Vancouver newspaper The Province is running a 15-day series on racism in Canada starting today: Monday, October 7th. As a researcher interested in immigration and a second-generation immigrant, I am always interested in dialogues about multiculturalism, immigration policy, and immigrants’ integration. Many of my readers have been directed to my website from web searches. One post in particular, “Modern racism in the most multicultural city in the world”, has drawn a higher number of views and comments than others. Since it was published in 2009, it has gotten about 8,000 views–last month alone it had 635 views. Susan Lazaruk of The Province asked to reference the post in the paper’s 15-day series.

In the interest of journalistic accuracy, I will summarize my answers to Susan’s questions here. As a Canadian researcher, I frequently present my work in the US and am astounded at the role that race continues to play in issues such as housing location, the distance people travel to school or work, and employment opportunities. As Canadians we compare ourselves to other countries, including the US, and I think most people would agree that immigrants and visible minorities in Canada are much more socially and spatially integrated and suffer from less societal and institutional racism than they do in other countries. There has been considerable research on the lower rates of residential segregation, for example. However, racism is like sexism; it is entrenched and will likely always be with us, though it diminishes over time. Admitting that modern racism still exists in Canada is not to say that it’s a terrible place to live. Canada only began to accept immigrants from non-European countries in the 1950s, and this was highly regulated until 1967 when the numbers of visible minorities began to increase at a considerable pace. So it’s remarkable that we’ve progressed from quite overt institutional racism (including a quota on immigrants from India) to the much more subtler forms of modern racism in just 60 years.

It’s very interesting living in Amsterdam as an immigrant. I’ve faced all the challenges many of the immigrants to Canada face, including not speaking the language of the country and being singled out by my ethnic identity (“Canadian” doesn’t seem to be enough to satisfy questions!) I live in a neighbourhood with a high concentration of other immigrants. While my job requires no knowledge of Dutch, it is difficult to find work in other industry sectors without the language and tough for immigrants to build professional networks.

Given the level of interest in modern racism in Canada indicated by the response to my blog post, I encourage readers to check out The Province in the next two weeks. I imagine that this series will spur all kinds of debate and commentary, which is a good thing.

The Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars has recently published a report on the state of the estimated 9,000 postdocs in the country. The report highlights postdocs as yet another highly-skilled but low-paid profession in a polarized labour market.

Their survey of 1,830 individuals at 130 universities showed an equal breakdown of men (53%) and women (46%) with an average age of 34. Over half of the postdocs in Canada are permanent residents (15%) or on work visas (38%). In the survey, 46% of respondents worked in the Life Sciences, 32.4% in Physical Sciences/Engineering, 13.7% in Social Sciences/Humanities and 8% in an Interdisciplinary field. Most postdocs were between 2-3 years in length.

Key concerns of Canadian postdocs are administrative ambiguity, low compensation and benefits, and insufficient training. These concerns arise from the unclear employment status of postdocs, who often exist in a hazy mid-ground between student and employee status, missing out on the benefits of both. With an average income of $40,000-45,000, less than half are satisfied with their salaries and only 29% are satisfied with their benefits. This has to do with the fact that postdocs are often paid through tax-exempt research fellowships, and therefore do not have access to Employment Insurance, maternity leave, or the Canadian Pension Plan. Although several universities, such as the University of Toronto, have now reclassified their postdocs as employees, others classify their postdocs as mere trainees, which contradicts the years of graduate school required to do research. This is very different from the situation in The Netherlands, where Ph.D.s and postdocs alike are classified as employees with corresponding salary scales and benefits. Foreigners are even able to apply for a lower tax status (the 30% tax rule) as postdocs.

While postdocs used to be viewed as short-term stepping stones to full-time academic positions, this is no longer the case. Nearly one-quarter of the survey respondents said their career goals had changed since starting their position, with the most common explanation being the unfavourable job market. As most postdocs will not obtain faculty positions (unless there’s a significant increase in the number of positions for new faculty), postdocs have identified the need for training that will help them succeed in non-academic settings. This includes grant/proposal writing, project management, group or lab management, and negotiating skills, among others.

The survey was supported by MITACS, a national not-for-profit organization that supports national innovation by coordinating collaborative industry-university research projects involving graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. To download the survey, click here.

How difficult is it out there for aspiring academics? In the continuing saga of the US recession, dire predictions have been made: a recent article in The Atlantic showed that in 2011, about 38% of PhD graduates in the sciences found jobs after finishing while about 28% found postdocs. The rest were doing “nothing” according to the National Science Foundation. This article, and others like it, have been circulating among the academic community in every field, dashing the hopes of many a PhD student. However, these aggregate American statistics may not be representative of every field of study, nor does it necessarily reflect the Canadian reality. In planning, PhD students often decide from the outset that they would prefer to do work in public, private, or non-profit planning; unlike science PhDs, planning PhDs don’t work in large labs or patent-developing corporations, and they generally don’t work in a series of post-doc positions. Canadian academic institutions have been hit by the economic downturn, but the country generally has not faced such dire conditions as in the US since the mortgage crisis didn’t affect us.

As many of you know, I did my PhD at the UBC School of Community and Regional Planning. Recently I got together with a couple of friends who also graduated from the program, and we started comparing notes on SCARP’s PhD alumni. Here is what we concluded: every single person that finished a PhD at SCARP in the last ten years found a job directly related to their PhD work, and some were snapped up well before they graduated. Since they have all been mentioned in my blog posts, I doubt that they’d mind my summarizing their success here. I’m proud to have known and learned from such a fine group of people!

  • Jennie Moore (2013): Director, Sustainable Development and Environmental Stewardship, British Columbia Institute of Technology School of Construction and the Environment
  • James White (2013): Lecturer, University of Glasgow Department of Urban Studies
  • Cornelia Sussmann (2012): Postdoctoral Research Associate, Kwantlen Polytechnic University Sustainable Food Systems Research Group
  • Silvia Vilches (2012): Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Simon Fraser University Department of Sociology and Anthropology
  • Josh van Loon (2011): Postdoctoral Fellow, UBC Health and Community Design Lab
  • Ren Thomas (2011): Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Amsterdam Department of Geography, Planning and International Development
  • Ugo Lachapelle (2010): Professeur, Université du Québec à Montréal Département d’études urbaines et touristiques (formerly, Postdoctoral Researcher at Rutgers University)
  • Danielle Labbé (2010): Professeure adjointe, Université de Montréal Institute d’urbanisme (formerly, Postdoctoral Fellow at York University)
  • Janice Barry (2010): Lecturer, University of Sheffield Department of Town and Regional Planning (formerly, Postdoctoral Researcher at University of Glasgow)
  • Leslie Shieh (2010): Planner and Community Developer, TakeRoot Properties Inc.
  • Sheng Zhong (2010): Lecturer, Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou (formerly, Postdoctoral Researcher at the National University of Singapore)
  • Laura Tate (2009): Provincial Director, Community Action Initiative (formerly, Manger of Growth Services at the Province of BC Ministry of Community, Sport and Cultural Development)
  • Meidad Kissinger (2008): Lecturer, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Department of Geography and Environmental Development (formerly, Postdoctoral Researcher at UBC)
  • Matti Siemiatycki (2007): Assistant Professor, University of Toronto Department of Geography and Planning (formerly, Postdoctoral Researcher at University of Glasgow)
  • Etsuko Yasui (2007): Assistant Professor, Brandon University Applied Science and Emergency Studies
  • Judy Gillespie (2006): Associate Professor, University of British Columbia (Okanagan) School of Social Work
  • Tanja Winkler (2005): Senior Lecturer, University of Cape Town School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics (formerly, Lecturer at University of Sheffield)
  • Maged Senbel (2005): Assistant Professor, University of British Columbia School of Community and Regional Planning (formerly, Assistant Professor at University of Utah)

SCARP grads seem to have weathered the economic storm, which at any rate has not affected jobs in academic planning as much as it may have in other fields. Every graduate who pursued an academic career was able to find a postdoc position 1-2 years in length before finding a permanent academic position, or was hired into a permanent position directly after graduation. Those who chose not to do so pursued rewarding careers in the public and private sector. The geographic dispersion of our graduates is also impressive, from China to Israel to South Africa. Of course a lot of this reflects the diversity of the students themselves; many left their countries to pursue the PhD and eventually returned home.

In earlier decades, SCARP’s PhD program produced such stellar graduates as Ann McAfee (1974), who began working at the City of Vancouver during her PhD and worked as the City’s Co-Director of Planning for many years. David Witty (1998), is currently the Provost and Vice-President (Academic) of Vancouver Island University. The success of the PhD program should be highlighted as SCARP prepares to transition its Masters in Planning degree into two separate research-based and practice-oriented degrees. Lest this have implications for the PhD program in the future, we thought a little reminder was in order!

Those of you following my blog have seen some of my recent writing about Dutch culture, as I navigate the murky waters of Amsterdam canals as part of my post-doctoral position at the University of Amsterdam. Today my article on Amsterdam cycling, “A reluctant cyclist in Europe’s cycling capital”, is featured on Spacing Vancouver and also on the main Spacing website. For all the cyclists out there, you’ll probably accuse me of complaining about the conditions of paradise*, but for the rest of you it might be funny**. Check it out: Part 1 of the article appears today, and Part 2 will appear next Monday.

*Sample comment: “Take a tram those days if you don’t like the rain or snow – or buck up – I assure you, you are not made of sugar…This article really does sound like an “unexperienced cyclist” moaning about what most people get used to in a single riding season and learn to deal with.”

**Sample comment: “For cycling to be seen as “normal” in Toronto, we need more “normal” people to commute on “normal” bikes.”

My generation, which represents one-quarter of Ontario’s population and 70% of inner Toronto’s population growth since 2006, is finally making headlines. “Echo boomers” (those of us born between 1972 and 1992) are much more likely to live in central, high-density neighbourhoods with access to good-quality transit. This trend is remarkable considering that one of the most persistent problems faced by planners today is the public’s lack of acceptance of planning concepts such as higher densities to support transit provision. In an article for the Globe and Mail, Doug Sanders explored Vancouverism, a Canadian-born model of livable density (“The world wants Vancouverism. Shouldn’t Canada?” February 23, 2013)  While planners from Melbourne to Dubai are adopting the principles Vancouver has espoused for 30 years, Canadian cities still lag behind supporting higher-density living. How can planners influence public perceptions of density?

Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from echo boomers, whose trends and patterns have been ignored for far too long in favour of their richer, suburbanite parents. Access to transit and proximity to work are the main reasons people in our demographic choose to live downtown, which is practical considering we’re much more likely to change careers than the previous generation, requiring more commuting flexibility. A recent report from TD Economics (Toronto: A Return to the Core) showed that key neighbourhoods in inner Toronto, such as Trinity-Spadina, grew by 16% from 2006-2011, supporting key real estate trends like a boom in condo development. Employment growth in Toronto’s inner city outpaced suburban job growth during the same time period.

Planners around the world have also been developing better ways to dialogue with community members about density. One strategy that worked in Perth, Australia, is conducting a comprehensive series of discussions with a range of people. ‘Dialogue with the City‘, an innovative and extensive deliberative forum with citizens, communities, industry and practitioners, was launched in 2003 to discuss and deliberate how to make Perth ‘the world’s most livable city by 2030′. The year of dialogue and discussion, funded in partnership with the Government of Western Australia, Western Australia Planning Commission, and private partners, seems to have contributed to a shift in perception among planners, politicians and the public over time. The Network City strategy is being used to implement the outcomes of Dialogue with the City and 42% of the participants said they changed their views as a result of the dialogue. Vancouver’s Greenest City dialogues have taken a similar approach.

Residents’ perceptions can change during the trajectory of specific projects. Planners at TransLink, Vancouver’s regional transportation authority, found that when they conducted public meetings on the proposed Broadway-UBC LRT line in 2011, local residents were quite upset about the idea of increased density along Broadway during the first round of meetings. It didn’t help that many of the businesses along Cambie Street had experienced financial setbacks during construction of the Canada Line LRT just a couple of years earlier. But by the time the second round of meetings happened, residents had become more supportive of the idea. In Vancouver and other cities with persistent housing affordability problems, another key to acceptance of density has to be the development and use of tools to protect affordability, such as community bargaining agreements and condominium conversion regulations.

Planners can learn from key demographic groups (echo boomers, recent immigrants, students, single-person households and seniors) who tend to choose more centrally-located, transit-accessible neighbourhoods. The old logic that these groups choose transit because “they can’t afford to drive” doesn’t necessarily hold true in the era of urban sustainability and hipster neighbourhoods. And planners can continue to develop processes that engage communities in discussions about what density really means–but this means providing information on building types and density levels that will support public transit, services, and employment, not just collecting opinions. Today’s online tools allow a broader range of community members to participate and have their voices heard than traditional public meetings, and don’t suffer from the same time/place constraints. They have the potential to allow early and ongoing discussion on polarizing topics such as density, long before plans and policies are formulated.

Zwarte Pieten arriving from Spain

Sinterklaas arrived in Amsterdam today, November 18th–not coincidentally, the same day as the Santa Claus Parade in many Canadian cities. An estimated 300,000 children line the canals and streets of Amsterdam to greet Sinterklaas as he arrives by steamboat with his helpers, the Zwarte Pieten. The arrival of Sinterklaas (intoch van Sinterklaas) has been celebrated in Amsterdam since 1934 and transmitted on live TV since 1952. The Dutch maintain a separation between Sinterklaas and Santa Claus, who they call Kerstman (the Christmas Man).

In the Dutch tradition, Sinterklaas lives in Spain (where the remains of the actual St. Nicholas lie). In mid-October, he leaves Spain by steamboat and arrives in the Netherlands, in a different Dutch city each year, then travels throughout the country. This year he arrived in Roermond, in the southern province of Limburg. While he stays in town, he’s considered the most important person in town–even more than the town’s mayor. His arrival also starts the traditional Christmas shopping season, which used to go up until December 6th, St. Nicholas Day. On the eve of the 6th, children leave out carrots by their wooden shoes for Sinterklaas’ horse, since he travels from house to house delivering presents on a white horse.

Sinterklaas arrives by steamboat from Spain

The Zwarte Pieten, the hundreds of Moorish helpers who work for Sinterklaas, deliver the presents by sliding down each chimney (the Zwarte Pieten also traditionally had the dubious job of catching naughty children and stuffing them into burlap sacks). Traditionally, the beautifully-wrapped present would be accompanied by a funny poem describing the recipient, written by Sinterklaas. It would be opened on December 6th. Children’s shoes would be filled with marzipan and other treats.

The tradition of Sinterklaas was brought to the US by Dutch immigrants, where the tradition of the Zwarte Pieten was presumably changed to elves. The Zwarte Piet controversy can be traced to Dutch colonial times: according to folklore, Sinterklaas had a Moorish servant boy named Zwarte Piet. During WWII, Canadian soldiers who liberated the Netherlands noticed the joy that the tradition of Zwarte Piet gave to the local children during the wartime years, and held a Zwarte Pieten party with many of the characters. Today, the intoch van Sinterklaas features over 700 Zwarte Pieten. The Dutch have tried to dispel the obvious racial overtones by rewriting the story to suggest that the Zwarte Pieten are not people of African descent, but are merely dirty from sliding down chimneys all night. (Just last year, the Dutch community celebrating Sinterklaas’ arrival in Vancouver with the Zwarte Pieten resulted in opposition by the African-Canadian community). The controversy hasn’t dimmed the excitement of the local children: when I attended this year’s intoch, the children cried out for Piet, not Sinterklaas, and many sported Zwarte Piet medieval costumes and hats. Sinterklaas is dressed as a priest with red robes, bishop’s hat, and gold mitre. The Pieten hand out pounds of candy and pepernoten, bite-sized ginger cookies. Large taai-taai, shaped as Sinterklass, can also be found in local shops.

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piete on wrapping paper

It’s interesting to see the progression of St. Nicholas from a third-century Greek bishop known for generosity and kindness to children, to stories around the world of his protection of the poor and of sailors going away to sea. In cities from Montreal to Amsterdam, the church of St. Nicholas stands at the main port of the city as a symbol of protection at sea. In Greece, the coastline features many small white chapels dedicated to St. Nicholas. After WWII, American soldiers dressed up as Santa Claus to give out toys to children in war-torn England, Italy, France, the Netherlands, and later Germany and Japan. In the Netherlands, during the weeks leading up to December 6th, kids can watch the Zwarte Pieten news on TV to see what’s going on with Sinterklaas. In Canada of course, we all await Santa’s arrival from the North Pole, where he makes toys for good boys and girls with the help of his elves. Dutch immigrants to Canada, as well other ethnocultural groups such as Greeks and Ukrainians, have helped shaped our Santa Claus tradition, which includes a parade in mid-November.

After weeks of predicting a tight race in Alberta’s provincial election, pollsters are scratching their heads. Articles such as “Wildrose on track for majority with a week to go in Alberta” (The Globe and Mail, April 18th) were widespread just a few days ago. Yet somehow, Premier Alison Redford led her Progressive Conservative party to its 12th consecutive majority government with 62 seats, while Danielle Smith’s upstart Wildrose Party has become the Official Opposition party with 17 seats. The popular vote was closer: Redford captured 44% of the popular vote and Smith 34.5%. So what happened in the battle of conservatives?

Premier Alison Redford. Photo: John Lehmann, The Globe and Mail

Some sources report that strategic voting played a major role: those who may have voted Liberal or NDP may have voted PC to keep Wildrose from power. Albertans seem to have shown a healthy skepticism for the Wildrose party, particularly issues of gay rights and racism raised by two Wildrose candidates (Allan Hunsperger and Ron Leech, neither of whom was elected). Other centrist and left voters may have disapproved of the party’s stance on the fundamental right to refuse a medical service–such as abortion–based on religious objections, and their refutation of climate change. But another interesting factor has emerged: the polls weren’t really that accurate. Only a few polls, such as that by Leger Marketing, asked voters whether they were undecided: they found that up to one-fifth of voters were undecided in the final week of the campaign. Despite technological advances, polling has not become more precise, and the margins of error are significant: lest we forget, not a single poll predicted Stephen Harper’s majority government in last year’s federal election.

Wildrose also had poor support in Alberta’s cities. PC support was strong in Edmonton and Calgary: the province’s two largest cities hold half of its seats, 44 in total. In Calgary, the Wildrose party took only 3 of 25 ridings while in Edmonton Wildrose failed to win a single one. Lethbridge, Red Deer, and Fort McMurray were also overwhelmingly PC. It seems that urban Albertans preferred Redford’s Joe Clark-style conservatism, while many rural residents considered the PCs too centrist. But many journalists are saying that the values, views and opinions of Alberta voters may have been too complex to capture using polls.

Alberta’s election pitting Redford and Smith against each other would have had a historic result no matter who won. Only nine women in Canadian history have ever served as provincial/territorial premier: five were elected leader of their party while it was in power, and four were elected premier in a general election. Redford became premier in October when she was elected leader of the party, and this win makes her the first female premier elected in Alberta. BC’s Christy Clark is in a similar position: she became premier after Gordon Campbell resigned in 2010 and narrowly won his seat in a by-election. If she were to win the general election next May, she would become the province’s first elected female premier (Rita Johnson briefly held the position of premier in 1991 after Bill Vander Zalm resigned and she was elected leader of the Social Credit Party, but she was defeated in the 1991 BC election). With this win, Redford also marks a second milestone: the PCs will become the longest-standing provincial government in Canadian history by the end of this term.

Ever wondered about women’s role in housing trends in Canadian cities? Check out The rise of women’s role in society: Impacts on housing and communities. In this paper based on Census data, researcher Luis Rodruiguez compares women’s housing patterns across six generations:

  • Pre-1922 (born before 1922, aged 90+ in 2011)
  • Baby Boomers’ Parents Generation (born 1922-1938, aged 73-89 in 2011)
  • Second World War Generation (born 1939-1945, aged 66-72 in 2011)
  • Baby-Boom Generation (born 1946-1965, aged 46-65 in 2011)
  • Baby-Bust Generation (born 1966-1974, aged 37-45 in 2011)
  • Echo Generation (born 1975-1995, aged 16-36 in 2011)

    Chart 1 from the report, a comparison of housing tenure across the generations

Rodriguez tends to focus on housing tenure and type; he is after all a retired senior researcher from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). And these trends are interesting, for example the much higher rental rate among the oldest and youngest generations of women, and the fact that homeownership among women is approaching parity with men. The older generations’ desire to age in place will place a demand on renovations and community services that can meet their needs (including public transit and walking facilities), and some may move to condos or apartments if they can no longer remain in their homes. Those of the Bust and Echo Generations tend to want low-maintenance housing due to professional and family time constraints, and are less inclined to choose larger single-family homes.

However, he doesn’t address recent trends such as the tendency of the Baby-Bust and Echo generations to choose housing that is close to public transit rather than car-dependent locations; fitting as they have much higher rates of public transit use than older generations. He touches on this and the desire for mixed-used residential options in the section on the Echo Generation, but I believe this extends to the Baby Busters as well. These generations also will have significantly bleaker employment prospects despite having higher educational attainment, and will receive less support from government sources such as the Canada Pension Plan by virtue of the economic trends that have followed them. This will likely have a significant effect on housing tenure, particularly extending the period of renting and delaying home ownership, and housing type (more condos and townhouses, fewer detached houses). This will be even more apparent among those living in Canada’s largest CMAs where housing is less affordable. Nevertheless, the paper offers an interesting perspective on generational trends and preferences among women in Canada.

In my previous post, I wrote that many Canadians don’t know much about municipal planning processes, the implications of the legal division of powers in Canada, and what this means for service provision in our cities. In this vein, readers might be interested in some examples of municipal efforts at citizen engagement that go beyond the often-uninspired public meeting.

Participatory budgeting originated in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989. It’s driven by core principles such as democracy, equity, community, education, and transparency. Thousands of citizens assemble in Porto Alegre each year to elect delegates to represent each city district, prioritize demands, serve on the Municipal Council of the Budget, and produce a binding municipal budget. Proponents of participatory budgeting say that because people with the greatest needs play a larger role in the decision-making process, spending decisions tend to redistribute resources to communities in need. In Porto Alegre, for example, there has been a marked increase in funding for badly-needed sanitary sewer projects and schools. Participatory budgeting is used in about 140 municipalities in Brazil as well as towns and cities in France, Italy, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom, India and Africa. It is used for municipal school, university, and public housing budgets.

The process has also been used in several Canadian municipalities: Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) allows its tenants to participate in decision-making on local, neighbourhood and city-wide spending priorities. TCHC’s participatory budgeting process first took place in 2001, when tenants were asked to help decide how to spend $9 million per year (13.5% of TCHC’s budget); 237 local capital projects were funded. In Guelph, residents allocate a small portion of the City’s budget through the Guelph Neighbourhood Support Coalition. Since 1999, neighbourhood groups have been sharing and redistributing resources for local community projects, including recreation programs, youth centres, and physical improvements to community facilities. In 2005 some 10,000 people participated in the process and 460 events and programs were funded.

In a review of participatory budgeting efforts in Canadian cities, Josh Lerner and Estair Van Wagner outline several challenges for participatory budgeting in Canada: the fact that Canadians are extremely diverse in language and culture, the small scale of these efforts so far, the limited power of citizens in the process, the fact that none of them have fundamentally changed their cities’ political systems or created a more progressive social agenda, and the potential for the process to become co-opted by politicians.

City of Calgary "Our City. Our Budget. Our Future."

Other efforts at participatory processes in budget planning have included the Cities of Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver. In each case municipal officials encouraged citizens to get involved in the City’s budget planning. For the 2004 City of Toronto budget, Mayor David Miller initiated the Listening to Toronto consultations. A City Budget Community Workbook was posted on the website and seven public sessions were held. This wasn’t participatory budgeting (participants didn’t help formulate priorities that were then adopted); in a process similar to integrating feedback from public meetings, participants’ ideas were used to guide City Council during the drafting of the budget.

In February 2011, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nehshi opened up the budget planning process to the public through a citywide engagement process. In “Our City. Our Budget. Our Future.” the City aimed to help people feel like they were part of the process, make the budgetary process clearer by simplifying communication from city staff, and gather ideas on the budget. Their online budgeting tool allowed users to see how much each department currently spent, and what an increase or decrease in areas like transportation or safety would look like. The City heard from 24,000 people during this process. Again, citizens’ ideas were considered in drafting the budget, which was adopted in November 2011. The new three-year budget resulted in property tax rate increases of 6.0% in 2012, 5.7% in 2013 and 6.1% in 2014 and included (among other things) additional funding of $1 million for Calgary Transit, a reserve fund of $3.5 million for snow clearing in 2013 and 2014, a $225,000 increase to the Calgary Arts Development Authority.

“We used to do things like open houses and town halls when we had those discussions. And what we learned this time around is that the open houses and the town halls are the most expensive and least successful part of the process.”– Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi

A screen shot from the City of Vancouver Budget Allocator

The City of Vancouver followed suit this year, encouraging citizens to get involved in the 2012 budget process. In addition to attending public meetings and completing an online survey on budget priorities, a section of the City’s website lets users to download a primer explaining how the budget works (how the city raises funds, what percentage of taxes goes to pay for utilities, fire and police services, etc.). The interactive tool lets them “be Councillor for a day, see what it costs to run a city.” This simple tool gives you options to remain at the current level of funding or to increase or decrease funding levels in each area. When you’ve finished making your budget, the Budget Allocator tells you whether you have a surplus or a deficit, and how much you would have to raise taxes to cover the increased costs. You can submit your budget, along with the reasons for your choices, directly to city staff: if you’re a local, go to www.talkvancouver.com/Budget 2012 before February 10th to have your say.

In short, there are varying levels of participation in budget processes, from consultation to surveys to participatory budgeting. In addition to various levels of power for the participants, the educational aspects differ as well: one could argue that while Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver have made strides in educating the public on the budgetary process, they stop short of allowing residents to learn how to prioritize spending objectives and vote on them. Nevertheless, Canadians in other municipalities might want to find out how their budget works, when their budget is up for adoption and what the process is for citizen involvement. With so many online and interactive ways to get involved, there seem to be many opportunities to inform and involve communities that may not participate otherwise: young adults, immigrant groups, seniors living in facilities, etc. High school teachers, college and university professor could use the online budgeting tools in civics, planning, political science, or urban studies courses. Immigrant groups could organize online participation at a community event. Residents and health care support workers could help seniors participate. If your municipality doesn’t currently encourage participation in the city budget process, ask your councillor to suggest the idea.

Update: check out the latest national issue of Spacing magazine for integrated approaches to public engagement in Saskatoon, Vancouver, and Halifax (“Speaking with Your City” by Rachel Caroline Derrah).

We can all rest easy. Despite many studies showing increased income inequality and a shrinking middle class in Canada, a rags-to-riches story is more likely to happen here than in the “land of opportunity.”

University of Ottawa professor Miles Corak, a social policy economist and former director of family and labour research at Statistics Canada, and his co-authors Lori Curtis (Professor of Economics, University of Waterloo) and Shelley Phipps (Professor of Economics, Dalhousie University) found that Canadians are three times more economically mobile than those in the US. The difference is largely due to those at the very top and the very bottom of the income distribution. In Economic Mobility, Family Background, and the Well-Being of Children in the United States and Canada, the three researchers found that social supports such as the Child Tax Credit, paid parental leave benefits, and schools funded through provincial income taxes help ensure that children receive better care and schooling than in the US, where these supports are absent and schools are funded through local property taxes, leaving poor neighbourhoods with failing schools. With sky-high tuition fees at universities, the richest Americans can buy their children the best educations and tutors. These differences between rich and poor mean that if you’re born poor in the US, you tend to stay poor; this also applies to the 1%–the very top of the income pyramid. For example, although “the average Canadian child is not as affluent as the average American, the poorest Canadian is not as poor in an absolute sense as Americans at the bottom of the income distribution.” This may help explain why discussions of class are more prevalent in the American literature and popular press.

The authors caution that rising income inequality rates in Canada could erode the high rate of economic mobility that we see now. Indeed, a look at their graphs shows that we still have issues: 15% our poorest children may still grow up to have incomes in the lowest decile (Figure 3, p7), but they have a better chance at the 7th, 8th, and 9th deciles than they do in the US. More Canadian children are born in the lower income deciles than American children (Figure 8, p33). But Table 1 (p21) shows some clear differences in the characteristics of families and parents. In Canada, 2.1% of children are born to teenage mothers; in the US, it’s 8.3%. In Canada, 14.9% of mothers are single compared to 22.1% in the US. Far more mothers and lone mothers in Canada have completed some post-secondary education or a post-secondary certificate (but oddly, more American mothers have completed degrees). Health problems among the poorest mothers are also more prevalent in the US, likely due to the cost of health care. As the authors suggest, Canadians must protect policies such as paid parental leave, the right to return to their jobs after the birth of a child, tax-transfer programs that help reduce the severity of poverty, and funding for schools through provincial income tax, ensuring a more equal distribution of resources across municipalities and neighbourhoods. Although we have fewer barriers to health care, we need to ensure the lower-income population has sufficient knowledge on navigating the health care system and can pay for prescription medication.

Corak, Curtis and Phipps write that “The citizens of both countries have a similar understanding of a successful life, one that is rooted in individual aspirations and freedom. They also have similar views on how these goals should be attained, but with one important exception: Americans differ in that they are more likely to see the State hindering rather than helping the attainment of these goals. Yet, at the same time the citizens of both countries recognize the need for public policy to contribute to reaching this ideal, with Americans believing more than Canadians that a whole host of interventions would be effective in improving the prospects for economic mobility. One interpretation of these findings – an interpretation that only becomes evident in a comparative context – is that in some sense this need is going unmet in the United States.”