In Canada, the mention of federalism generally puts us in mind of federal government initiatives that are carried out in co-operation with provincial and territorial governments. Sometimes provincial initiative is also a factor, especially in recent years, since the creation of the Council of the Federation, an association of provincial and territorial premiers that aims “to play a leadership role in revitalizing the Canadian federation and building a more constructive and cooperative federal system.”
We are less likely to think in terms of municipal or community initiative, but community initiative in intergovernmental relations is a current reality, in fact one that has been with us for some time, though it remains an exception to the rule of top-down government. In the late 1960s, in the most epic of Canada’s battles over plans for urban expressways, citizens opposing the Spadina Expressway made a strategic decision to bypass Metropolitan Toronto Council and take their case to the Ontario Municipal Board and the provincial cabinet, and it was the cabinet that gave them their victory.

Other examples could be cited, but the most striking today are the Toronto-based City Charter Movement, and the drive for a “new deal for cities”, originally spearheaded by former Winnipeg Mayor Glen Murray, which led to an undertaking by the federal government to share gasoline tax revenues with cities and communities. In Toronto, a mood of local activism that is associated with the Charter City Movement and the new deal has produced rhetoric that verges on dismissiveness toward other levels of government. For example, commenting on local initiatives in the area of immigration and settlement, Toronto Councillor Joe Mihevc said:
“The legislative framework that allows local government to exist is so broad you really have a lot of scope for whatever you want to do. Just pick a different piece of legislation or you just do it because there’s a legislative vacuum at the provincial level.”
On the same topic, Toronto Councillor Kyle Rae suggested, “a city that wants to move into an uncharted sector will get away with it because I think the provincial government is inadequate or inept at managing their responsibility.”
These statements express a mood of local activism that contrasts sharply with a municipal tradition marked by submissiveness to senior governments and preoccupation with routine administrative matters. A similar mood has been evident in recent Vancouver politics, where a local initiative to establish North America’s first legal safe drug injection site drew funding from all three levels of government. In another Vancouver initiative, shrewd city politicians found a way of using an Olympic bid to extract social housing and downtown revitalization funding from an otherwise parsimonious provincial government.
In the March 2008 issue of the Canadian Journal of Political Science, a colleague and I report on another municipal initiative, a rare case in which a municipal government formulated a proposal for a tri-level government programme and initiated negotiations that led to its implementation. To this day, the initiative stands as an example of opportunities we may be missing because so often we fail to draw on local knowledge in formulating and implementing national policy.
The Infrastructure Renewal Demonstration Project was a voluntary program, originally intended as a large-scale initiative that would have employed more than a thousand people, but fiscal pressures reduced the scope to that of a demonstration. Even the demonstration, however, provides evidence of the feasibility and potential effectiveness of the kind of tri-level initiative first proposed in 1992 by Winnipeg’s Social Services department.
Since the project was designed at the local level, in partnership with the City’s Public Works Department, it was informed by awareness of the needs of both the local community and participants in the program. In a city with an infrastructure deficit that, in the mid-1990s ran to the hundreds of millions – an infrastructure crisis so serious that vehicle-sized sink-holes were appearing in the streets – the case for infrastructure renewal was easy to make.
Simmonds presented his idea for the project in a meeting with the federal Liberal caucus before they came to power in 1993. In this meeting, he argued that all three levels of government could potentially save on social assistance by investing money, to be spent on wages and training, in the restructuring and resurfacing of city roads, back lanes and sidewalks. When the Liberals came to power, they expressed interest in financing the program. After securing provincial funding, Simmonds took the proposal to city council, and received approval to proceed.
Over the course of implementation, each level of government spent $759,266 on wages for social assistance recipients participating in the programme, as well as their supervisors. The gross amount spent on wages was approximately $2.3 million. However, when calculated against the savings in social assistance money accrued at each level of government, the project garnered $2.3 million worth of wages for $550,000. In fact, the federal government actually saved more in welfare costs than it spent on infrastructure renewal.
The reported outcomes of the project were surprisingly positive, perhaps in part because, in a time of high unemployment, a relatively large number of capable workers were receiving social benefits. The municipal government’s initiative targeted young household heads, people more likely to succeed than many welfare recipients, whose success would benefit whole families. The work took place over the summer of 1994, and, by the end of the summer, program participants were working at the speed of other city crews and producing a finished product that met regular city standards. Some reports suggested that the former welfare recipients, highly motivated to give the lie to stereotypes about welfare recipients, actually worked to a higher standard than city employees. As a result of the project, participants gained useful training, and were able to put recent employment on their resumes.
Participants earned union wages – $10.41 an hour, or $832.80 bi-weekly. The fact that the program strategically targeted heads of large households might have been thought an obstacle to success, since a family of four on welfare would have received the equivalent of approximately $9.50 an hour, and a family of five more than $11 an hour. Thus some of the workers were choosing jobs despite the fact that welfare would have paid approximately as well, even after taking into account a city income supplement designed to maintain low-wage workers’ incentive to secure and retain employment.
Here again high unemployment may have contributed to success because, especially in adverse labour market conditions, gaps in employment history look bad for future employment. Whatever the reasons, telephones at the City of Winnipeg were ringing incessantly with social assistance recipients doing everything possible to get into the program.
One of the main issues involved in securing funding for many of these programs was the fact that the City paid union wages. The Progressive Conservative provincial government took the view that this was too much to be paying social assistance recipients, despite the fact that it was actually saving them money. A city official reported that he and his colleagues explained repeatedly, but to no avail, that the province was saving money, not only on infrastructure and other needed projects, but also by reducing the financial and social costs of welfare dependency. The benefits of this programme went well beyond the easy-to-measure cost savings, city social services officials argued.
The decision to favour heads of households for the program was made in the knowledge that the whole family would benefit. A working parent becomes a positive role model for the children as they see him or her leaving for work in the morning. The self-confidence and self-respect of the whole family grows, replacing the feelings of desperation usually associated with receiving social assistance. Finally, because the programme was generated at the civic level, it responded to community priorities and provided training known to lead to prospects for continued employment in future.
In follow-up interviews with program participants, Simmonds discovered that their experiences with federal government employment programs connected with employment insurance (EI) had contrasted sharply with their favourable experience in the city’s infrastructure programme. Not one of them had been given any sort of opportunity for training while on EI. Those who inquired about academic upgrading or training activities were told to wait until they were contacted. Not one of them reported having been contacted. Almost all ended up back on welfare when their EI expired, indicating a serious problem with the nature of EI delivery.
In fairness to EI officials, they lacked the resources of the City of Winnipeg, which was in a position, not only to identify available job opportunities, but to identify needs, secure funds for meeting them, and then make the jobs available, all with a view to producing training and job opportunities for people on the welfare rolls. In putting people on welfare together with job opportunities, a local government is clearly in a more advantageous position than a federal agency.
It is less remarkable that Simmonds was able to accomplish what he did – though obviously it was no mean feat – than that so little has been done to take advantage of the opportunity revealed by his pioneering work. Obviously, official recognition that local governments can play an important role in ensuring the effective delivery of federal and provincial programmes – and in the process, make an important contribution to community economic development – has been slow in coming.
Why did municipal government programs succeed so impressively, while both provincial and community-driven projects had a spottier record? The answer, apparently, is that no organization is better placed than a municipal government to identify both available job opportunities and community needs, secure funds for meeting them, and then make the jobs available. In addition, Winnipeg, in the 1980s and 1990s – because of its responsibility for short-term welfare – was also well placed to identify people who could benefit from the programs and match them with appropriate opportunities.
Despite those advantages, the municipal government did not act on its own. The infrastructure renewal program relied on funding from senior governments. Indeed, what Smith and Stewart call whole-of-government programming (see article listed below) is critical to the success of locally driven welfare-to-work because it is the senior levels of government that are garnering the savings on welfare payments. Winnipeg’s experience suggests that programs designed to provide on-the-job training for welfare recipients are feasible and can deliver important benefits to some proportion of social assistance recipients, to the wider community, and to the taxpayer, but that intergovernmental co-operation is essential to its success.
Can we learn from these successes today? Since the main trend in social welfare is its devolution upward from municipal government, the scope for a repetition of the experiences of the 1990s is narrowing, for the time being at least. But even if such municipal initiatives as those of the Winnipeg Department of Social Services are not repeated, the development of locally driven welfare-to-work schemes upon the initiative of the senior governments should still be an option. There is no obvious reason why it would not be possible for the federal government and provincial governments to conclude agreements to finance local initiatives that can be demonstrated to provide good jobs and useful job training. Senior governments could, if they wished, limit the amount of their funding to an amount equal to their savings on welfare.
The senior governments could put out calls for proposals from municipal governments, as well as community groups, and a federal-provincial secretariat could vet the proposals, funding the ones that provided decent jobs, useful job training and community benefits. Senior governments would be providing only an advance on money they would save and the community, welfare recipients, and their families would benefit immediately. Taxpayers would benefit as well, from the completion of projects at a discount, and from the longer-term savings as social service recipients attained financial independence. It is a policy idea with an already established record of success, and there is no reason to think that it could not work again, given the political will to make it happen.
The story of Winnpeg’s infrastructure renewal project is discussed in detail and compared with other welfare-to-work and workfare schemes in Christopher Leo and Todd Andres, “Unbundling Sovereignty in Winnipeg: Federalism through Local Initiative.” Canadian Journal of Political Science, 41 (1) 2008, pp. 93-117.
The Spadina Expressway battle is detailed in Christopher Leo, The Politics of Urban Development: Canadian Urban Expressway Disputes. Toronto: Institute of Public Administration of Canada, 1977.
Kristin Good discusses local activism in Toronto in “Multicultural Democracy in the City: Explaining Municipal Responsiveness to Immigrants and Ethno-cultural Minorities.” PhD thesis. University of Toronto, 2006, chapter 4.
Patrick Smith and Kennedy Stewart look at Vancouver local activism in “Local Whole-of-Government Policymaking in Vancouver: Beavers, Cats and the Mushy Middle Thesis.” In Municipal-Federal-Provincial relations in Canada,, Robert Young and Christian Leuprecht, eds. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006.
For more on recent trends in federalism and multi-level governance, see:
Christopher Leo, “Deep Federalism: Respecting Community Difference in National Policy.” Canadian Journal of Political Science 39 (3) (September, 2006): 481-506.
Christopher Leo and Mike Pyl, “Multi-level Governance: Getting the Job Done and Respecting Community Difference.” Canadian Political Science Review, 1 (2) 2007, September. Accessable at http://ojs.unbc.ca/index.php/cpsr/issue/view/2/showToc.
Christopher Leo and Martine August, “National Policy and Community Initiative: Mismanaging Homelessness in a Slow Growth City.” Canadian Journal of Urban Research 15 (1) (supplement) 2006, pp. 1-21.
Christopher Leo with Susan Mulligan, “City Politics: Globalization and Community Democracy”, in Joan Grace and Byron Sheldrick, Canadian Politics: Critical Reflections. Toronto: Pearson, 2006.

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