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Canadian politicians gathered in Vancouver to talk about both the serious stuff (solid waste, housing) and the not-so-serious (Rob Ford! The video!)

June 4th, 2013 · 123 Comments

If you were trying to get a hotel room in Vancouver from Thursday on last week, good luck. They were filled up with city councillors, mayors, city managers, and city financial officers from across the land, coming here for the annual convention.

While they were focused on garbage, sewers, housing and roads, we in the media found other worthy subjects. The Province’s story this morning is about local councillors who stayed overnight downtown in hotels. Many writers continued to focus on Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, even though he was notable mainly by his absence and sniping from Toronto about how people out here were drinking martinis (martinis? in Vancouver? I think not) and not really doing city business.

Meanwhile, at the convention, most politicians I talked to had zero respect for Mr. Ford or his comments. One, from Dauphin, Manitoba, suggested wryly that Ford probably didn’t want to come out to a gathering like this because he might “get too learned-up.”

My relatively staid stories about the weekend non-festivities here and here.

As I said on CKNW this morning, there’s a kind of politics of resentment being played these days, where the most popular thing a politician can do is to attack other politicians for wasting taxpayer money. It’s easy, when everyone is a little worried about whether their job is safe or what will happen if mortgage interest rates go up, to play on everyone’s anxiety by blathering on about how some politician got a nice meal or took a taxi or stayed in a hotel room.  (Strangely, none of the aforementioned ever offer to give up their salaries as part of their deep concern for the taxpayers.)

The problem is, those attacking frequently don’t distinguish between the hard-working ones, spending their convention days going on landfill tours or sitting through excrutiating discussions of cellphone-tower agreements, and those who are just taking a freebie and not putting in too much effort. It’s discouraging to those who are working hard. A little more critical analysis would be good.



Civic leaders gathered in Vancouver at the annual meeting of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities this weekend, taking time to mark their progress on securing greater financial commitments from Ottawa to battle gridlock and to set new priorities.

A federal cabinet minister and two opposition party leaders, Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau, beat a path to the get-together, addressing the group that boasts it represents 91 per cent of Canadians.



One voice absent from all those discussions: Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.

The Toronto region is the subject of an ambitious plan by the provincial government of Premier Kathleen Wynne to raise and spend $2-billion annually on transportation – which has drawn a cool response from federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.

Mr. Ford has denounced the plan to tap taxpayers and insisted more government waste could be eliminated. Mr. Ford has not attended FCM meetings since becoming mayor in 2010 and on his radio show Sunday made no secret of his scorn for “the lefty caucus” and Toronto city councillors whom he accused of “having a good time” in Vancouver at taxpayer expense.

Some municipal leaders remarked that the controversy hanging over Mr. Ford, who has been besieged by questions about a video that allegedly shows him smoking crack cocaine, would have made him a “distraction” at the FCM meeting in any case. Others questioned his criticism of the body that has led the way on lobbying Ottawa to share a greater proportion of tax revenues with municipalities.

Karen Leibovici, an Edmonton councillor and FCM’s departing president, says the ground gained by the organization in areas such as infrastructure spending show how powerful local governments can be if they speak in unison.

“If you have 100 competing demands, how are you going to ask for anything?” Ms. Leibovici said.

The high-powered weekend crowd at the FCM included federal Transportation Minister Denis Lebel. He reiterated Ottawa’s pledge for $53-billion in infrastructure spending over 10 years, money included in the past federal budget. Substantial portions of it is a continuation of long-standing federal funding for municipalities, including transfers of a portion of the gas tax and GST rebates. It also includes a $14-billion federal fund for new buildings, and a $1.25-billion fund for private-public partnerships.

Mr. Nenshi said conversations over the weekend focused on what more can be done. “We are talking about a dedicated fund nationally for transit and how that would look for big cities and for smaller towns,” he said.

He believes that the one-on-one meetings that city politicians had with federal ministers last year helped pave the way for the new Building Canada Fund announced in the budget, as well as new agreements on getting gas-tax revenue for cities.

This year’s meeting came amid growing alarm about the state of infrastructure across the country.

In Toronto, there is rising concern that gridlock is hurting the city’s future. On Sunday, Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa called for a meeting with his federal counterpart to urgently discuss public transit funding in the province as part of its bid to fund new projects across the greater Toronto and Hamilton area.

As mayor of Toronto, Mr. Ford has denounced the plan to tap taxpayers to pay for transit expansion.

Of the 18 Toronto councillors who went to the FCM meeting, Mr. Ford and his brother, Councillor Doug Ford, argued that only four had any business being there.

“Even four’s a little high,” he told listeners of the radio show the two men co-host. “But then 18 councillors, 18 councillors flew out Thursday. You know, the same councillors said ‘aw, you know, the city’s falling apart.’ Well where were they Thursday? Where were they Friday? You could shoot a cannon off at city hall.”

Councillor Paula Fletcher, one of the group singled out for attack by the mayor, called the conference a “learning opportunity,” for municipalities and a chance to see “heavy hitters from the Hill.”

“I don’t apologize for trying to learn more so I can do more for my constituents,” Ms. Fletcher said, questioning why the mayor and his brother think it was fine to go on a trip to Chicago last year with business leaders, but not to a meeting where they can discuss best practices with other civic leaders.

Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti, a former member of Mr. Ford’s cabinet-like executive committee, was one of the four given a pass by the mayor and his brother. But he also challenged the radio criticism. “Anyone who says this is a junket doesn’t understand the work that goes on here,” he said.

Cornerbrook Mayor Neville Greeley was one of four to come from his Newfoundland community’s seven-member council. “Maybe the mess [Mr. Ford’s] in is because he hasn’t taken the opportunity he’s had to learn how to be a more effective mayor,” he said.

After Mr. Ford spoke Sunday, some of those attending the FCM shot back that the meeting was far more important than he appears to think.

“It’s nine hours of meetings a day … we get a lot of work done,” said Surrey Mayor Diane Watts. “The meetings I have with other mayors across the country are valuable. I don’t know how one would connect like that by e-mail. For the smaller communities, especially, they have an opportunity to tap into a network.”

Mr. Ford is not the first Toronto leader to take a pass on the annual FCM meetings. While former mayor David Miller was an active member of the federation, taking a lead role in the group’s efforts to secure municipal funding from Ottawa through gas taxes, another former mayor, Mel Lastman, was in the habit of letting a young city councillor speak in his place – Jack Layton.

With reports from Campbell Clark





Canada’s big-city mayors are taking on a new battle: low-cost housing.

And they have kicked off a campaign to persuade the federal government to continue a decades-old form of support for subsidized housing that is used to reduce the rent for 600,000 households.

“There’s $500-million a year in housing investments expiring in 2014. That’s the big bombshell that’s landing,” Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson said from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities convention in the city on Thursday.

Mr. Robertson is the chair of the Big City Mayors’ Caucus, which represents the country’s 22 largest municipalities.

“Until now, we’ve been focused on infrastructure. That work culminated in the last federal budget. Our next priority now is housing. It’s a big complex challenge.”

The problem for many social-housing units is that they were built under agreements with the federal government that they would get subsidies for the term of their mortgages.

When those mortgages expired, 30 or 40 years later, it was expected that the apartments could still be rented out at low rates because the loan payments would have ended.

But many of those buildings require substantial renovations now.

So, without ongoing subsidies from the federal government, operators – non-profits, co-ops and local governments – will have to forgo maintenance or start charging more rent to pay the bills.

Many non-profits and co-ops operate on a model in which some renters pay full market rent, some get a small subsidy and others get a much larger subsidy. Having one-third of each type of renter has been seen as the norm.

But as operators get squeezed to meet new expenses, they are forced to rent more of their units to those who can pay market prices and provide fewer subsidized units.

Some organizations will be able to continue without too much change, either because they built up reserves or are not facing serious maintenance issues.

But about a third of the units will likely be at risk, according to a national study by Ottawa-based housing expert Steve Pomeroy.

Mr. Robertson said he will talk to federal ministers James Moore and Denis Lebel during the FCM convention.

He will also meet with Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair.

“The outreach is to all the stakeholders to get the conversation rolling,” he said. “We will need changes in the 2014 budget. And, with a federal election in 2015, we need all the parties to recognize the urgency of this.”


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