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City-building is nation-building (19/09/2016)

The following op-ed was published in the Hill Times on Monday, September 19, 2016.

By Don Iveson. Don Iveson is the Mayor of Edmonton. He also serves as chair of the Big City Mayors' Caucus of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (

Canada turns 150 next year. We have grown into 10 provinces, three territories and thousands of municipalities that people call home. How we choose to work together today-right now-will very much shape the Canada of tomorrow.

The federal government has put forward a vision to modernize the public infrastructure that offers Canadians one of the best qualities of life in the world. Its transformative potential, however, still hinges on decisions to be made in the coming weeks and months.

Last week in Edmonton, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities led a delegation of mayors at an unprecedented tri-lateral meeting with Canada's federal, provincial and territorial infrastructure ministers. This historic first was a milestone in our growing partnership. The discussions were detailed but our message was simple; nation-building starts in cities.

That's not a slogan. That's our best investment advice.

Canada faces significant challenges-on jobs, on productivity, on climate change, on housing. These are national challenges, but we all experience them locally. And the more promising way to tackle many national challenges is to systematically invest in local solutions.

On climate change, for instance, municipalities are already modelling some of Canada's lowest-carbon practices. Some of today's richest potential to reduce national GHG emissions-by 20 to 55 megatons-lies in scaling up local innovations in building retrofits, district heating, zero-emission waste systems, and beyond.

We know transit offers the opportunity to move a higher number of individuals more quickly and in some cities like Edmonton, we are moving more people on light rail every day than on our busiest freeways and highways. Cities are ready to go with expansions that will shorten commutes and relieve gridlock. And those projects will have national impacts. By getting more people and goods moving faster, we'll cut emissions and recover the $10 billion in productivity now lost to congestion each year.

The federal government wisely split its new infrastructure investments into two phases. Phase 1 is already supporting some much-needed repairs to core infrastructure, and planning for big projects. But Phase 2 will be the much bigger piece, representing 80 percent of the funding commitment. What's coming could be transformative, but unlocking this potential depends on getting two things right.

First, Phase 2 should empower local expertise to drive the best local projects forward.

No two communities are the same. Local governments are best placed to assess local needs, with a proven record of responding effectively. To unlock this potential, significant investment can be streamlined as stable, predictable allocations for municipalities. This will help us plan ahead, tap local know-how and fill every construction season with productive steps forward. Allocation-based funding also ensures no community is left out-essential for a serious nation-building plan.

Second, Phase 2 should build on fair financial contributions from all orders of government.

The federal government has shown strong leadership in Phase 1, raising its maximum contribution to 50 percent of a project's capital costs. This recognizes that local governments' inherent fiscal limitations have been a very real barrier to building infrastructure to grow our economy. If this federal commitment carries into Phase 2, and if provinces hold firm to a fair share, then remarkable progress really is possible.

Local governments have built, operated and maintained 60 percent of Canada's public infrastructure-and we've done this with access to just 8-10 cents of each Canadian's tax dollar, and with a prudent legal requirement for balanced budgets. By necessity, we've become skilled project and financial managers. Imagine what local governments will be able to accomplish with new tools in a renewed partnership.

That renewed partnership is the key. This is our opportunity to build a partnership grounded in the strengths that each order of government has developed over Canada's 150 years. The federal government brings its national vision and investment plan. The provinces are key guardians of regional priorities. Municipalities deliver cost-effective local solutions with national impact.

In the 19th century, we built this country by driving spikes laying rails to link our regions. In the 20th, we fostered commerce and diversity by embracing the world through building our ports and highway network. Tomorrow's Canada can feature great cities energized by world-class transit-and thriving rural areas bolstered by modern infrastructure that confronts the challenge of climate change.

I was encouraged by our meetings in Edmonton this week. Three government partners focussed on what matters most: real outcomes for Canadians. If we keep putting people before politics, and commit to a central role for municipalities, Canadians will have much to look forward to.

Page Updated: 22/09/2016