Big-city mayors see themselves at heart of issues closest to people

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi has a tongue-in-cheek answer to explain what makes local government so special.

If the federal government disappeared tomorrow it would probably take Canadians a few weeks to notice, he says, and perhaps a few hours, or even days, in the case of a provincial government.

“(But) if your municipal government disappeared, well, you’d have no roads, you’d have no transit, you’d have no parks, you’d have no police, you’d have no firefighters, you’d have no clean water. You’d notice pretty quickly,” Nenshi laughs.

“We provide the services that keep people healthy and safe and happy every hour of every day of their life.”

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Large municipalities are moving beyond the traditional realm of garbage collection, snow removal and street cleaning to play roles on climate change, immigration and clean energy.

That has produced so-called star mayors who are entering municipal politics to champion an expanded role for cities.

“You have had in recent years the emergence of municipal politicians who have captured public attention and have been able to draw attention to the needs of municipalities,” says Warren Magnusson, a political theorist at the University of Victoria who specializes in urban studies.

As a big-city mayor with a high profile following his 2014 World Mayor prize, Nenshi is an example of this phenomenon.

“Every mayor in Canada will tell you that they can walk down the street with any cabinet minister and probably the premier of their province, and it’s the mayor that people on the street will stop to talk to,” Magnusson says.

“This (local politics) is where it’s at.”

In Vancouver, Gregor Robertson is serving his third term as mayor after stepping down from provincial politics in 2008.

“Cities are on the frontlines and delivering services every day and making a difference in people’s lives, and I like that directness,” he says.

Mayors are the only heads of government in Canada elected directly by their constituents, says Robertson. Premiers and prime ministers typically serve a single riding, but their authority as first minister comes from being party leader.

Last year, Robertson met with Pope Francis to discuss climate change. He was subsequently invited to the U.S. State Department for a similarly themed gathering.

local government is closer to people and far more nimble, Robertson says, though he laments the fact that urban powers haven’t grown to reflect an expanded municipal role.

“Canada lags far behind other nations and cities in shifting that balance so that cities can take care of people and grow with the times, which provincial and federal governments don’t tend to do,” he says.

“They move far slower. They’re focused on long-term policy and are, by their nature, disconnected from daily life and people.”

Halifax Mayor Mike Savage says cities want to be recognized as equal partners and not a lower order of government, adding that federal and provincial governments need to “take the handcuffs off” by, among other things, reducing municipalities almost complete reliance on property tax to raise revenue.

“I often tell people that the feds have the money, the provinces have the responsibility but the cities have the problem.”

All three mayors agree that progress is being made and are optimistic they will have a say in how billions from Ottawa will be spent on infrastructure projects.

Savage, who was a Liberal MP and is the son of a former Nova Scotia premier, says at one time the “farm system” meant politicians worked their way up from school board to city council to the legislature and finally to the House of Commons. But now people are coming to municipal politics from all levels.

He finds as mayor of Atlantic Canada’s largest city he is routinely dealing with the issues that attracted him to federal politics — the economy, human rights, justice, the environment, immigration.

“All those things I saw as national issues I’m able to touch on now as mayor, and I can do it without the bonds of partisan politics,” he says.

“I think that being the mayor of a city is in many ways the pinnacle of public service.”

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