One might think that Alberta’s provincial government would have the greatest respect for its subordinate level of governing—the municipalities. One might expect that to be especially true for the two major cities, Calgary and Edmonton. These are the closest level of government to the people for over half the province’s population.
After all, no provincial government has made more of a fuss about a lack of respect from its senior partner, the federal government, than the one currently running Alberta. This is the government that brought in the Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act designed to keep the feds out of their face.
Surely they would therefore be particularly attuned to respecting the rights and responsibilities of their junior partner? One might expect so, but one would be disappointed. The truth is just the opposite.
One of the first measures taken when the UCP were elected in 2019 was to scrap the cities’ charters.
The charters had been initiated by the previous Conservative government, under Premier Jim Prentice, in order to provide the powers and firmer funding that the rapidly growing cities needed. The initiative was followed up by the subsequent NDP government which enacted the City Charters Fiscal Framework Act.
The UCP was having none of it. According to a recent article in Albertviews, “Instead of enabling cities to meet new challenges and demands, the Kenney government tied their hands and added to their financial burdens.” The province has since reduced funding for urban infrastructure and increased taxes it draws from municipalities.
Last year the UCP made changes to the Alberta Police Act that allow it to add provincial appointees to local police commissions. It then appointed three members to the Calgary Police Commission without even notifying, never mind discussing it, with Calgary City Council.
Tensions between these two levels of government are not new. Provincial governments are generally more conservative than city governments simply because they represent both urban and rural citizens and rural citizens tend to be conservative. This is manifestly true in Alberta where the NDP dominate the capital city but the countryside is overwhelmingly UCP.
Both Calgary and Edmonton have councils that are strong on climate change action. Both have declared climate emergencies. They see strong action on climate change as just good sense. As Edmonton’s Climate Change Adaption Plan puts it, “Increasing resilience can help attract businesses, talent and residents.”
The UCP treats this commitment to sustainability with suspicion. Anything too environmentally friendly looks like heresy to the UCP’s oil-worshipping base.
The cities are also discomfited by the province’s antagonistic attitude toward the federal government. They need the co-operation and assistance of both. Provocative actions such as the sovereignty act simply put them in the middle of quarrels that can do them no good.
At the time of Confederation, providing for only two levels of government in the constitution made sense. Most people lived on farms and in villages, so large cities were an afterthought.
But today the great majority of people live in towns and cities, increasingly in large cities. As Calgary and Edmonton combined make up over half the population of Alberta, Vancouver makes up over half the population of B.C. and Winnipeg over 60 percent of the population of Manitoba. Yet the cities remain constitutional outcasts, creatures of and supplicants to their provincial governments.
Constitutions, I’ve come to believe, ought to be subject to review every so many years, at least those portions that deal with governance. Everyone, and that means each generation, has the right to determine how it wants to be governed and what the rules should be. One generation shouldn’t decide for all time.
If Canadians ever get around to revising our constitution, a good place to start would be to provide our large cities with at least equal authority to the provinces. Until then, Calgary and Edmonton will remain subject to the whims of a government that is, at least in its current version, more adversary than friend.