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Opinion

Community sector would do well to focus on urban issues

Published on 30/10/2014

As we welcome John Tory as Toronto’s new mayor elect, we may be excused our collective sigh of relief. After four years of near dysfunction in the Mayor’s office, we now look forward to a new kind of leadership.

At Maytree, we’ve worked with John Tory for a long time, and have great expectations of what his leadership can bring. We’ve known him as collaborative and prepared to work on the issues that face the city and the region. For sure, residents of Canada’s largest city will see a very different style of leadership at city hall.

But as strong a leader and collaborator as John Tory may be, he won’t be able to succeed on his own. In fact, even with full council support, he will still need to rely on the contributions of others, from the business community, to Toronto’s cultural scene, to the community sector. And this is no different for mayors in other big Canadian cities.

Earlier this month, I was part of a panel at the Philanthropic Foundations Canada’s 2014 conference at Halifax looking at how the twin forces of urbanization and migration are shaping Canada’s future. We discussed the opportunities and challenges these trends offer to change makers and how the community sector can support the cities in which we operate.

Today, as over 80% of us live in cities that have become the principal economic, social and cultural drivers of the country, cities continue to be trapped in an anachronism as our governmental arrangements haven’t kept pace. Cities don’t have revenue tools to fund their activities and shape their destinies. And their governance structures falter in the face of 21st century challenges.

These challenges come from having to perform a set of services “mandated” by their provincial governments for things like water, garbage, police and fire. Residents have also come to expect from cities a set of “un-mandated” services like parks, libraries and recreation centres.

In the 1990s, these challenges were exacerbated when the federal government fixed its deficit problem by downloading obligations to the provinces, without the revenue to pay for them. The provinces in turn did the same thing to their cities, downloading responsibility for social housing, provincial roads within the city boundaries, and other obligations. Unfortunately, cities had nobody to pass on a burden that put enormous stress on their budgets.

And when the city fails to deliver, we tend to blame the politicians, or the city managers for a situation not of their making. They simply lack the tools to do their jobs. They are limited to the property tax, which is a fine tax but it does not grow with the economy. And they are prohibited from raising income or sales tax, the two “big daddies” of revenue for governments.

As cities lack necessary powers, most decisions they make can be changed by their provincial governments. This wreaks havoc with planning and budgeting. And their weak governance structures make every decision, whether it be building a subway or designating a single parking space, a potential mine-field of politicking.

All of this makes urban regions places where community activists should focus attention because they can make the most impact. At Maytree, we have responded in multiple ways to help cities face their challenges.

Together with subject experts, we have co-created a number of organizations to work on urban issues.

The Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance (IMFG) at the University of Toronto works on how cities fund their activities and govern themselves through extensive research both in Canada and globally. IMFG also holds an ongoing series of events to present and argue the ideas.

Tamarack – An Institute for Community Engagement works with communities across Canada to create cross-sector problem solving initiatives on issues they self-identify. Tamarack’s Vibrant Communities project has produced a significant amount of knowledge on how collective impact can work at the community level.

Maytree has also run programs in-house to work on urban issues. Three examples are the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC), DiverseCity onBoard and School4Civics.

TRIEC was a Maytree-operated program for many years, but is now independent and free-standing. The organization, as have related councils in other cities, has worked to accelerate the successful integration of skilled immigrants in the labour market. We know that successful labour market integration is the most important factor in immigrant settlement.

DiverseCity onBoard works in the Toronto region to connect qualified candidates from visible minority and under-represented immigrant communities to the governance bodies of agencies, boards and commissions and voluntary organizations. It is now part of the new Global Diversity Exchange initiative at Ryerson University and a planned extension will be rolled out in other cities in the New Year.

Our School4Civics program works with people from underrepresented communities to develop skills in interacting with government to pursue their community interests, and in participating in the electoral system, either by running for office or running a campaign. Those skills in campaigning can also be applied to building a groundswell of support for issues of concern to the community.

At Maytree, we’ve made a significant investment in both immigration and urbanization. Our basic view is that if we can build a city that works for everyone, it will work for immigrants and refugees, it will work for people with low incomes, and it will work for people living with disabilities. In short, it will work for all Canadians.

Summary

After four years of near dysfunction in the Mayor’s office, we now look forward to a new kind of leadership.

Topic(s)

Cities and communities, Non-profit sector