Tag Archives: Toronto


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.

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Multi-level governance distinguishes itself from the traditional federal system by treating cities, and sometimes communities, as visible and significant partners in the interplay among levels of government, and not simply as the lowest level of government. The emergence of this change in the way the federal system is conceived is related to the enhanced economic and political importance of cities in a world marked by greatly increased freedom of movement for goods, people, ideas and money. In a world marked by free movement, cities become magnets for wealth and production on one hand and problems on the other. In the process their political importance is magnified.
If she were still with us, Jane Jacobs might appreciate the irony that it has taken the economic realities of globalization to force a recognition of the centrality of cities to the national economy. Long before anyone was talking about globalization, she led the way in making the case, in Cities and the Wealth of Nations, that running a country as if it constituted a single economy was a sure way to get governance wrong. And since the economy is intimately interconnected with all other areas of national life, there are many policy domains in which national uniformity is a good recipe for failure.
Each city, or at least each urban-centred region, is a different economy, and should be governed differently from other cities. I have used the term “deep federalism” to describe policy that succeeds in respecting community difference. How can we accomplish that? There is no easy way to understand community difference, no simple set of generalizations that will allow us to say that a community of type A has characteristics B, C and D, while a community of type E has another set of readily definable characteristics. If there were, there would be no need for deep federalism. The federal government could develop a different policy model for each of a finite number of well-defined community types and administer everything from the centre. But there is nothing finite about community difference.

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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.

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