In June, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) met in Vancouver for their annual conference and trade show. Over 2,000 municipal officials attended the four-day event, capped off by a speech by new Liberal Party leader, Justin Trudeau.

Trudeau argued that too often the federal government has had a “minimal response” to the challenges facing Canada’s cities. He addressed some of these challenges, such as transportation, infrastructure renewal, sprawl and congestion, and lamented the fact that the federal government has largely been absent in helping municipalities find solutions.

Trudeau, however, stopped short of promising to reverse this course. Instead he told delegates that he wanted their input as he shaped his party’s 2015 election platform. In short, he’s listening.

Time will tell whether Trudeau’s interest in urban issues progresses, but his father’s experience with urban Canada is no doubt impacting his response. As Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau had a mixed history engaging municipalities – creating the Ministry of State for Urban Affairs in 1972 and mothballing it several years later in the wake of provincial concerns regarding federal jurisdiction.

The Ministry of State for Urban Affairs was created amidst an “urban awakening”. Urban activists in some of Canada’s largest cities began to argue in favour of increased urban livability – designing walkable communities, expanding public transit, environmental sustainability and creating affordable housing – and called on the federal government to begin directly funding major urban initiatives.

Pierre Trudeau was very much a reluctant urbanist. He believed that the responsibility for municipalities was with the provinces. He did not want to get into a jurisdictional battle with provincial Premiers. His critics, however, argued that the federal government got deeply involved in municipal policy areas through several different ministries, such as Immigration and Transportation. These efforts, they argued, were not coordinated.

Amidst mounting pressure from his caucus, Canada’s mayors and opposition parties, Trudeau finally relented and created the Ministry of State for Urban Affairs (MSUA) in 1972. The ministry’s role was initially seen to be limited to planning, coordination and research. Its activities were largely restricted to enhancing cooperation between different levels of government.

MSUA’s early achievements centre on hosting a series of tri-level meetings across the country, bringing together municipal, provincial and federal leaders to discuss issues pertinent for cities. For some participants, these meetings were the first time that they sat together with their colleagues from other levels of government. In these cases, MSUA closed the distance between municipal representatives and their federal and provincial counterparts.

The provinces were very hesitant about participating in any of MSUA’s activities. In fact, at the first MSUA tri-level meeting, Saskatchewan Premier Alan Blakney put the federal government on notice by flatly reminding them that, “we want our constitutional rights respected “.

His fears were eventually justified: When Barney Danson replaced Ron Basford as MSUA minister in 1974, the ministry began to move into direct project funding. In the 1974-75 fiscal year, MSUA got involved in land use planning and project development. MSUA helped Toronto develop its waterfront. In Calgary it assisted in the design and development of 400 acres of publicly held land. In Vancouver it supported the expansion of the city’s airports. When Andre Ouellet replaced Danson in 1976, the pace of this development and funding increased, much to the chagrin of provincial leaders who increasingly felt that MSUA was overstepping its boundaries.

This shift in focus, from coordination and research to funding, was the death knell for MSUA. The ministry was shut down just prior to the 1979 election. H. Peter Oberlander, the former Deputy Minister of MSUA, sums the reasons for the demise of the ministry in his 1987 obituary of the federal government’s first effort at addressing urban Canada: “the Provinces, having been alerted to the increasingly strong Federal position in urban issues, perceived a dire threat in a Federal/municipal alliance on urban affairs…the Ministry was offered up upon the altar of Federal-Provincial relations.” According to Oberlander, inter-governmental tensions were not the only cause of MSUA’s downfall. The ministry also suffered from animosity from other federal departments who feared that MSUA may take away from their policy responsibility.

Justin Trudeau’s reserved response to Canada’s municipalities suggests he can learn from his father’s experiences in government. At the latest FCM conference, he could have promised money, support or a variety of new revenue tools, such as revenue sharing or a greater portion of the gas tax or GST. He didn’t. He told the assembled municipal leaders that he was listening. For many who attended, that’s all they wanted – at least for now.

In all likelihood Trudeau’s commitment to urban politicians will not extend beyond his pledge to listen to their concerns. If he chooses to emulate his father, he could very well learn the same lesson that Pierre did decades earlier: the provinces are gatekeepers for urban policy creation in Canada. Little has changed since then and Justin Trudeau would be well advised to remember that as he moves towards the 2015 federal election.


Zachary Spicer is a recent PhD graduate from the Department of Political Science at The University of Western Ontario, where he studied local government and Canadian politics. He is an incoming post-doctoral fellow with the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance at the  University of Toronto. His research has appeared in Canadian Public Administration, the Journal of Canadian Studies, the Journal of Legislative Studies and the Canadian Journal of Urban Research. You can follow him on twitter at @ZacSpicer.