increasing the capacity of Canada’s local leaders is one of the most important social, political and economic imperatives of our time.

This conversation just had to be shared. Thanks to Dr. Florida, and to the Martin Prosperity Institute, for sharing your insight with The Mayors Project.


Q: The mayoralty is a global institution. Mayors have been a part of city leadership around the world for centuries. How would you describe the role of mayors today, and do you think it has evolved over time?

A: I start from the simple hypothesis that cities are the single most important economic and social organizing unit in the global economy. Cities have always been important, as the arenas of innovation and economic growth, as the sites of cultural, political and civic advancement.

During the era of industrialization, we identified nations and corporations as the main sources of economic development. We gave cities the short shrift. But as we moved from an industrial economy to a post-industrial knowledge or creative economy, it’s cities that have become the social and economic organizing unit. Cities are where people come, where firms cluster, where the economy advances.

The problem is that we have a governance model for cities and metropolitan areas that lacks the power it needs to grow itself. Canadian cities are ‘creatures of the provinces’, and Canadian mayors have considerably less power than their American counterparts. Mayors don’t necessarily have the requisite management or institutional capabilities, the bureaucracy, or the revenue generation capabilities to deal with the problems they face. So, we end up in this conundrum.

The world’s population is supposed to grow to 10 billion roughly speaking over the next century or so – and say 75 or 80 percent of its population will live in urban areas – that means we’re going to at least double the urban population. We’re going to expand existing cities or build an equivalent number of cities to all the cities we have on earth today, spending trillions of dollars. And mayors in the developed world are literally winging it.

So you have cities as the engines of economic growth, as our most important innovation, and urbanization taking place at this rapid rate – and we have under equipped, understaffed, and not really understood leaders. We don’t have real research on city leadership. We don’t have enough data, and we don’t have comparative data. We can’t look across countries, and we have no metrics. We’re flying blind.

It’s a big issue. This idea of better understanding what cities do, what mayors do, and equipping them with tools and data – I think it’s the most important challenge facing our world today. We either get it right, and proceed to build better cities, or we get it wrong, and the costs are enormous.

Q: So how important are mayors to the prosperity of cities?

We know that cities are the font of national and global prosperity. If we take the world’s 40 largest mega-regions, they have roughly 18 percent of the world’s population and produce two-thirds of all economic output, and 85-90 percent of all innovations. So the big question is: What mayors can do at the margins to effect that?

I think mayors can aid or abet prosperity. I think mayors are distributed on a bell curve. In the middle there is a group of competent mayors – studious, ethical, with a high degree of integrity – and then there are the ends of the bell curve. On one side, you have the really dynamic mayors: Michael Bloomberg, Naheed Nenshi, Don Iveson. And then on the other side of the bell curve, there are the dysfunctional or really corrupt ones. They don’t care; they do this because they want to be famous celebrities. Both ends of the bell curve can push their cities. One end of the bell curve can do a lot to make their city better, because they create a vision of their city. I don’t think it’s the more specific lever pulling or operational things so much. It’s more about developing a strategy, a vision, a sense of empowering others. The mayor has limited power, so it’s doing the big picture, broad strategic things others can’t do. Then on the other end, the dysfunctional mayors can put their cities in limbo – that’s the tragic reality.

In Canada, we have this incredible bureaucracy, which is better than in the United States. It’s the civil servants who actually keep the city running. But still, a dysfunctional mayor can really hold the city back. If you had a really dysfunctional mayor for three, four terms, the city could really fall off.

So I think the most important thing mayors can do is to set a vision for their city, an aspirational vision, and I think that’s what the successful ones do really well.

When I meet a mayor, I can’t tell who is Conservative, Liberal, or NDP, or in the United States, a Democrat or Republican. They are just very much concerned with growing their city, making it better, and making sure people are having a higher standard of living. Mayors are the group of people who intuitively get this. I do think the most important function of mayors is about prosperity. The importance of that function has not been well enough understood.

Q: We agree that the role of the mayor is not well understood. What are the implications of this?

A: We’re screwed. [Laughs] We’re screwed. We go down this road at our own peril.

I’ve been making this case for at least 20 years. I presented to the United Nations. People listen – but they don’t really get this. There’s no real sense that this is urgent.

We repeat the same mantra, we say the words – “cities are home to half of the world’s population, cities are the economic engines of the world economy” – and then nothing gets done. I don’t know why that is. It’s my life’s work to make this case.

One of the things we’re trying to do here at the University of Toronto is build a Mayors’ School. We don’t have a Mayors’ School in Canada. Think about it: in an advanced, progressive, prosperous country, we don’t have a place where new mayors can go and learn – and not just from academics, but from other mayors who’ve done it, who can share the tools and tricks of the trade.

If mayors try to look at other cities, their critics or the press call it “a junket” – they’re traveling the world on the public’s dime. But for heads of state, for university presidents – we have extensive programs. We don’t have any of that for mayors.

The reality is that we’re going through a big paradigm shift. For years, nations and corporations were on top. We developed mechanisms – business schools, public policy schools – to train people with extensive professional development. We need something equivalent to that for mayors.

The whole way we deal with cities needs to be more scientific, more data-driven. We don’t even know how much a good mayor versus a bad mayor affects their city. We have so little scientific literature and data on this. When we administer drugs, we track their efficacy. We know which medical interventions and operations work. But we don’t track the leadership of cities. It’s the biggest tragedy and travesty. That’s why your work is important. That’s why all of this work is important. And we need to build an entire infrastructure to do it.

Q: What about Canadian city councils? Are they built for compromise, instead of leadership?

Canada is a three-headed beast. Canada has a great advantage in its federal system, in the strength of the provinces. In the US, the federal government has more power. In Canada, the provinces have a lot of power and the cities have very little power. That hamstrings cities.

The council system causes compromise because the mayor has insufficient power. Certainly the mayor of Toronto has insufficient power. But on the other hand, the Canadian system has a much better, bigger, more robust civil service. The professional side of our cities is more developed.

I don’t know if it’s the structure that can cause mayors not to lead, or if it’s something in the Canadian culture. One observation I have as an American living in Canada is that the business community is mostly absent from urban affairs. In most major American cities, if there was a mayor like Rob Ford, the business community would have become apoplectic. They would have gone crazy. When there are massive problems – like Detroit, or New York City’s fiscal crisis – the business community takes a real interest. You could argue Michael Bloomberg ran for mayor because he saw his city beginning to fall apart and said, I’m going to take on the task of making New York City a better place, for prosperity and innovation and economic growth. What really strikes me about Canadian cities is that big companies have really discounted the importance of a functioning city and a functioning mayor’s office to their long run well-being, to their competitiveness. Canada’s system has become a more political driven for good and bad.

Q: The process to become a mayor is very different than the process to become, say, a premier or prime minister. Do you think the role of mayor attracts a different kind of leader?

I think the job of mayor has become very attractive. It used to be mainly just politically-oriented people running for mayor. Now I think we’re seeing a different quality of person, because cities have become so important. I think you’re seeing a flip, too. Before you would have argued that the highest quality people, the most ambitious people, would run for provincial or federal office. Now, incredibly motivated people are running for mayor – with a realization that what’s probably not a road to federal office. It’s making a difference as mayor that really motivates them.

I wrote a book about this, Who’s Your City? The place you live is the most important decision you make. It really matters. Mayors recognize this shift intuitively. It’s the idea that they can make a big contribution by making the place where they live better. As it becomes a more attractive position, it attracts larger and more ambitious group of people.

Q: If you could change one thing about the leadership of Canadian cities, what would it be?

I would flip the whole Canadian federal system on its head. The federal government has the right amount of power. The provinces have too much power. Cities don’t have enough power. The big cities are the ones that really need more power. For Canada, this is urgent.

The United States can tolerate cities not getting it right. If New York doesn’t get it right, then maybe Chicago does, and then LA does, and then San Francisco does. Canada has just a small fraction of the number of cities in the US. So it’s really imperative. I would argue further that all of this debate about the prosperity deficit and the innovation deficit, it’s all about our cities. We should strengthen our cities, strengthen their role, strengthen the role of the mayor. Cities are the key drivers of economic prosperity, and we don’t have as many cities, so it’s really important we get this right.

I was asked this in South Korea once. They kept saying Seoul has too much power, there’s too much economic development in Seoul, and we need to spread it. I said, if Seoul is not one of the world’s top 20 spikes of world leading cities you’re done. You’ll write Korea off. The question is how can you make your cities as strong as you can, and then how do you tie them in to supporting the rest of the country. Not having chopped down Seoul, or having chopped down Toronto, or chopped off New York. Just make them as strong as you can and they are going to be your connection point to the global economy. Then you can spread wealth, redistribute, make sure all people can participate.

I think this is urgent for Canada, and I’m worried. We’re behind.

We have great cities – spectacular cities – but we’ve got to get our act together.


Where are the women?

image80 years ago, in 1936, Barbara Hanley was elected by the citizens of Webbwood Ontario as the first female mayor in Canada. She received 82 votes, defeating her opponent by 13 (not a bad margin!).

Hanley was no stranger to politics. Trained as a teacher, she was first elected to the school board and then served one term on town council before running for mayor. Her uncle and brother were also mayors in other Northern Ontario communities. Hanley ended up serving 8 terms as mayor. In one of her re-election races, her main opponent was another woman.

15 years later, in 1951, Charlotte Whitton (pictured here) became the first female mayor in a large Canadian city. Whitton was a member of Ottawa City Council, and was selected by her colleagues to be acting mayor following the sudden death of the incumbent. She was later elected to the position. Whitton was a highly controversial figure, and sounds like she had quite a way with words. She’s credited with this doozy:

Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.

(I like to imagine an old school mic drop at the end of this quote).

In 2016, as we mark the 65 and 80 year anniversaries of these Canadian milestones, it’s cause to reflect on where we are at today with respect to gender equality in the leadership of Canada’s cities.

First, a bit of context.

There is a traditional view that local government is more amenable to the participation of women in politics. Some have called this the “municipal advantage”. The literature cites reasons including local politics being more relevant to women’s lives, the work being “closer to home”, the lack of political parties (in most cases) and biases in candidate selection processes, the significantly higher number of municipal political positions in the country compared to federal or provincial positions, and a perception that the workload of municipal politicians is “lighter” or less complex. The argument that municipal politics is a good “stepping stone” for women to “advance” to “higher level” office is also common.

If you’ve read anything else on this blog (or counted the number of quotation marks in the paragraph above), you can probably guess I’m not a big fan of this argument. I actually find it a tad offensive – and not so much as a person who believes in gender equality, but as a person who believes in local government. I don’t think of municipal government as being at the bottom of a constitutional ladder, or a “junior” level of government in Canada. I see federal, provincial and municipal governments as partners of equal importance, each dealing with complex policy issues within their respective spheres of jurisdiction. I also question whether the underlying assumptions about local government being smaller and simpler are still valid. Toronto City Council is responsible for a larger budget than several provinces. Mayors in 28 Canadian cities are directly elected by more people than any federal or provincial politician in the country. Local government isn’t the kid sister of governments in Canada anymore, particularly not in our cities.

The other big problem with the “municipal advantage” argument is that the data doesn’t support it. An excellent book, Electing a Diverse Canada: the representation of immigrants, minorities, and women, edited by Caroline Andrew in 2008, examines how well governments in Canada represent the communities they serve. It calculates a proportionality index showing how under and over represented various demographics are by their elected officials, including in 11 Canadian cities. One of the findings of this study is that the so-called “municipal advantage” in gender representation no longer exists. In other words, women are now more represented within other levels of government than they are in Canada’s cities.

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) reports that 16% of mayors, and 24% of councillors, in Canada today are women. My guess is there is more of a story to be told within the 16% figure, with the odds of having a female mayor going down as city size goes up.

My research project is based on a sample of 10 Canadian cities, the largest in each province. The current mayor in all 10 cities is male (for the math challenged among us, that’s 0% women). Only 6 of the cities have ever had a female mayor. Vancouver, Calgary, Saskatoon and Montreal have never had a female mayor. The most female mayors in any of the cities is an underwhelming 2. The FCM Big City Mayors Caucus includes just 3 women (or, 14%).

Now, the broad goal here is about more than just the number of women who are elected; it includes shifting attitudes and ingraining the value of gender equality in policy making. It’s about removing conscious and unconscious bias from our governance and government structures. Men and women both play critical roles here, and there are many examples of male political leaders – including several in the cities in my sample – who are strong champions for equality and inclusion. Just because a mayor is a woman also doesn’t necessarily mean she represents the interests of all women (case in point: although I respect Charlotte Whitton for being the first female big city mayor in Canada, if you read a bit more about her politics it will make your skin crawl).

I doubt that Mayor Barbara Hanley would be impressed to hear that, 80 years after her election, we’re sitting around 16% of mayors in Canada being women. We can, and should, do better. If there’s a silver lining though, it’s that a number this low provides needed ammunition to keep the discussion about equality and inclusion on the front burner. We’re fortunate to have many political leaders – women and men – who continue to champion this cause.

Cities are Canada’s engine, and play an important role in our lives. The leadership of cities matters. We are wise to select leaders who reflect, and believe in, equality because they are essential ingredients towards more inclusive, prosperous and livable Canadian cities.