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Mary W. Rowe is the President & CEO of the Canadian Urban Institute (CUI).

Federal budgets should enable communities – places – to thrive 

The week following President Biden’s visit to Ottawa, the Government of Canada delivered its 2023 Budget: Strong Middle Class, Affordable Economy, Healthy Future, signalling federal priorities for the next year. The word ‘city’ and ‘urban’ appear only a handful of times in the document, used simply as descriptors for the eligibility for pan-Canadian programs targeted to specific sectors. Unlike our neighbours to the south who have doubled-down on place-based investments, Canada’s federal priorities continue to be focussed on a mix of macro-economic considerations (inflation, friend-shoring and clean tech, debt-to-GDP) and individual benefits (dental care).  

For one of the most urbanized countries of the world – over 80% of Canada’s residents live in an urban community of 5000 or more – the federal budget did not speak to the post-pandemic challenges being experienced by/in the places that not only house the majority of Canadians, but also generate by far the largest percentages of our nation’s wealth, creativity, and innovation. 

To many working on the front lines of our cities – running small businesses, maintaining office towers, operating transit systems, staffing libraries and community centres and parks, operating shelters and community clinics, creating cultural programming, stewarding shrinking municipal budgets – the federal budget may have felt like an abstract distraction, while Rome burns. It was tabled right when our cities are facing unparalleled incidences of violence on public transit, encampment clearances provoked by public safety concerns, ongoing shelter capacity challenges, dramatic increases in social disturbances in community spaces, and the vacating of large and small retail spaces in our downtown cores. 

Regrettably, governance in Canada – how we make decisions about public policy and investment which enables communities to thrive (or not) – is not organized to account for the needs of specific places. The time worn adage that ‘one size fits all’ seems to have been successfully debunked from every other domain except federal policymaking.  

Canada has a vast geography with a relatively sparse population, so generalizing pretty much anything is a fool’s errand.

This is why we need:  

  • new approaches to cobbling together solutions from the ground-up 
  • municipal governments across regions working with civic, institutional, and business leaders to come up with integrated, coordinated plans … 
  • … and for those plans to cross jurisdictions and sectors and work to meet the local conditions and leverage local assets 

This is as true for small communities and rural areas as it is for more densely populated, urban neighborhoods in larger urban regions. I,’s all the same conversation: how to tackle the challenges unique to a place and re-connect more equitably, more sustainably, and more productively to the whole. The whole, in our case, is Canada. 

Through the pandemic we witnessed urgency prompting quick, get-er-done, on-the-ground approaches, overcoming bureaucratic obstacles that had slowed or even blocked progress in the past. Surely the COVID-19 dividend must be to now embed quicker prototyping of possible solutions to local challenges, then amplify the ones that work and toss the ones that don’t. Otherwise, the problems seem insurmountable. Perhaps one of the benefits of a globalized pandemic is – albeit harshly, tragically – reminding us that each of our worlds is fundamentally small: neighbours and neighbourhoods matter, workplaces and care-places matter, public spaces and local stores and venues matter.  

Outcomes the latest federal budget aims to achieve: Strong middle class, Affordable economy, and Healthy Future, will be won, or lost, in Canada’s cities and urban regions. 

I realize lamenting the absence of federal budget attention to urban issues may seem counter to strengthening local approaches. But a key role for any federal system is to lead. To signal, incent, and in some cases, support. And in every case, enable actions that equip not only individuals and sectors, but communities – places – to thrive. Individual agency is crucial to this equation, and Canada’s investment leadership with the provinces/territories in dental and childcare have the potential to significantly impact people’s lives.  

But the CUI constituency is calling for integrated, place-based policy and investment leadership that recognizes the interdependency of housing, mental health, addictions, homelessness, commercial investment, and economic development. To that end, CUI continues to work with City Managers and senior staff as part of the Big City Executive Partnership to develop an alternative process to inform federal – and provincial – policies and investment, by generating regionally coordinated investment plans. 

– Mary W. Rowe