Kate

Saint John, New Brunswick

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There’s an ancient proverb that goes like this: travel together like water, always flowing in the same direction.

Whoever said that clearly hasn’t been to Saint John, New Brunswick.

Saint John is located on the Bay of Fundy, which is known for having the greatest tides in the world. The Bay of Fundy rises and falls by up to 56 feet roughly every 12 hours. I was fortunate to have a waterfront apartment for this stay, and sure enough, watching the tides come and go has quickly become a part of my daily rhythm. In the southwest end of the city, there is a place called the Reversing Falls where the rapids literally change directions twice a day.

Perhaps a better axiom for this city is: go with the flow.

Saint John is the largest city in New Brunswick, Canada’s only bilingual province. New Brunswick is home to approximately 750,000 people. Interestingly, about a third (250,000) of the population lives without any form of local government. In fact, more than 90% of New Brunswick’s territory does not have local government (see the white areas on the map below), and instead are divided into unincorporated areas called Local Service Districts (LSDs) with all services administered by the province and no forum for local decision making. According to one interviewee, the people living in LSDs pay minimal taxes with services subsidized by the urban areas, so there is little incentive to incorporate. “Changing this would take some serious political will at the provincial level, and frankly there is nothing in it for them.”

New Brunswick’s 107 incorporated municipalities include 8 cities (defined as 10,000+ population), 26 towns, 65 villages, 7 rural communities, and 1 regional municipality. About a quarter of the province’s population live in just 3 cities: Fredericton, the capital; Moncton, which with its neighboring municipalities is the largest metropolitan region; and Saint John, the largest city.

Of course, the big municipal news in New Brunswick is about last week’s elections. On Monday, May 9, all New Brunswick municipalities went to the polls (see a bit more background on this in an earlier blog post). The overall voter turnout across the province was a discouraging 34.5%, although slightly higher in the three largest cities (ranging from 35.7% to 37.9%). The election has ushered in change, as there is now a new mayor in all three of New Brunswick’s largest cities. In Moncton and Saint John, the incumbent mayor had decided not to ‘re-offer’. In Fredericton, a longstanding and well known mayor was unseated.

Under New Brunswick’s Municipal Act,the duties of mayors include providing leadership to council, communicating information and making recommendations to council, and speaking on behalf of council. The Act also explicitly states that the mayor is “subject to the direction and control of council and shall abide by decisions of council.”

Despite this, mayors in New Brunswick seem to face the same challenging expectations I’ve heard about in every province: citizens think the mayor “runs the show”; they vote for candidates who promise to shift the fortunes of the city; they tend to lay blame at the mayor’s feet when things go wrong. In practice, the mayor is just one vote (and here they are not even that, as the mayor only votes in the rare case of a tie). That said, in New Brunswick, like elsewhere, I have also heard some incredible stories about how mayors can exercise enormous influence and power – and I’m quickly learning that it’s not always in the ways we would expect.

There are a few unique features about local government in Saint John. First, it’s old. Saint John is the oldest incorporated city in Canada, dating back a whopping 231 years to 1785. Hints of heritage remain today, even in the fact that Council is referred to as “Common Council” (rather than City Council), a term I am not aware of being used anywhere else in Canada. Saint John is divided into four wards, each represented by two councillors. Common Council includes the mayor, the eight ward councillors, and two councillors elected at large. Common Council appoints a deputy mayor, traditionally the member of Council who received the most votes in the last election. The position of mayor is technically part-time, but described as “easily requiring full time hours.” One person remarked this has meant that the position tends to only be held by people with the personal financial means to commit the time, or retirees who have the time.

One thing I’ve heard a bit more here than elsewhere is about the role the mayor plays in civic boosterism, or building community pride – and although my study is not about evaluating the people who are mayors, it sounds like the past few Saint John mayors have done a good job in this regard. The strong sense of local pride here is evident, and it’s easy to see why. The compact downtown core is full of beautiful old buildings, many of which have been respectfully and creatively converted into modern spaces. Almost every street includes interesting public space, and unique food and retail vendors. I enjoyed an excellent lunch over an interview yesterday, and afterwards the chef dropped by the table and spoke about how much she loved the city, referring to it as ‘Saint Awesome’. I said the term would make a great hashtag. This got a oh-you-must-be-new laugh, and I was quickly informed that it already is a great hashtag. Sure enough, I’m now noticing #SaintAwesome all over the city.

Saint John has taught me about the history of cities and local government in Canada. As the oldest city in our country, the time invested in reading about its formation was well spent, as it created an urban governance template still evident today across Canada. Saint John has also caused me to spend an almost embarrassing amount of time googling how tides work. And perhaps most importantly, it’s made me think about the virtues of going wit the flow.

#SaintAwesome, I’ll be back.

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Hey – if you’re reading this in Saint John (or anywhere else, for that matter), please take 5 minutes and answer a few quick questions about the role of mayors. I’m learning through insights of others, and everyone has some to share, so please do! Thank you!

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And you thought I was joking about 90%+ of this province having no local government.

 

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Uptown Saint John.

 

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One of many beautiful buildings.

 

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A great example of a heritage conversion project.

 

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Salmon & beet salad at East Coast Bistro. I think it’s illegal to go to a foodie city and not post at least one food pic.

 

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Downtown Market.

 

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This city loves to celebrate it8s many firsts! Canada’s first free public library (1883).

 

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Now there’s an idea.

 

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My Airbnb apartment was truly spectacular. I arrived to quiet jazz and fresh raspberry turnovers. The balcony has a view of the Saint John River. Every detail was considered, and had my dream combo of a Perrier stocked fridge, luxurious toiletries and fast internet. It’s in an ideal location and the costal Canadiana touches make it a perfect getaway spot. If you’re visiting Saint John, I’d strongly recommend checking out @OnePrincessSJ.

 

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In case you didn’t notice, I really loved my apartment this week, @OnePrincessSJ. DId I mention the raspberry turnovers already?

 

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Watching the Saint John River go with the flow.

 

Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island

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There’s a reason they call it ‘The Gentle Island’.

Prince Edward Island is Canada’s smallest province, representing just 1% of our nation’s land. But make no mistake: it’s a special 1%. Only here will you find bright red soil roads, softly rolling hills, and a backdrop of sparkling blue water as far as the eye can see. There is no place on the Island more than 16km from the ocean. The coastline is punctuated with lighthouses, sandy beaches and rocky shores, almost like it’s posing for a postcard. It feels serene, peaceful and calm. Even the island itself is shaped kind of like a smile.

Charlottetown, PEI’s capital city, is also all charm. The city takes great pride in being the birthplace of Confederation, expressed through historical monuments sprinkled through its quaint urban core. The city punches well above its weight in excellent restaurants, hip coffee houses and cultural amenities. The streets are peaceful, and cars consistently stop to let pedestrians cross the road. I experimented with this, stepping just off the sidewalk to see if it would slow traffic. It did. The influence of courtesy on traffic flow is a foreign phenomena to Ontarians like me.

But when you scratch beneath the idyllic Anne-of-Green-Gables-ish veneer, what you find is an evolving Canadian city facing very real political challenges.

Charlottetown seems to suffer simultaneously serious cases of Big City and Small Town syndromes. Within PEI, Charlottetown is the big dog: it’s the provincial capital, and with 34,000 people (and 65,000 in the ‘metro’ area) it’s the largest city in the province by a long shot. Charlottetown benefits from a strong presence of all levels of government, with federal buildings literally across the street from the provincial legislature and down the block from City Hall. All 140,000 islanders rely on Charlottetown to an extent, as home to most of PEI’s primary institutions and amenities. I heard a lot about capital city dynamics during my interview this week, particularly with respect to what is consistently referred to as ‘tax fairness’. Charlottetown residents pay approximately $5 million more each year in property taxes than what is spent in the city; the rest is collected by the province and spend elsewhere (and the trend lines on this are concerning – see page 5 of the City’s most recent budget document). Interviewees expressed feelings of resentment and frustration on this issue, mixed with a healthy dose of duty and responsibility (“as the capital city, we do have to look out for the whole Island”).

While Charlottetown is The Big City in PEI, it also fancies itself a small town, with all the good and bad that comes with it. Everyone I interviewed mentioned the closeness, familiarity and tightly networked nature of a smaller city (“everyone knows each other; heck, we’re probably even related”). Charlottetown’s smaller size also shapes it’s politics, including providing unparalleled access to political leaders (“I can talk to the mayor whenever I want. I can talk to him when he’s cutting his lawn”) and a more personalized policy making process (“when our Council makes a decision, they actually know all of the people affected”). Interviewees also spoke about how progress can be slow and cumbersome in a smaller community, particularly one that is so closely connected to the past and with a political culture sometimes adverse to taking risks.

Of course, size does matter. During the last municipal election, just three candidates ran for mayor (to put this in context, 67 people ran for mayor in the last Toronto election). The successful candidate, an incumbent mayor, won with fewer than 8,000 votes (again, to show the contrast, the current mayor of Toronto received nearly 400,000 votes ). The mayor of Charlottetown is a part time position, and the current mayor holds down another job. When searching for contact information for the mayor, I was surprised to find his home phone number listed on the City of Charlottetown’s website.

In PEI’s legislation, mayors are considered the “chief executive officers of council”. Charlottetown’s mayor presides over a 10 member, ward-based council, and has unilateral discretion to appoint a deputy mayor, all committee chairs, and committee members. Although no one here here seemed to think this was unusual, it’s a lever of power that few Canadian mayors hold.

In the words of one interviewee, “local government here is ripe for reform.” Charlottetown is one of 73 municipalities in PEI (a number called ‘crazy’ by some). The province’s Municipalities Act sets out the structure and responsibilities of municipalities on the island. The two cities, Charlottetown and Summerside, each have separate legislation and are described as the only ‘full service’ municipalities on PEI, meaning they administer services such as roads and winter maintenance provided elsewhere on the Island by the province. Even in Charlottetown and Summerside, though, the list of services provided by the municipality is more modest than in other Canadian cities as they don’t provide any social services, run their own libraries, administer elections, or even collect their own taxes. Without control over their own revenues, it makes it difficult for the municipality to meet current demands let alone address some of the higher order economic and social challenges faced by Canadian cities. Charlottetown Council approved a deficit in their 2016 budget, despite this being prohibited in provincial legislation (in the words of one interviewee, “it makes the point”).

As a visitor, Charlottetown and Prince Edward Island offer much appeal. As a researcher, this case also has a lot to offer, as it highlights the challenges faced by smaller cities across Canada: increasing demands and growing complexity, mismatched with rigid structures and constrained resources. Charlottetown, like all Canadian cities, faces social and economic struggles, and requires governance and leadership structures equipped to address them.

Serious as this may sound, it’s far from gloomy on this smile-shaped island. I should have disclosed that I’m not unbiased in how I feel about PEI, as most of my maternal family lives on the Island, and we visited annually when I was growing up. My affection for this province is longstanding, and after Ontario, it’s the province in Canada where I feel most at home. Even after 30 years of visiting, I’m still captivated by the Island’s charm – and I suspect I always will be. Every time a car slows to let me walk across the road, it reminds me of why I love this gentle island.

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Charlottetown City Hall

 

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Council Chambers

 

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One of my interviewees invited me into her home, greeted me (a stranger) with a hug, made me a coffee, and shared a binder with 160 years of information about Charlottetown mayors with me. The quintessential Charlottetown treatment.

 

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If you like lobster, and you haven’t been to PEI … please go to aircanada.ca immediately.

 

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A PEI sunset. As I said, this place feels postcard-ready all the time.

 

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Okay so this one is cheating a bit. I took this photo last year. But it captures how epically beautiful PEI’s beaches are during the (late) summer. These poor souls would be crazy to be on the beach in early May!

 

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Receiver Coffee + reading the PEI Municipalities Act. This PhD student is in Maritime heaven.

 

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Crossing the Confederation Bridge, saying goodbye to PEI … until we meet again.

Halifax, Nova Scotia

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The sound of a gunshot was unmistakable.

I was sitting on the picturesque front lawn of Halifax’s City Hall, waiting to meet someone for an interview. Moments after she arrived, the gunshot sounded. Instinctively, I jumped and my hands flung to cover my head.

She started laughing.

Apparently a noon gunshot is a daily occurrence in downtown Halifax, fired from the landmark Citadel Hill. This tradition dates back to 1857. The Halifax Noon Gun even has its own Twitter account (@HalifaxNoonGun) with more than 2,300 followers, and tweets “#boom #halifax” every day at exactly noon (yes, this is A Thing).

Who knew.

(Clearly not me.)

This is not all I’ve learned about Halifax since arriving early this morning. Halifax is the capital of Nova Scotia, and with nearly 420,000 people, it is home to almost half (44%) of the province. Does this matter? Short answer: yes. My hometown, London Ontario, has almost the same population as Halifax, but it’s the 6th largest city and third (or fourth, depending on your definition) largest economic region in the province of Ontario. Do you think Halifax is viewed differently in Nova Scotia than London is in Ontario? You bet. (This is a tangent I could go on and on and on about. Will leave this be for now!)

Halifax is also big – and at just shy of 5,500 square kilometers, I mean really big. To put it in context, Toronto is about 630 square kilometers and Calgary is around 825 square kilometers. The entire province of Prince Edward Island could fit inside Halifax. Just think about the infrastructure challenges this creates. Halifax’s large size is due in part to municipal restructuring which has taken place across the province over the past few decades. In 1996, the former City of Halifax, City of Dartmouth, Town of Bedford and County of Halifax amalgamated to become the Halifax Regional Municipality (or “HRM”). Only recently has it been rebranded to be just “Halifax”, with beautiful new signage visible throughout the city. Halifax City Council includes a mayor and 16 councillors, reduced from 23 councillors after the last municipal election in 2012.

Today, there are 51 municipalities in Nova Scotia, including 3 regions (Halifax being one), 21 rural municipalities, and 27 towns. Nova Scotia municipalities are subject to the provincial Municipal Government Act. Halifax has its own charter, the Halifax Regional Municipality Charter.

The Halifax Charter and Nova Scotia Municipal Government Act define the term “mayor” as being “the member of council elected at large to be the chair of council”. The duties of the mayor are identified as presiding over meetings, monitoring the administration and government of the municipality, and communicating information and making recommendations to council. As we’ll see in the coming weeks, this falls around the middle of the spectrum on powers provided to mayors by provincial legislation in Canada.

One of the immediately striking things about Halifax is the seemingly closer relationship between the Mayor and Chief Administrative Officer (CAO, elsewhere called City Manager). Council’s procedural rules (refereed to as ‘Administrative Order Number One’) includes the phrase “the Mayor and CAO jointly” surprisingly frequently when defining how certain procedural decisions are made. Even at Council, the Mayor and CAO are seated next to one another on an elevated platform. This is something I’ve not come across before.

Although it’s still early in this process, the interviews already have my head spinning. On some interview questions, there is clear consensus. On others, there is divergence – but with patterns emerging in the perspectives shared by politicians vs. administrators vs. community members. And then there are the comments that I’m not sure what to do with yet.

For example, several people have mused about connections between a mayor’s brand and their city’s brand. This came up several times today. In some cases, people seem to think there is a strong relationship. Others have suggested there is no link. Case in point:

Interviewee A: “When we think about cities, we think about the mayor. When think about Calgary, we think about Nenshi. It used to be that when we thought about Toronto, we’d think about Ford. The mayor shapes how people view a city. The way a mayor looks and acts, it matters. […] The mayor shapes sense of place.”

Interviewee B: “People have an intense sense of pride in where they live. It doesn’t matter who the mayor is. I wouldn’t change my opinion about my city, or any city, because of the mayor.”

This is a curious but important point. Is part of the role of mayors to embody the culture, uniqueness and aspirations of their city? Or are they just individuals elected to chair meetings and ceremonially ‘lead’ their city? I don’t know yet.

Every city has it’s quirks (I’m looking at you @HalifaxNoonGun). The extent to which mayors play a role in shaping, galvanizing and amplifying the unique personality of their cities is an important question for understanding the role of mayors generally in Canada’s cities.

So far Halifax has given me lots to think about, between moments of distraction from the beautiful architecture and interesting people watching. I have a feeling each city will teach me something, and Halifax is certainly not going to disappoint.

And, from now on when it’s noon in Halifax, I’ll be ready.

 

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Welcome to Halifax.

 

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Halifax City Council meeting.

 

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My new friend, the Citadel.

 

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Totally epic public library.

 

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Top level of public library.

 

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Rooftop patio of public library.

 

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Another kind of patio, by the water. This PhD thing is all work, work, work.

 

St. John’s, Newfoundland & Labrador

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Yesterday I arrived in what is one of North America’s oldest settlements in Canada’s youngest province: St. John’s, Newfoundland & Labrador.

From the moment The Rock became visible in the airplane window, the beauty of this place has had me catching my breath. It’s rugged, earthy, majestic. A few moments after landing, an older man asked me if it was my first time here. I said it was. In a thick accent with a kind tone, he welcomed me, said he could tell I was a “Mainlander”, and told me this was a place where I could let my guard down and learn to relax. I was a bit taken aback. Seemed a bold thing to say to a stranger, but I’m starting to think he was right.

St. John’s feels strikingly similar to San Francisco: hilly terrain, brightly painted houses, breezy ocean air, a tourism-meets-industrial seaport, and a decidedly hipster vibe. No one seems to be in a rush, and most everyone has a smile on their face. I was told several times before this trip that Newfoundland has “the nicest people in Canada” (which is saying something, in a country often defined by how nice we are). Already I can see how it has earned this reputation.

Newfoundland & Labrador is home to just over half a million people. It has 271 municipalities, including three cities: Corner Brook (with a population of approximately 20k), Mount Pearl (25k), and the capital St. John’s (105k). Cities are treated uniquely in this province. Newfoundland municipalities are subject to the Municipalities Act, except for the three cities which each have their own legislation. City mayors are also unique in that they are directly elected, a contrast to the provincial tradition of mayors being elected from within council (although often as the councillor receiving the highest number of votes).

Interestingly, one of the areas where cities have been treated differently is in how the role of the mayor is described in legislation – and in particular, the mayor of St. John’s, who holds (seemingly) considerably more power than do his mayoral colleagues across the province.

The City of St. John’s Act includes a special clause regarding the status of the mayor as “the official head of the city”, and states that the duties of the mayor include [paraphrased]:
• To execute the laws for the government of the city;
• To prosecute and punish all negligence, carelessness and positive violation of duty;
• To inspect the conduct of officers in the government of the city; and
• To communicate information and make recommendations to council.

Now, some of these items are fairly unusual in Canada, particularly the bits about executing laws and inspecting the conduct of officers. This language is not included in Newfoundland’s Municipalities Act, either. Perhaps even more notably, the Municipalities Act specifically states that “the mayor is subject to the control and direction of the town council”, language which is not included in the City of St. John’s Act.

The Mayor of St. John’s presides over an 11-member council, including a deputy mayor, 5 ward councillors and 4 councillors elected at large. It meets (almost) every week. The City of St. John’s website identifies 7 standing committees, 11 working and advisory groups, and 28 external bodies affiliated with council. This complex structure makes the role of the mayor even more interesting, as we can examine the ways in which the formal authority of the mayor may or may not extend beyond the municipality.

There is only so much that can be learned about the role and power of the mayor from looking at what’s on paper. I’m looking forward to learning much more through conversation, observation and interviews. I’m probably sounding like a broken record now, but I believe that we have seriously underestimated – and sometimes misunderstood – the importance of mayors in Canada, and their influence on our cities. I’m eager to learn how this varies across the country throughout this journey.

It’s a treat to study something by actually being here: watching, looking, listening. I’m thankful for this opportunity. The end product will surely be richer for it. And if the experience happens to include some great meals, good hikes, beautiful sunrises and other tourist luxuries … well, so be it.

If you’re in St. John’s (or anywhere in Newfoundland ) reading this, please connect with me. Take a minute and share your thoughts. Drop me an email. I appreciate everyone who has reached out already, and I’m looking forward to connecting with many more during my visit to your beautiful city.

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Dinner at Raymond’s, courtesy of a very generous friend. One of the best meals of my life. Highly recommended.

 

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The essentials for a Canadian morning hike. The view from the top of Signal Hill is spectacular.

 

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Delighted to see local goods in most stores along Water street.

 

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A supreme Supreme Court.

 

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Taking the kind stranger’s advice, and relaxing by the water.

 

My Great Canadian Adventure

imageThis Saturday, I begin a two-month journey across Canada to complete my PhD dissertation research. I fly to St. John’s, Newfoundland early on Saturday morning. From there I will wander west, visiting the largest city in each Canadian province until I reach Vancouver, British Columbia towards the end of June.

The journey will involve travel by train, plane, car, boat, bike and one helicopter ride. I am working to add a canoe trip to the list. I will be staying at a combination of Airbnbs, university residences, family member guest rooms, and hotels (for the odd splurge, and to reload on shampoo).

In case you didn’t notice, my research project is about Canadian mayors.

Over the past year, I’ve been studying the role of mayors from my desk. I’ve examined relevant legislation and bylaws in each city; I’ve completed a literature review on what has been written about mayors in Canada; I’ve analyzed institutional structures influencing the role of the mayor across cities.

Now the fun begins.

Over the next two months, it’s interview time. My job is to listen, observe and learn. I have interviews scheduled across the country to understand various perspectives about the role of mayors:

  • Political perspectives: mayors, past mayors, deputy mayors, and councillors;
  • Administrative perspectives: city managers and other senior administrators; and
  • Community perspectives: media who closely follow City Hall, and community leaders.

Although I will be keeping the names of those I meet with confidential, I will be openly sharing insights, learnings and curiosities along the way. I’m thankful to those who are making time to speak with me. I have a feeling I have two months of very interesting conversation ahead.

By the end of this journey, I hope to have a more nuanced understanding of the role of urban mayors, and how it varies across Canada’s cities. I suspect I will also learn a thing or two about the unique dynamics of local politics in Canada.

I believe mayors are among the most important, and least understood, leaders in Canada. This has troubling practical, theoretical and democratic implications. Through this study, I want to make a small dent in shaping how Canadians think about our mayors. Over time, I hope we can replace tired phrases like ‘weak mayors’ and ‘one vote on council’ with a Canadian-made understanding of our most important local officials.

Between interviews in City Hall offices and writing in coffee shops, I’m also going to get to know our country a bit better.

I will wander along our Atlantic and Pacific coasts. I want to find myself breathless riding a train through the Rocky Mountains, and marvel at the seeming endlessness of the Canadian prairies. I will explore downtowns, chat up the locals, and sample a few local brews.

(In the event my advisor is reading this: I promise my focus will be on the interviews, though!)

It’s going to be two months of learning, listening and living a decidedly Canadian experience.

I hope you join me. Take 3 minutes and tell me what you think about Canadian mayors. Contact me if you have a suggestion or insight to share. Follow the journey on the blog or @mayorsproject on Twitter.

This will be a once in a lifetime experience for me, and I can’t wait for it to begin.

The Mayoralty: A Political Dead End?

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If you have read any of the American urban politics literature, you have probably come across studies about the career paths of local politicians. Indeed, there seems to be a small obsession with analyzing the political careers of the people who hold elected office. One of the reasons these studies are so common1 is because they can offer important insights about politics and political institutions. In the words of one American author, “the careers of local politicians can be seen as a barometer of the political health of our cities.”2

Unfortunately, this literature doesn’t have many nice things to say about the political career prospects of mayors. In fact, the conventional view has been that the mayoralty is a “political dead end.”3

One of the earliest studies on the topic was conducted in 1963 by Marily Gittell, who examined political careers over a 20 year period. She found that only 10.4% of mayors  “moved up the political ladder”4 and argued that the most skilled potential leaders should seek elected office elsewhere.

“The lack of political future in being a mayor has made the office most unattractive. Although the task of the mayor often matches or supersedes that of governor, the stakes are considerably lessened by the various political limitations. The more astute politician will guide his career around, not into, the mayor’s office.”5

Now, not every study has shared this view.6 But, there is consensus even in the more recent literature that seeking “local office is not a good political stepping stone in the United States.”7

Of course, there are exceptions. Two American presidents were former mayors, and there are many examples of politicians migrating between levels of government. But, the data is pretty clear: if you want to become president or governor someday, running for mayor is not a good place to start.

The thing I find quite irritating (and maybe even offensive) about these studies is the underlying assumption which views levels of government as a hierarchy of importance; that somehow we can organize elected offices into rungs on a career ladder, with local offices at the bottom and various ‘senior level of government’ posts near the top. I just don’t buy it. Local government isn’t the ‘farm league’ of politics; it’s a league of its own.

I also don’t like the assumptions made in these studies about the people who are mayors. It assumes them to be careerists driven primarily by personal ambition, seeking something ‘bigger and better’ than what local government has to offer. Maybe the reason so few mayors end up in ‘higher office’ is because they didn’t want it in the first place.

Now, there may be important differences between Canada and the United States when it comes to the careers of mayors. Even in my study, four of the ten mayors included have federal or provincial political experience before becoming a mayor, and there are several prominent examples of politicians who have successfully migrated between levels of government. Perhaps there is more intergovernmental career mobility in Canada than in the United States. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been nearly as much study on this topic in Canada, so we don’t really know.

The point is: by describing the mayoralty as a “political dead end” or “not a good stepping stone”, we are missing the point. The position isn’t a rung on a ladder. It’s a role unlike any other political post in the country. For people who care about communities and local issues, being a mayor isn’t a means to an end; it can be the crowing achievement of a career. In an article about big city mayors this week, one Canadian mayor (who happens to also be a former MP) says it this way: “I think that being the mayor of a city is in many ways the pinnacle of public service.”

To me, this topic is yet another example about why we need more research about mayors that is specific to Canada’s unique context. We can’t continue to borrow language and rely on findings from studies in other jurisdictions. We need to recognize the uniqueness of the position of mayor in Canada, and strive to understand it in its own right.

2016 Municipal Election Watch

Canadian municipal election followers are finally coming to the end of what has felt like a very long dry spell.

2015 was an unusual year in that there were no municipal elections held in any major Canadian city. This phenomena won’t occur again for several decades.

(Yes, I know there were several municipal by-elections in 2015. And there were municipal elections in the territories, and some rural communities in Saskatchewan. Good luck finding a mainstream national media source covering any of these events. Thankfully, there were a few other rather epic elections in 2015 to follow!)

2016 will bring municipal elections to New Brunswick (May 9), Nova Scotia (October 15) and Saskatchewan (October 26). Alberta, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Quebec will hold municipal elections in 2017, and Ontario, Manitoba and British Columbia will hold municipal elections in 2018. And on it goes.

Dry patch: over!

With municipal elections in New Brunswick just three weeks away, it’s time to start tuning in. A few of them are shaping up to be rather interesting. Naturally, my interest leans towards the mayoral races.

Here’s quick snapshot: Across more than 100 municipal elections to occur in New Brunswick on May 9, there are 183 candidates seeking the position of mayor. 20% of theses candidates are women. Approximately half (48.5%) of the mayoral races are acclaimed, and in the vast majority of these cases (88%), the acclaimed candidate is an incumbent. In the municipalities where there is a mayoral race, in most cases there are only 2 candidates running, and never more than 5 (a stark contrast in scale from the more than 60 candidates who ran for mayor in the last Toronto election!).

Although New Brunswick has eight cities, there are only three with populations above 50,000: Fredericton, Moncton and Saint John. All three have a mayoral race. In two cases – Moncton and Saint John – the incumbent is not running (or “re-offer”, as seems to be the language most often used in the East Coast). All three are campaigns to follow and elections to watch.

The reason I find mayoral elections so interesting is because they offer an unparalleled opportunity to listen to the pulse of a community. Mayoral races, particularly hotly contested ones, showcase the key issues facing a community at a certain point in time. It is not unusual for mayoral campaigns to center around a short list of hot topics that can hold the attention of the public. It is these races which most powerfully express what our cities are worried about, thinking about, hoping for, and aspiring towards.

Mayoral candidates do not campaign based on the colour of their signs; instead, they must build an individual brand. Politically, they live and die based on how attuned they are to the agenda and ambitions of their community, and the extent to which they can demonstrate that they personally represent the most appealing path forward for their city. This is no small feat.

Mayoral campaigns are unlike any other political race in the country, in several respects. People who are interested in understanding Canada’s cities are wise to pay close attention, as they offer a rare chance to put your ear to the chest and hear a few heartbeats of our cities.