In a previous blog entry, I looked at why, in the 21st Century, national governments are becoming less able to sustain the economies and the social safety nets of local communities, even as cities become more obviously central to the economy. In a related entry, I offered a community perspective on globalization’s wild west, and pointed out that globalization is a two-edged sword. Corporations can amass the power and wealth that is achievable by operating on a world scale, but local communities can also operate on a world scale in forging alliances, seeking support and mounting political action.
But politics is not only an arena for conflict among contending forces, it is also a system of organized decision-making and action, a system of governance. If our world is marked by the escalating power of corporate mobility, the declining power the national state, and the growing economic importance of cities, what does that imply for governance? In a world of drastically shifting power relations, should government remain essentially as it was in the 19th Century?
A lot of thought is being given to this question. It is coming to be widely agreed that there are compelling reasons for cities to evolve economic development strategies and social supports specifically designed to deal with their own, unique set of problems and possibilities. But how? Some interesting answers are being proposed, and tried, in Canada. In this article, and a subsequent one, I take a look at them, and consider their significance.

One answer comes from the charter city movement, based in Toronto, Canada’s biggest city, and an economic powerhouse that provides an apt illustration of the importance of city economies to national well-being. The charter city movement’s position is spelled out in a model framework for a city charter in which the city is declared to be “an autonomous and accountable order of government”. The model charter binds the Province of Ontario, which includes Toronto, to consult the city before taking actions that affect it, allows the city to negotiate directly with the federal government, and sketches out “a dispute resolution process to be used by City and provincial officials if any future disagreements arise over the meaning of the Charter.”
Such provisions would entail an all but unthinkable revocation or voluntary renunciation of the constitutional authority of provinces over municipal affairs, but charter advocates insist, not without justification, that Toronto’s wealth, and its importance to the national economy, entitles it to a bigger share of both wealth and power. Clearly, the charter city concept is grounded in a demand for radical change in intergovernmental relations.
If the charter city argument ever approaches the threshold of political viability, it will encounter resistance, not only from provincial governments unwilling to relinquish a substantial share of power, but also from many who will question the democratic bona fides or the competence of municipal councils, and from such commentators as Castells, who argues that “local… autonomy reinforces territorially dominant elites and identities, while depriving those social groups who are either not represented… or else are ghettoized and isolated.”
More significantly, it will become enmeshed in the ongoing debate over the race to the bottom. Critics will point out that if autonomous communities were to be set free to fend for themselves in an unfettered global economy, the casualties might well outnumber the successful contenders. In fact, for every commentator making the case for city charters, there are probably several expressing dismay over the effects of government cutbacks and down-loading on low-income communities and on the integrity of the social safety net, and calling for the federal government to become more involved in the setting of standards and the financing of programs. Greater centralization of power probably has more support than city charters would.
So will it be a stronger central government or greater municipal autonomy? Or is it perhaps not a question of either/or? Thomas Courchene, in a discussion that focuses primarily on federal-provincial relations, rejects the either/or position, which he calls federalism as structure, and argues that the alternative to it, federalism as process, is a Canadian tradition. In his words, instead of focussing on the distribution of formal powers, federalism as process “celebrates the creative and flexible manner in which Canadians historically… have managed their federal system.”
In a wide-ranging and perceptive essay, Courchene argues that Canadians have long practice in the regulation of the relations between federal and provincial governments by means that avoid the rigidities of constitutional provisions, in which powers are assigned irrevocably to particular levels of government, and place a premium on flexible adaptation to changing circumstances. These innovations “were the result of process, not structure, although in many cases they were tantamount to a de facto alteration of the division of powers in the federation.”
Courchene’s suggestion is that, within the constitutional division of powers, creative avenues of policy-making are being found that involve co-operation between governments and that allow for policies which take account of the differences among different regions of the country. This has been done by means of federal-provincial administrative arrangements that allow for numerous differences in the treatment of different provinces, and do it through negotiation and compromise, unencumbered by the rigidity of constitutional provisions.
One of the examples he cites is Medicare, a federally and provincially funded, provincially-managed, government-financed national health plan. Other examples include an arrangement whereby the federal government manages income and corporate tax collection for some provinces while others see to their own taxation, and an equalization scheme designed to reduce the economic disparities among provinces. All of these arrangements, and other, similar ones, are arrived at through negotiation and mutual agreement.
Courchene argues that these federalism-as-process arrangements have, over time, worked in the direction of growing provincial self-determination. In many ways, his analysis parallels those of commentators who advocate a re-evaluation of the place of cities in national politics. He sees growing provincial self-determination as being related to the advance of globalization. He stresses the enhanced importance of regional economies in a world of global trade and information flows. In short, Canadian federalism offers an array of examples of voluntary arrangements short of constitutional change that can secure national objectives while taking account of regional differences, and that do it without the need to confront the unsatisfactory either/or of local or regional autonomy vs. national power.
Since these arrangements are worked out in a political setting through negotiation and compromise, instead of a constitutional one, they have the added virtue of being flexible, and readily adaptable to changing circumstances. They offer a toolbox of flexible approaches to the accommodation of regional difference within a national framework.
But how does the toolbox help us deal with the relations between national governments and cities in a globalized world? If the differences between provinces justify different arrangements with the federal government for each province, is there a case to be made for similarly differential arrangements for different cities? Canada offers some relevant experience in this area as well, as I show in a later blog entry.
Want to find out more? Look for:
Christopher Leo, “Deep Federalism: Respecting Community Difference in National Policy.” Canadian Journal of Political Science 39:3, 2006, 481-506.
Thomas J. Courchene, Celebrating Flexibility: An Interpretive Essay on the Evolution of Canadian Federalism. Montreal: CD Howe Institute, 1995.
Big City Mayors’ Caucus, Model Framework for a City Charter. Toronto: Federation of Canadian Municipalities discussion paper, 30 May 2002. Accessed at:, 4 July 2005.
Manuel Castells, The rise of the network society. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.

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