On March 22, the federal budget was announced, including $2.2 billion over the next 11 years to cities for transit projects, part of $11.9 million that would be allocated to infrastructure. The Liberal government commited to 50% of the funding for municipal projects. This week, municipalities across the country announced how they would use the much-needed funding for public transit infrastructure.

In British Columbia, the federal announcement was matched by the Province’s commitment to contribute another $2.2 billion, allowing regional authority TransLink to move ahead with Phase 2 of a ten-year plan in Vancouver. Projects will include the Broadway subway, which TransLink has wanted to build for over 20 years, Surrey light rail transit, replacement of the Pattullo Bridge, expanding bus and HandyDART services, more railcars and upgrades to the roads, cycling and walking networks.

The big news in Hamilton and Niagara Falls was that they will get all-day GO Transit service, with a contribution of $1.7 billion. Both municipalities also received funding for their bus services. Niagara Falls Transit will use their $3.4 million in federal funding (which will be matched by the city) to develop a real-time “next bus” app, buy new buses, update a transit hub, update its fleet management software, buy and install new fare boxes and allow online booking and management for its specialized curb-to-curb transit system. Hamilton will use its $32 million in federal funding for 13 projects including a bus storage and maintenance facility, new buses, rehabilitation of transit shelters and bus stops, automatic passenger counters, transit priority measures, and improvements at the Mountain Transit Centre.

In Guelph, $9.6 million federal funding will allow the municipality to buy new buses, replace fare boxes, upgrade bus stops, and upgrade the traffic control system. London’s proposed bus rapid transit system will get a boost, in addition to the transformation of Dundas Street in the core into a pedestrian-first “flex street”, replacement of all of London Transit’s bus shelters, and construction of protected bicycle lanes downtown.

Winnipeg announced 33 projects that will be jointly funded by the three levels of government including replacement buses, new bus shelters and handi-vans. The federal government’s 50% of the projects amounts to about $3.1 million, while the province will pay $1.5 million and municipalities will cover about $2 million.

Of the total $11.9 billion allocated for infrastructure, the federal budget sets out $2.2 billion for water and waste management in First Nations communities, $2 billion for the Clean Water and Wastewater fund, $1.5 billion for affordable housing, and $1.2 billion in social infrastructure for First Nations, Inuit, and northern communities. All this spending will come at a cost: the federal budget will not be balanced during the fourth year of the Liberal mandate as promised.

In experiential learning, students work on a real-world project, building the skills they will need after graduation and contributing their knowledge to a community organization, municipal department or other client. Experiential learning is a natural fit for the urban planning discipline, but has been used in fields as diverse as social work, biology, and computer engineering. At some universities, like the University of Oregon, the university partners with a different municipality each year, the municipality provides a list of projects they need help with, and different departments commit to developing workable solutions. It’s a win-win situation: students get the experience they need and often small municipalities or organizations without sufficient human resources are able to get projects completed.

As some of you know, last fall I taught my first urban design studio here in the Dalhousie University School of Planning. We focused on Mulgrave Park, a public housing community built in the north end of Halifax using federal-provincial funds in 1960. The students each  developed a small-scale proposal to improve the open and social spaces in Mulgrave Park. They included information for the client, the Mulgrave Park Caring and Learning Centre, on how such a proposal could be implemented and funded. One student, Justin Gosse, conducted an analysis of the retaining walls and their conditions on the steep site, suggesting ways in which they could be modified in the future. His project, in addition to other student work surveying the retaining walls, is informing Housing Nova Scotia as they proceed with detailed design and repair of the walls and infrastructure badly in need of repairs. As part of an effort to preserve social housing in Canada, the federal and provincial governments announced today that they will fund repairs to Mulgrave Park. The funding will pay for badly needed exterior building repairs, the restoration of crumbling retaining walls, and burying services. Construction will run from July 2017 until spring 2019.

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MP Andy Fillmore announces the $5 million in improvements in front of the students’ posters

MP Andy Fillmore (second from left) and Elaine Williams (second from left), a lifelong Mulgrave Park resident, at the announcement

MP Andy Fillmore (second from left) and Elaine Williams (second from right), a lifelong Mulgrave Park resident and President of the Mulgrave Park Tenants’ Association, at the announcement

The work of other students, including Amy Greenberg (window boxes with flowering plants for residents), Mona Al-Sharari (second community garden and greenhouse), Leen Romaneh (perception of safety), and Yuedi (Martin) Zhan (lighting) is also being integrated into future improvements at Mulgrave Park.

Congratulations to these fourth-year Bachelor of Community Design students, and to the often-overlooked residents of Mulgrave Park, who will benefit from these improvements for years to come. Our client Crystal John, Director of the Caring and Learning Centre, is very excited to think about the improvements coming soon! Crystal grew up in the neighbourhood and like many others living there, is truly invested in improving the community; her sister Elaine Williams, pictured with Andy Fillmore at the announcement, has also done a lot of work to improve conditions in the neighbourhood. Metro News reported that Elaine was in tears at the announcement, having campaigned for improvements for many years.

 

As most of you know, Canadians will soon have a National Housing Strategy. At this point, the federal government in conducting consultations on the strategy, and there are many ways that citizens, housing organizations, community groups, and others can get involved.

There is a survey on the site www.letstalkhousing.ca if you haven’t already taken it. There’s also a spot that you can use to upload comments or ideas in the form of a document. You can do both of these before October 19. Since students in my fourth-year Bachelors course are currently working on a project in a public housing community, I’m having them upload their ideas on affordable housing to the National Housing Strategy website next week.

Housing, public health, and community organizations have been involved through a national stakeholder roundtable and expert roundtable. A huge variety of issues discussed including:

  • options for allowing seniors to stay in their homes as long as possible through accessibility modifications
  • rehabilitation of on-reserve housing and involvement of Indigenous communities on CMHC boards on the development of new housing
  • better access to financing options for individuals, including assistance for new homebuyers who want to move out of rental housing
  • better communications strategies between agencies to ensure better maintenance of public housing
  • removing barriers such as lengthy development permit processes
  • tax incentives for rental housing such as deferring taxes if a rental building is sold and the proceeds reinvested in a new rental building
  • allowing the federal government to support municipalities in deferring development charges for rental housing
  • immediate rehabilitation of existing social units
  • a more sustainable operating model for social housing
  • portable housing benefits, paid up to the cost of actual rent, leaving the tenant with choice

A major emphasis on Indigenous housing (quality, financing, roles and responsibilities of institutions) was a common thread, and I doubt anyone would argue that this is severely needed. Another main theme was providing options across the housing continuum. As we know, all three levels of government and the private sector are necessary for more stable, long-term initiatives in affordable housing but the federal government and CMHC were repeatedly singled out for leadership in developing strategies and partnerships. You can view videos of the closing sessions here, and transcripts will soon be available: https://www.letstalkhousing.ca/media/video/index.cfm

I encourage everyone to participate through the website, and stay in touch for updates on this exciting new federal policy by subscribing to updates (there’s an option to include your email address at the end of the survey). The government is planning to release a summary of this first consultation phase on November 22.

Real estate speculation happens across the country, but is particularly popular in our largest cities. Some say foreign ownership and speculation is driving housing prices up for local residents: wealthy investors living in far-off countries buy housing with no intention of living in it. But should the government step in and regulate the practice of flipping houses?

Just a month ago, the Simon Fraser University Urban Studies program held a symposium on housing affordability. Their data-packed brochure indicated that Vancouver has been second to last in housing affordability for the past six years, and 40% of residents consider the high cost of housing to be the most important issue in the city. The city’s annual homeless count has identified an increasing number of homeless people in the city–some 2,700 people in 2014 compared to about 1,100 in 2002. While 35% of homes in Vancouver are rented, only 17% of new construction was purpose built rental housing. Urban Futures has done a number of studies on foreign ownership: in one, they found that the 2011 Census (National Household Survey) showed that Vancouver didn’t have an excessive level of foreign occupancy–that is, about 1.4% of the apartment units in the city were occupied by foreign or temporary residents, but there are no Census data that specify their citizenship, length of stay, or that support a thesis on foreign investment. In another, they found that only 0.4% of purchases in the region in 2010 were made by people living outside of Canada. But an article in the New Yorker last year quoted a report from Sotheby’s International Realty Canada: in the first half of 2013, foreign buyers accounted for nearly half of luxury home sales in Vancouver.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson announced on Friday that he has proposed that the BC government develop a speculation tax who “buy a home just to make a quick buck” by selling it 6 months later. He’s asking Vision voters to support the call for a new tax on investors, and other tools like an increased property tax on the most expensive residential properties with proceeds invested in new affordable housing.

“Together, we can send a message that housing shouldn’t just be an investment commodity – it should be for living in.” –Mayor Gregor Robertson

Less than two days after Robertson’s announcement, a petition started circulating in Toronto calling on Brad Duguid, Minister of Economic Development, Employment, and Infrastructure, to restrict foreign investment in residential real estate in the Toronto region. As of 5 pm today Shaan Brach’s petition had 10,491 supporters.

I’m sure that the Liberal governments of both Ontario and BC will shy away from regulating real estate speculation and taxing the rich, but nevertheless the petition and call for a new tax do raise several troubling questions: who should be allowed to buy housing in Canada? Should the government (either provincial or federal) intervene when housing prices climb too high for the average person or household to afford? And if so, how should this be done?

Canadian governments have a history of intervening when market conditions create affordability issues for local residents or when housing conditions are poor. Forty years ago, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation was busy supporting the development of co-operative and non-profit housing with the ample funding of the federal government. The federal government helped develop co-operative housing from 1973-1991, establishing long-term operating agreements coinciding with the length of the mortgage. They also had programs to help first time homebuyers, supplement rents, and rehabilitate housing in historic and central neighbourhoods. But over the years, their balanced approach to housing affordability changed. The two ends of the spectrum (households with very low incomes and homeowners with enough equity to buy) continued to benefit, but programs that helped renters and low- to middle-income households were gradually dropped.

Municipalities and developers have also introduced innovative solutions to housing affordability:

  • Equity loans–Toronto’s Option for Homes and the City of Saskatoon/Affinity Credit Union Equity Building Program help people move into affordable ownership by loaning purchasers a small percentage of the downpayment
  • Shared equity–at SFU, units in the Verdant building are reserved for university faculty and staff and resale prices are restricted to 20% below market value), and community land trusts.
  • Affordable Housing Trusts–municipalities such as Vancouver, Surrey, Richmond, Coquitlam, and Whistler have developed housing trusts through legislation and with the cooperation of the BC government

The issue of foreign investors driving up housing prices is critical in cities like Toronto and Vancouver, but there’s no quick fix for the affordability problems that took decades to create. In cities like Calgary, Fort McMurray, and Kelowna, affordability is still a major issue even without high levels of foreign investment. In Edmonton, 33.5% of all condominium units are rented. Researchers and policymakers across the country have been trying to find and implement the solutions for at least two decades. A speculation tax would only be part of the solution, but combined with better rent controls and a higher high-end property tax whose revenues would be used to build and maintain housing of different types for different income levels, it could be a good start. We definitely need an increased role for the provincial and federal governments in affordable housing, but that’s not news.

Last week’s federal budget announcement has raised the hackles of transportation analysts over the potential for Canadian cities to implement badly needed public transit in its most populous areas. With the creation of a new fund for public transit of $250 million in 2017, the fund would increase to $500 million in 2018 and $1 billion by 2019. This is the first time a federal government has proposed a permanent transit fund–but make no mistake, this budget was designed to counter voter fears in an election year. It has no basis in reality.

While mayor John Tory said he was confident the City of Toronto would get its fair share of the federal funds, TTC Chair Josh Colle said it’s too early to make assumptions because cities across the country would compete against each other to fund projects. Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa said the funding still isn’t enough to meet the needs of Ontario cities, or rapidly changing areas like the Ring of Fire mineral deposit, which needs a road or rail connection to develop further. Toronto Star commentator John Barber went even further, calling the proposed funding “a sop to the gullible” since $250 million would only build as much as one subway station in a single city. Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson and Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi agreed that the federal funding proposal is “too little too late”: years of federal backsliding means that cities have been struggling with aging infrastructure for decades, and the fund doesn’t make a dent in the backlog of proposals for improvements. In Winnipeg, mayor Brian Bowman would hope to use the funding to extend the city’s bus rapid transit system.

There’s no question that our cities face major challenges in dealing with congestion and air quality problems, and for too long the solution has been one-off funding solutions. The tide of transportation choice appears to be turning–even in American suburbs, Millennial transportation choices skew towards public transit. Since Millennials are the largest living generation in the US, transit is beginning to be viewed as an economic development tool to attract young people, in addition to contributing to lower traffic congestion. Many countries have seen a decrease in driving among Millennials, and some have seen an overall decrease in vehicle miles travelled as part of a broad cultural shift as people rethink the way they live and work. Canadian cities badly need a permanent federal fund for transit–but it needs to be in the order of magnitude of billions, not millions. It should also guarantee that small and mid-sized municipalities can get transit that meet their needs, including bus rapid transit, local bus, and bike paths.

Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program has come under fire in the past few weeks for increasing the jobless rate among Canadians. Critics say that the program has resulted in the firing of Canadian workers, and lower wages and exploitation of foreign workers. Even harsher criticism has hinted at the potential development of a illegal labour force in Canada, since these workers have no support system and are vulnerable to abuse. Some companies, particularly fast food chains, have allegedly been abusing the program to hire foreign workers at lower salaries than Canadians. McDonald’s reports that only 4% of its over 85,000 staff in Canada are foreign workers, but it is one of the companies at the heart of the allegations; the company recently put a hold on hiring temporary foreign workers. Tim Horton’s and the Royal Bank of Canada have also been implicated.

Canada’s TFW program was created in 1973. The program was designed to allow companies to find only employees in key occupations, industries, or regions with proven labour shortages: in this case skilled workers, seasonal agricultural workers and live-in caregivers. Foreign workers, because they do not have permanent residency in Canada, were intended to fill short-term labour shortages while employers found local candidates. In 2002, the program was changed to cover all types of low-skilled workers through a pilot project for occupations requiring lower levels of formal training. Employers must have an approved Labour Market Opinion from Employment and Social Development Canada that shows:

  • the job offer is genuine
  • the wages and benefits are comparable to what would be offered to a Canadian worker
  • the employers has conducted reasonable efforts to hire and train Canadians for the job
  • the foreign worker is filling a labour shortage
  • the employment of the foreign worker will directly create new job opportunities or help retain jobs for Canadians
  • the foreign worker will transfer new skills and knowledge to Canadians, and
  • the hiring of the foreign worker will not affect a labour dispute or the employment of any Canadian involved in such a dispute

Since 2002, additional conditions were imposed for low-skilled workers, including the payment of return airfare by the employer, proof of medical insurance coverage for the duration of the job contract, support from employers to find suitable accommodation, and registration under the relevant provincial workers’ compensation regime. Before 2002, companies were required to pay TFWs the median wage for an occupation in a specific region; changes that year resulted in employers being able to pay high-skilled TFWs 15% and low-skilled TFWs 5% less than the median wage, as long as the wage remained above the minimum wage. Companies that hire workers through intra-firm transfers or from a country with an international agreement (e.g. the North American Free Trade Agreement) do not require an LMO and do not need to search for domestic workers first. Also, some provincial programs do not require LMO applications. In 2007, the length per permit for temporary foreign workers was extended from one to two years. Between 2007 and 2010, the Expedited Labour Market Opinion (E-LMO) pilot project allowed BC and Alberta employers faster and cheaper access to temporary foreign workers, initially for 12 occupations, but in 2008 this was extended to 33 occupations. In 2011, the length of time that temporary foreign workers could live in Canada was extended to four years.

A report from Canadian think-tank C.D. Howe asked the question, “Are temporary foreign workers really filling labour market shortages?” Dominique M. Gross, author of the report, says that the program grew from 101,000 workers in 2002 to 338,000 by 2012. In Alberta and British Columbia, the report says that the program potentially raised the unemployment rate by about 3.9% from 2007-2010. In 2008, employers in the two western provinces hired more than five times the number of confirmed low-skilled TFWs through LMOs than employers in the rest of Canada.

Between 2002 and 2013, Canada eased the hiring conditions of TFWs several times, supposedly because of a reported labour shortage in some occupations, especially in western Canada. By 2012, the number of employed TFWs was 338,000, up from 101,000 in 2002, yet the unemployment rate remained the same at 7.2 percent. Furthermore, these policy changes occurred even though there was little empirical evidence of shortages in many occupations. When controlling for differences across provinces, I find that changes to the TFWP that eased hiring conditions accelerated the rise in unemployment rates in Alberta and British Columbia. –Dominique M. Gross, Temporary Foreign Workers in Canada: Are they Really Filling Labour Shortages?

In short, the report says, there was no shortage of labour in either province from 2007-2010, particularly of low-skilled workers. Other provinces experiences similar unemployment trends even without the E-LMO pilot.

Employment and Social Development Minister Jason Kenney has already announced changes to the program, allowing on-site inspections of employers to ensure compliance to the rules, requiring that employers have a plan to transition to a Canadian workforce over time, and ensuring foreign workers are paid salaries comparable to Canadian workers. The flexibility of wage setting around median values has been eliminated, employers now must advertise all positions for four weeks, and English and French are the only possible required languages unless another is shown to be essential. A $275 fee per application and $150 visa fee have also been introduced for employers. This week, Kenney announced that the fast food industry would be banned from using the TFW program. This makes sense because these jobs do not require skills, and the jobless rate among Canadian youth, who would normally fill these jobs, has been high for years–in 2012, 13% of those aged 15-29 were not in education, employment or training. On April 8, a Victoria high school student was called in for an interview at a McDonald’s location; he had previously been rejected for the job when the manager said he would be hiring 11 temporary foreign workers.

However, these changes may not be enough: the C.D. Howe Report notes that in the US, part of the high $2325 fee used to hire a single foreign worker is used to train domestic workers; the fees in Canada are much lower than the cost of relocating a domestic worker from another province. Other countries also place a cap on the number of TFWs that may enter each year; in France, Italy, the UK, Spain and the US, TFWs are limited to very specific industries and occupations with very low unemployment rates. This makes it easier to monitor the availability of domestic workers in those in those sectors. Better labour market information is also needed to ensure that labour market shortages actually exist.

The Conservative and Liberal governments strongly backed the Temporary Worker program in order to satisfy industry claims of labour shortages, but now Kenney says that employers should respond to general skills shortages by increasing salaries, wages, benefits, and training. Canada has allowed companies to hire abroad for highly skilled engineers, millwrights, nurses, and others for decades; we have other immigration streams that allow these workers to enter the country and obtain permanent resident status at the same time. The problem is that these streams are overflowing with talented, university-educated employees, making waiting lists up to a decade long. Over fifteen years of research shows that poor links between immigration and labour markets prevail: once these highly-skilled, well-educated permanent residents enter Canada, they are unable to find work in the very industries that need them. Long application times and poor links between work experience and actual employment are but two of the reasons that applicants and employers alike turn to other streams that offer them quicker results–like the Live-in Caregiver and Temporary Foreign Worker Programs.

During Kenney’s tenure as Citizenship and Immigration Minister, he was charged with fixing this broken system. And he did–by forcing everyone who had a current application in the system to withdraw their applications and try again, by raising the minimum amount required for investor immigrants to $800,000, by adjusting the points system for skilled workers to emphasize language skills and by introducing new requirements for refugees and asylum seekers. Every move he made was controversial. The federal government announced on April 22 that they will be creating an Express Entry system to allow skilled immigrants to fill open jobs for which there are no Canadian candidates. Under this new system, applicants would submit an Expression of Interest indicating their skills, education, and work experience, and these would be matched by provinces, territories, and employers. Where there’s a match, applicants under the Federal Skilled Workers, Federal Skilled Trades, Canadian Experience Class, and Canadian Business Class Programs would be offered Express Entry. A valid job offer would guarantee that the applicant qualifies for permanent resident status.

There are no quick fixes to these problems, but clearly both TFWs and Canadians are suffering because of the loosening of program restrictions in the past decade. Employers are the only winners in this game: they get cheaper labour, more vulnerable workers who are willing to work under less favourable conditions, and do not have to be concerned about the long-term consequences of their hiring practices.

“Canada’s housing challenges are too big and too complex for any single order of government to solve on its own. We believe the government’s commitment in Budget 2013 to evidence-based solutions such as the Housing First approach for homelessness is a promising start, but they need to back it up with real results and expand that action to other areas of our affordable housing problem.” –Gregor Robertson, Vancouver mayor

Along with other big city mayors in Canada, Gregor Robertson announced a new national campaign to create more affordable housing and involving all levels of government to create a long-term housing plan. The Big City Mayor’s Caucus is part of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, which often advocates a larger role for municipalities in federal issues such as housing.

Although housing affordability remains a major problem in Vancouver, the city has done a considerable amount to address it in recent years, including enabling new affordable rental housing on City-owned land, developing an arms-length Affordable Housing Advisory, establishing a Rent Bank to help renters in crisis through short-term loans, and creating the Rental 100 program which provides incentives for new, 100% rental housing. But of course, there’s only so much municipalities can do–housing experts agree that the federal, provincial and municipal governments need to cooperate to develop a long-term, sustainable funding model for affordable housing.

 

We’ve all read or heard about crumbling overpasses in Montreal, overburdened water treatment plants in Vancouver, and aging highways in Toronto. Inevitably, the physical components of our cities will face a new challenge in the coming decades: climate change adaptation.

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities will release a set of recommendations today, asking the federal government for long-term investment in municipal infrastructure. FCM is part of the Municipal Infrastructure Forum launched earlier this year, which includes governments like the City of Toronto and the City of Ottawa, and business leaders such as the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and the Insurance Board of Canada. Members of the Forum announced principles for a new federal long-term infrastructure plan in Toronto on November 8, 2012. FCM conducted a study of 123 municipalities in 2009-2010 and reported on them in the Canadian Infrastructure Report Card. A major focus then was the declining quality of wastewater infrastructure, with over 40% of wastewater plants, pumping stations and storage tanks in “fair” to “very poor” conditions. Half of the roads surveyed fell below the rating of “good”. The report also found that many municipalities lack the capacity to assess the state of their infrastructure: they have limited data on their wastewater treatment plants or on buried infrastructure such as distribution pipes, some don’t have regular condition-assessment programs for their roads or a capacity/demand assessment process. They are also limited by financial and staffing constraints. But climate change is already beginning to take its toll: today, the forum notes that one in four wastewater plants needs major upgrades to meet federal regulations, storm events that used to occur every 100 years now happen every 20 years, and the insurance industry pays out more than $1 billion per year in sewage back-up claims. Stable, long-term funding will be more cost effective than replacement and will contribute to cities’ resiliency as the climate becomes more unstable.

FCM is encouraging municipalities to engage in the discussion on municipal infrastructure: a growing list of communities has already passed resolutions endorsing Target 2014, calling on the federal government to ensure that a new infrastructure plan is in place before the current federal programs (worth two billion dollars per year) expire in 2014.

Last spring, a rare atmosphere of youth activism emerged in Canadian politics. Spurred by Rick Mercer and young people at the University of Guelph, thousands of students organized VoteMobs to increase the youth vote in the May 2011 federal election. Determined to prevent a Conservative majority, viral videos like ShitHarperdid swept the country. Several clashes occurred between young voters and Conservative staffers, including one at the University of Guelph. Polls predicted tight races in ridings across Canada, but none correctly predicted the outcome: on May 5, 2011, millions of Canadians watched the election results in shock: not only did Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have their majority, but the NDP was firmly ensconsed as the Official Opposition.

Although rumours of odd phone calls surfaced just after the election, with voters in highly-contested ridings claiming they’d been directed to vote at non-existent polling stations, it’s taken ten months for the story to surface. It’s now been alleged that in up to 70 ridings across the country, automated “robocalls” were made, with Elections Canada registering more than 31,000 complaints before the scandal hit. In some cases, voters changed their votes as a result of the calls; in others, they gave up when they arrived at the polling place they were incorrectly directed to. Oddly enough, one of the Conservative staffers linked to the robo-calls is Michael Sona, the same person who walked into a University of Guelph special ballot station during the election and tried to steal the ballot box to prevent students from voting. Sona resigned but denies any link to the robocalls. A voter suppression scandal with a culprit named Pierre Poutine, who is being hunted down by forcing information out of PayPal and RackNine? Something stinks.

Image from a Wired magazine story about robocalls aimed at voter suppression in Los Angeles www.wired.com/threatlevel/2010/11/robocalls/

Sean Devlin of Truthfool Communications, who founded the ShitHarperdid.ca campaign, said recently that he didn’t trust Elections Canada to get to the bottom of the robocalls. He points out that the Conservative party was recently required to pay a paltry $52,000 fine and four of its senior officials were cleared of all charges when Elections Canada determined it had vastly overspent on its 2006 campaign: this for improperly reporting $1.3 million in advertising expenses, offenses that the judge said were “of a regulatory nature but significant to the democratic process.” Those following the youth VoteMobs last year might recall that after Sona alleged that the University of Guelph special ballot was not legitimate, Elections Canada cancelled all special ballots at universities. Not all special ballots, just those at universities. At the time, Michael Ignatieff criticized the Tories’ move to have the 700 student votes annulled as “another example of the [Conservative] party’s contempt for democracy”. The whole time the VoteMobs were surging, youth bloggers and activists noted that the Liberals, NDP and Green parties made small overtures to the growing student vote, but the phenomenon drew little response from the Conservative party…so why would they bother with 700 votes?

Of course, some deny that there’s a robocall scandal at all. Margaret Wente wrote that, “It’s ridiculous to think there was some massive cheating scheme engineered by higher-ups. We’re not Russia after all. It’s unpopular to say so, but we’re just a boring little democracy that usually functions pretty well.” (“Robo-calls? Get a grip, we’re Canadian”, The Globe and Mail, March 6). Voter turnout was higher than average in the disputed ridings, and these ridings definitely saw competitive races (“If robo-calls were designed to keep voters away, they failed miserably”, Eric Grenier, The Globe and Mail, March 5). I’d be interested in how things played out in ridings with high populations of students; I’ll bet things are anything but boring and well-functioning there. Critics like Antony Hodgson of Fair Voting BC say that the current first-past-the-post system encourages candidates to focus on only a few swing ridings, ignoring the majority of voters; given the surge of student activity, some of those ridings could have been targeted. Undeterred, Truthfool and the folks at LeadNow.ca have already assembled a petition with over 40,000 names calling for a full public inquiry and real consequences.

This week the Prime Minister stated that the Conservative Party supports stronger investigative powers for Elections Canada, but there has been a lot of debate over the extent of those powers: would the chief electoral officer be able to force parties to produce proof of their campaign spending, as the provincial counterparts would? So far, the Conservative party seems unaffected by the scandal; election fraud or wrongdoing has not been proven. Things could change drastically if an investigation digs up concrete proof like tampering with voter registration or paying for mysterious services on election day. It’s one thing to do shit, as TruthFool knows, but it’s another thing to do illegal shit.

Update:  Protesters in several cities, including Halifax, Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto, took to the streets yesterday (Sunday, March 11) demanding a public inquiry into the robocalls.

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).