The cities are taking over Canadian politics


The rise of cities should cause us to think very differently about Canadian federalism and provides us with a glimpse into what lies ahead

By Ken Coates
Senior Fellow
Macdonald-Laurier Institute

The parsing of the federal election results is underway, as Canadians seek insights into leadership, party fortunes, regional concerns, and the priorities of special interest groups. This process often exposes major currents in Canada’s political culture and provides the country with a glimpse into what lies ahead.

In my view, a major focus should be on the continued growth of the political power of Canadian cities. In fact, the rise of cities should cause us to think very differently about Canadian federalism.

The Liberal dominance of metropolitan ridings is near complete, leaving all the parties to battle over suburban constituencies, smaller cities, and rural areas. The division of Canada along metropolitan and non-metropolitan lines presents formidable challenges to national parties, electors, and the country at large.

The electoral results are stunning: a Liberal sweep in Toronto and Ottawa, a near sweep in Montreal, and almost total dominance in Vancouver. Even Fortress Alberta buckled a little in 2021, with Liberals winning seats in Calgary and Edmonton. Pierre Trudeau used to count on Liberal domination of Francophone seats to keep him in office. Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party lost its longstanding hold on French-speaking ridings, but he now has the largest cities in a headlock.

Mid-size cities are not as strongly Red. Halifax stayed loyal to the Liberals, but other cities in Ontario, Quebec and Winnipeg split the vote while Saskatoon and Regina stayed Conservative and Victoria painted itself Orange. The Canadian political archipelago is dominated by the major islands Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver and by growing portions of the smaller regional cities.

Federalist states are delicate political systems, given to regional strife, cultural conflicts, and tensions between federal and subnational governments. Canadians are familiar with the vicissitudes of federal politics, but they are ill-prepared for the restructuring of Confederation made more real in the September 2021 federal election.

We have long known that the Canadian federation faced numerous centrifugal forces, from Maritimes rights and western alienation to B.C. exceptionalism and Newfoundland’s unique claim on national attention. Quebec nationalism holds such a special claim on the country’s political attentions that obviously egregious acts of ethnic discrimination are ignored by federal parties. The northern territories are heavily subsidized, with an outsized hold on the country’s political consciousness.

But the traditional stature of the provinces and territories is being superseded by the new Canadian powerhouses: the major metropolitan areas. We should have seen this coming. The Mayor of Calgary, Naheed Nenshi, is better known than almost all provincial premiers. Edmonton’s reform-minded leader, Don Iveson, was heavily recruited to be a federal candidate and would have been a political star.

John Tory, mayor of Toronto, wields much more authority than most federal cabinet ministers; this is hardly surprising as the Toronto city government is the fifth largest civil service in the country. The mayor of Vancouver, Kennedy Stewart, left a near-sinecure on the NDP benches in Ottawa to apply his interventionist instincts in the world’s most beautiful city. Jim Watson shifted from provincial politics and a cabinet post in the Liberal government to run for the mayor’s seat in one of the country’s fastest growing cities – Ottawa.

The cities are taking over Canadian politics. The main non-pandemic issues of the 2021 election highlighted urban preoccupations. Guns panic the good citizens of Toronto, but much less so those of Miramichi or Swift Current. Sky-high housing prices have touched the world in the GTA and Greater Vancouver, but they are much less of an issue in Saskatoon or Prince George. Even childcare, while obviously a concern for many Canadians, has special force for the tens of thousands of two job families struggling to make ends meet in the ultra high-cost larger cities.

Governments have recognized the authority of the cities in the past, as shown in major federal and provincial investments in urban transit systems, a major boon for Milton, Vaughan, and parts of Ottawa but of no apparent benefit to the people of Saint John or Nanaimo. The issues of the cities are qualitatively different than those of medium and small-town Canada. Big city politics – and now Canadian politics – reflect the multi-cultural character of Canadians in the growing list of globally relevant large cities, which remain magnets for immigrants.

The recent federal election makes it clear that Canada can no longer be viewed as an assembly of 10 provinces and three territories, which is now a quaint affectation of the old Canadian federalism. Canada is now an archipelago, a union of loosely connected metropolitan areas held together by the urban-focused Liberal Party of Canada.

The major cities, save perhaps for Canada-obsessed Ottawa, are outward-looking, cosmopolitan and internationally competitive. The smaller cities, including rising stars like Moncton, Sherbrooke, Waterloo, Kamloops, and Kelowna, are fine communities and economically innovative. Still, they lack the qualities and character of the major cities, including the communities’ resources, multi-cultural dynamism, and future orientation of Canada’s metropolitan areas. Almost all of the job growth and much of the investment in Canada is focused on the largest six cities.

The Liberal Party has figured this out, just as Stephen Harper and his outreach lieutenant Jason Kenny did a decade ago when ethnic engagement was a key element in the Conservative’s election strategy. Connecting to the larger centres, which are part of the global rise of major cities, is now fundamental to national electoral success in Canada. Smaller centres can be captured by regional pains or brokerage politics. They are divisible. The cities, it appears, are not; a metropolitan political culture has developed that appears to be over-powering historical, regional and even cultural divisions.

The 2021 federal election has shown that national policies and platforms are less relevant than they were in the past. The country – and its political parties – need two distinct policy streams, one focused on the metropolitan areas and a second on smaller regional centres, small towns, and rural Canada. The situation is far from unique to Canada. Australia, for example, has long been dominated by a handful of major cities, albeit with a more divided political outcome in recent elections.

Recognizing the new metropolitan reality of Canada has become a core element of national politics. It is time to acknowledge that the city-state reality must become a central and high-profile feature of Canadian policy-making.

Ken S. Coates is a Munk senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

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