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Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Urban Nation: Why We Need To Give Power Back To The Cities To Make Canada Strong

 Alan Broadbent (Harper Collins 2008)

According to Alan Broadbent, the economic engines that fuel Canada are being throttled. These engines are our largest cities. The country as a whole, he contends, is suffering, and will continue to do so unless much more power and resources are handed over to these municipalities by the federal government.

Broadbent, an entrepreneur and philanthropist, as well as Chairman and CEO of Avana Capital Corporation, is personally dedicated to this movement, lays out a compelling case to make it happen, and explains succinctly and passionately why it ought to.

The early chapters offer a wonderful account of Canadian history from the fur trade to the eventual and inevitable rise of our great cities. These chapters alone would make for a compelling and scholarly book, but they’re merely the preamble to his ultimate, convincing argument.

One key point to further his case, is the issue of immigration. Most immigrants settle in Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver, as it is here they are most likely to find family, friends, suitable services in their mother language, and employment opportunities. They are more often than not, industrious and eager to contribute to the country that gave them and their families a chance at a better life.

“We can choose to hobble people who come to Canada, or empower them. If we do the former, we’ll pay a price down the road. If we do the latter, we’ll reap benefits.” When we attempt to manage immigration as a problem, we fail. When we see immigrants as assets and treat them accordingly, we all win.

Besides immigration, we have spent considerable effort doing the opposite of better enabling our cities, and therefore diminishing our overall strength. Massive downloading of responsibilities from the federal government to the provinces began in earnest under Prime Minister Jean Cretien. The responsibilities were handed over, but not the resources to pay for them. In turn, the provinces, BC and Ontario in particular, simply passed the buck and passed responsibilities (again without adequate resources) down to municipalities. Mike Harris, Premier of Ontario at the time, “seemed to embrace the practice with some relish, and no slight malice”.

Harris dismissed the mayor and council of Toronto, along with those of Scarborough, York, North York, East York, and Etobicoke, and created the new city of Toronto. Citizens were outraged. A referendum was organized; voters turned out en masse and rejected Harris’s amalgamation. It was flippantly ignored. Thus, the city was throttled with ever-increasing duties and responsibilities, and less ability to deal with them. The largest and most powerful economic engine in the country had been soundly shackled.

Broadbent proposes, in part, implementing the following strategies to help fuel Canada for the new century: Enhance the democratic process, rather than have politicians pretend to listen once every few years at election time, and then proceed with their pre-planned agenda regardless of citizen concerns.

Understand the importance of the three major municipalities (Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver) and equip them with the resources they need to get the job done. That is, working to make the cities more viable on the world stage, thereby benefitting the country as a whole.

Another important change we need is to have truly proportionally government representation, to ensure the major cities get the even break required to build and maintain infrastructure in order to fairly compete. Further, allow Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver to act as city-states, comparative in political power to the current provinces (Broadbent refers to this as “liberating” them).

He contends Vancouver would then become the undisputed leader of Cascadia – the region from central California to Alaska. It would then be able to be more aggressive in dominating trade throughout the Pacific Rim. Montreal, he admits, will never again be the financial capital it once was, but could “once again assert its cosmopolitan, world-city ways, and begin to regain its old importance commercially, socially, and culturally”.

For Toronto’s part, to finally be able to focus on its strengths without federal or provincial restraint, research and development and financial services ( among others) would catapult it into a globally-important and successful city.

Once these cities were allowed to grow and compete without inhibition, the rewards would be more than enough to subsidize smaller communities in the country through federal tax plans.

Of course, utopias have a funny way of never achieving their glorious potential, but with intelligent careful planning by passionate and sincere architects such as Broadbent and colleagues, this is an idea that should be seriously considered, for the betterment of all Canada.

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