Local Government — A Different, and Better, Story

I spoke to local government representatives in Grande Prairie to-day.  My thanks to Mayor Bill Given for setting up the opportunity, and my thanks, as well, to an attentive and responsive audience.  I learned a lot.  Since a number of people have asked for a print version of my remarks, the simplest response is to post them here.


I have been interested in local government and boundaries and services since 1962 – ’63, when the Towns of Jasper Place and Beverly were amalgamated with the City of Edmonton.

I also have some experience with provincial – local relations, spanning more than 50 years, including time as an M.L.A. (15 years) and Cabinet Minister (seven years) and even more time as Executive Director of the Public School Boards’ Association of Alberta, which unsuccessfully challenged aspects of the 1994 provincial legislation that significantly undermined (in my view) school boards.

Let me begin by asking how many of you would feel ready to debate an MLA in favour of the proposition that local government is the most important type of government?

I am here as someone who believes — profoundly — in local government.  Like you, I am ready to make the argument that local government is the most important government, and essential to the well-being of a civil democratic society.  For that reason, I am  a strong proponent of locally elected representatives (and the AUMA) being pro-active in the provincial political domain on all issues of local government. Some issues, however, are more important than others.

What happens if you (representatives of local government) are not pro-active? The agenda is currently being driven by provincial government perspectives, aspirations, and priorities. And this has been happening for more than 50 years. With the passage of time the apparent pre-eminence of the provincial government’s story about local government becomes more and more marked as the provincial government becomes more and more self-confident and assertive.

There are three things wrong with this picture. The first is that the province’s citizens are also your citizens. If politicians are servant leaders then both municipal councillors and M.L.A.s are servants of the same master – the citizens – and it should be the masters, not one of the servants, who decide how the work and resources are allocated among the servants. One of the servants should not be able – unilaterally and egregiously – to re-assign work from one place to another. (Especially when one of the servants presumes that other servants report to him, rather than the master. It is instructive that the provincial government has decided that it can remove locally elected representatives from office, without cause: your electors cannot remove you, not even for cause.)

The second thing wrong with the picture is that it depends upon a bad myth. We hear it said that local government is “the child (or the creature) of the province”. That is a superficial and misleading statement.  Municipal government is older than provincial governments, and there is not a provincial government in Canada that begat local government. Municipal government is frequently as mature, thoughtful, and connected with its electorate as is the provincial government – sometimes more so. For a variety of reasons, as I said earlier, I argue that local government is ultimately more important than provincial government.

I am a community conservative. I favour finer grained politics, politics that is, relatively, less mechanistic and more organic, less ‘silo-ed’ and more whole. The party system of politics, which is the operating system in provincial legislatures across the land, is very dysfunctional, and operating to save itself rather than to serve. (I might add that it seems to me we will experience about 20 – 30 more years of dysfunction in provincial politics as that system tries to re-invent itself. That dysfunction provides great cover for local governments to take initiatives. And since, in Alberta, there are about 8 times as many boots on the ground for local decision-making as for provincial decision-making, if your story and strategy resonate with citizens, you should enjoy some success.)

To digress for just a moment, I don’t want you to think that I have turned my back on provincial politics.  I laboured in that vineyard for 29 years.  I continue to believe that provincial government is important, and enduring: and I am proud of my involvement. It grieves me greatly that provincial politics are dysfunctional and, even more than criticism, in other times and places I try to be an imaginative proponent of change that I believe would recreate provincial politics.  My argument to-day is simply that provincial governments must know their place — and so must local governments.

The third thing wrong with the picture is that the province is focused on the wrong goals – the superficial appearance of economy and efficiency, without regard for effectiveness.

I recommend that you adopt a very pro-active stance, also a very strategic stance.

In order to be strategic, I recommend that you attend to three different elements of the current puzzle.

  1. Any reconfiguration of boundaries will be a mediocre exercise unless it is founded on meaningful engagement with citizens to discover what they want done/delivered locally, what they aspire to when they think of “the best my community can be”, and what they fear will result from reconfiguration. The framing laws for local government are not perfect, and citizens do have unsatisfactory experiences with local government. There is also the question of whether the frame is even conceptually appropriate for the balance of the 21st century. Amalgamation may simply suggest exchanging one unsatisfactory government for another, even bigger one. Annexation may simply suggest being more lost in an even bigger pond. In my view, for reconfiguration to work as an opportunity of general potential, local government needs to address some of the unhappiness that citizens feel, anticipate at least some of the challenges of the 21st century, and offer feasible attractive remedies. What people want, more than efficient or economic government, is what they perceive to be effective government. Annexation or amalgamation are merely re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic unless we reframe our expectations, and our role descriptions, and our resource allocations, and our responsibilities and accountability.

Citizen engagement – and I say this with a reasonable feeling of confidence — will reveal that citizens trust most local governments more than they trust their provincial government. Almost certainly, citizen engagement will confirm a serious mismatch between services expected (delivered) locally, and revenue. In other words, I believe that local government, especially when it acts collaboratively, is likely going to be better connected to the electorate in the next 20 – 30 years than is the provincial or federal governments.

So, local government should reconsider their service delivery mandate and the corresponding necessary sources of fiscal capacity.

  1. The second element that local government should address is the need to embed local government in the Constitution of the province – what I call a Local Government Charter.

In my view, the FCM has made a terrible strategic error for more than 40 years, in concentrating on the federal government in their attempts to strengthen the position of local government.

I need to make a couple of points in this regard.

We need to remember that, in addition to the Constitution of Canada, every province has a Constitution, and the provincial constitution can be amended without the involvement of any other provinces. There is some dispute about this, but the important point is that the Government of Alberta believes we have a Provincial Constitution, including the Alberta Act, 1905, the Natural Resources Transfer Agreement Act, 1930, the Constitution Act, 1982 (Charter of Rights), and the Constitution of Alberta Amendment Act, 1990.  You can believe me, if any federal government said, “The Natural Resources Transfer Agreement Act (of Parliament, 1930) is just another piece of federal legislation, and we are going to repeal (or substantially amend) it”, there would be hell to pay with the Government of Alberta.  Equally important, the Government of Alberta specified, in 1990, that it acknowledges a provincial constitution:  it adopted a piece of legislation that it called the Constitution of Alberta Amendment Act.

Municipal government is one of those matters for which the provincial Constitution in each province as exclusive jurisdiction.

The Constitution of Alberta Amendment Act, is interesting not only for its name but also for its substance.  It did two things a propos of our current discussion. It created a constitutionally protected land base for the Metis people in our province, and it declared there could be no further amendments to the land base legislation except following a positive referendum outcome. (Ontario did something similar when it extended the separate school system to the end of high school: that is, it amended the Constitution of Ontario with strictly provincial legislation.)

Imagine enshrining a local government charter in our Constitution, and then declaring — as did the Getty government in 1990 — that no subsequent government could make unilateral or egregious changes to the charter.

I would go further than a provincial constitutional amendment. I would suggest a local government charter in the form of an amendment to the Alberta Act. Both Newfoundland and Labrador and Quebec have done this in the past 20 years, with federal amendments to their respective entry-to-Confederation legislation.  The advantage of this is that it introduces an element of delay in any proposed changes, providing the opportunity for sober second thought or for local government to mount a counter to any unilateral and/or egregious provincial initiative.

  1. The third element that I would recommend local governments attend to as a strategic consideration is ecology — protection of land, air, and water, and sustainability. Personally, I am dubious about the rift between rural and urban forms of local government. I am also dubious about the lines drawn on a map 75 or 100 years ago.

If I had the resources myself, I would be exploring the implications of having local government boundaries correspond more or less to watershed boundaries. There are many situations in which the watershed would be too large an area for a single local government: I acknowledge that, and refinements would have to be developed. I only want to suggest that the time has come for local government to be explicitly charged with responsibility for good stewardship as the basis of government.

I would like to close with a story — about F.D.R. whistlestopping across the plains during the 1936 American presidential campaign. The train stopped in an Iowa town where he gave his speech from the caboose and then glad handed the length of the station platform. A dowager buttonholed him and started to lecture him about the need for a great new social program. He interrupted to say, “Madam, I agree with you completely. Now you must work to create the public demand that I should do what I want to do although great forces oppose us.”

People involved with local government, especially locally elected representatives, need to demonstrate more self-esteem and self-confidence. You are engaged in what is the most important aspect of democratic self-government in civil democratic society (and I could talk to you at length about why and how that is the case.). You need to know your story well enough that you can add richness to it, and you need the self-esteem and self-confidence to repeat it with conviction. The story you are living inside right now is a misleading story, of deference and vulnerability. That is not your real story.

You need to be proactive because, if you are not, the current trajectory, set by the provincial government, will dominate.

You have a great strategic proposition, that will resonate with voters.

It is vital to the ultimate success of the strategic proposition, that you begin with a thorough Appreciation of the Situation, so that Albertans can engage with you, become — with you — owners of the proposition, and consolidate the public demand to make it happen. Amalgamation or annexation is nothing more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic unless proponents of the local engage with citizens to discover anew the functions and resources that are essential to lively communities, however we bound them.

Then, the proponents of the local should insist on a local government charter to frame the citizen-preferred relationship between their local and provincial servant-leaders.  (While I was Executive Director of the Public School Boards’ Association of Alberta I prepared a draft of such a local government charter.  I would be glad to share the current version with anyone who is interested.)

You have exciting times ahead. Thank you.





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