Big cities, little respect: Why Montreal’s pipeline problem is a proxy war

Evan Solomon explains how Denis Coderre’s brouhaha over Energy East shows that Canada’s balance of power is tipping toward long-marginalized city mayors

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, right, looks on as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a press conference in Montreal, Tuesday, January 26, 2016. (Graham Hughes/CP)

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, right, looks on as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a press conference in Montreal, Tuesday, January 26, 2016. (Graham Hughes/CP)

It is not about the pipeline. Don’t be fooled by Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre’s crude rhetoric over the proposed Energy East pipeline. Don’t drown in the tailing ponds of snark pumped out by interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose when she called the controversy a “national unity crisis” or compared it to Père Trudeau’s original oil sin, the National Energy Program. This is what the French might call the “treachery of images.” What looks like a pipeline on paper, one Coderre already seems to be softening on, is actually a representation of a broken, out of date, leaky federation we call Canada. And Coderre wants to blow it up.

Our federation was designed in 1867 by and for the two big players: the provinces and Ottawa. After 150 years, federal-provincial squabbling has become a pantomime tradition, with stock characters like the “Alienated Westerner,” the “Laurentian Elite” and the “Maligned Maritimer” playing their parts in classics like “Health Care and the 10 Provincial Dwarfs” or “the Wizard of Meech Lake.” But the old stories have lost their relevance since they leave out the new star: cities. “Cities are not treated fairly in federal politics,” says Frank Graves, president of Ekos Research. “Canada is arguably 85 per cent urban, and large cities should be much more equal partners to the senior levels of government.”

Graves’s point is not lost on the Big City Mayors’ Caucus—a group representing the 21 largest cities in Canada. Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson has long complained about an “archaic” federation that does not even recognize cities in the Constitution. Cities contribute 72 per cent of GDP, but have no say over services like health care. And yet they are the first to deal with failures of that system. Most cities have only one way to raise revenue: property tax. Outside of direct funds from the federal gas tax, most of their money is filtered through the provinces. “Cities get only eight to 10 cents of every tax dollar collected and the rest goes to the federal and provincial governments,” Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson told me. Iveson is replacing Robertson as head of the mayors’ caucus. “Cities are in charge of 60 per cent of the assets and infrastructure people use and we are in charge of their upkeep, so it’s time cities stopped sitting at the kids’ table.”

Iveson wants cities and First Nations to be included in the Council of the Federation meetings with the federal government, right alongside the provinces, and it’s something he’ll ask for when he leads the mayors’ pre-budget consultation with Finance Minister Bill Morneau in February. “You can’t make real decisions on issues like infrastructure without bringing in the most accountable elected officials: cities.”

Related: Q&A with Don Iveson

Provinces still think nothing has changed. When Denis Coderre announced he and a group of more than 80 Quebec mayors opposed the Energy East pipeline, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall scolded him. “This is a sad day for our country when leaders from a province that benefits from being part of Canada can be this parochial about a project that would benefit all of Canada,” Wall wrote on Facebook, explaining how transfer payments from the West go to Quebec. “Is it too much to expect . . . Quebec municipal leaders would respond to this reality with generous support for a pipeline that supports the very sector that has supported them?”

Coderre responded with the tweet heard around the country. “Population de la Communauté Métropolitaine de Montréal: 4 millions. Population de la Saskatchewan: 1.13 millions.” Loose translation: “Piss off, punk.”

Coderre spoke the unspoken. Big cities are more powerful than most provinces and won’t be pushed around. It is not 1867. The old rules don’t apply. “People in Alberta are furious with Coderre,” Iveson admits. “But this fight is a consequence of mayors not [being] included in key decisions. Suddenly you can get held hostage on a big issue by one mayor who is driving a wedge.” In other words, if nothing changes for cities, things will get worse.

Coderre is about as subtle as a kid who burps the alphabet and thinks it’s a hit single, and his opposition to Energy East might be over the top. He knows 57 per cent of Quebecers oppose the pipeline. But Justin Trudeau met with him on Tuesday and promised tougher environmental processes around pipeline decisions. If the Liberals follow through on that, and Canadians trust that the more than 70,000 km of pipelines in Canada are monitored—something called into question this week by the environmental commissioner—there are still solid reasons to expect Energy East to go ahead. The mayors can legally intervene in the process and undermine the so-called “social licence” needed to build it, but the environment is a federal and provincial matter and pipelines are federally regulated. It’s still old school Canada. But it’s changing fast.

It used to be the West wanted in. They got in. Now the cities want in. This pipeline debate is a proxy for a larger problem in our federation. The city kids grew up and don’t need to borrow the car from Mom and Dad. They have their own. It’s a muscle car. And they’re ready to race the provinces to the future of our country.


Big cities, little respect: Why Montreal’s pipeline problem is a proxy war

  1. Alberta didn’t look out for lean times just like the conservative government that ran this country for the last 10 years, they ran the country in the ground, NL, and Sask. sucked their treasury dry too, and never put money away for lean times, but Alberta and Sask. are now crying the poor mouth looking for the UI to kick in, when they complained and horse whipped the eastern part of the country for years about UI and the sense of entitlement, well I say Alberta get in line. Never throw rocks at glass houses.

    • Kinda like how Ontario and Quebec counted on the Canadian dollar to remain at peso status to ensure their manufacturing sector stayed relevant? It’s not that the west is crying for money here, they just want to quit sending so much of it to Ottawa, I think that’s only understandable.

    • “Sense of entitement…” What? About 1/3 of Albertans are not from Alberta. Hence those people came from other provinces to share in the largesse of the province and the province welcomed them because their were jobs that needed filling and those jobs paid well. We did not have deluxe day care programs or cheap tuition at university. We built hospitals to care and schools to facilitate the rapid growth of the people who moved into our province. We paid more out in Federal taxes than we took back in. You call us whiners. No. We are hard workers and we were grateful to have good jobs. We were grateful to be a have province and Quebec enjoyed very good social programs paid for by the have provinces. You are wrong if you think Albertans didn’t welcome anyone who wanted to work in Alberta and communte to their own province. Many lived that way. Understandably many are disappointed that the big paying jobs are gone but not all of them are born and raised Albertans. Those that are have been down this road so many times, they have learned all the ruts. We are just a little surprised that some people are so naïve as to not realize who paid the bills for the perks that the have not provinces enjoyed. Coderre is obviously not the sharpest knife in the drawer. He wants the federal government to help finance his Bombardier jets but not show loyalty to Canadian oil and gas to help get the thing off the ground.

  2. What nonsense! Big cities have a lot of voters and a lot of members either in the provincial legislatures ot the national House. There is neither the justification or the rationale for “mayors” to separately speak for the cities on national issues. They have the tax base to raise money from; they just need the courage to risk their position by levying taxes from THEIR tax base. .

    As for Coderre and his attitude to the pipeline: when is the east going to understand that resources all over the country contribute economically to the whole country. But not by way of a steal suck as Trudeau I’s National Energy program.

    • As a have not province this mayor’s stance is idiocy. Every province in Canada would benefit from pipelines allowing Canada’s crude oil to go by pipeline rather than rail-Alberta, BC, Newfoundland and Alberta as well as the Federal Treasury will all benefit directly and Quebec and the rest through increased transfer payments.

      • 1. How would the Energy East pipeline benefit Newfoundland … perhaps looking at a map would be a useful exercise.
        2. ‘Every province in Canada would benefit’ Not so: part and parcel of the plan is to redeploy natural gas west-east transport while Nova Scotia and New Brunswick are soon to run out of natural gas reserves so assuming one actually wanted to benefit all provinces the plan instead would be to finally complete the so-called trans Canada pipeline to prevent this impending shortfall. The whole intent is to reduce capacity for moving Alberta and Saskatchewan NG to eastern markets in favor of getting Alberta bitumen to one of the few refineries that can actually process the stuff.
        3. The mocking of environmental concerns is symbolic of the pipeline itself which offered to relocate a portion of the route out of concern for whales which begs the question of why they didn’t take that into account in the first place and only when forced to do so?

          • Has Brad Wall even heard of Saskatchewan receiving equalization for as long as any province?

            And by the way, since equalization payments come out of general federal revenues that means Quebec pays 25% of it’s own equalization, Ontario pays 40% of every dollar of equalization and Saskatchewan about 3%. As Coderre pointed out Montreal pays more into Quebecs equalization than Saskatchewan does.

  3. Who pays for the cleanup in case of disaster?
    We already know that the big corps won’t unless rules are set in place to force them…those federal checks and balances are not in place yet.
    The west and Cordere are screaming prematurely and we have Rona Ambrose purposely following Harper style politics of division in Canada….
    Why does no one see this????

    • What was the biggest oil disaster in terms of lost lives in Canada?
      Lac-Megantic rail disaster.
      It was caused by the oh so safe practice of moving oil by rail. 47 people were killed.
      I believe the last time a person was killed on an oil pipeline was in 1988.
      In terms of spills, transporting oil by train spills a lot more oil than by pipeline. One reason is that the pipelines are monitored pretty closely, and they can be shut of in sections if theres a problem. Most spills on an oil pipeline involve a a few litres of oil, and the clean up process can clean up most of that. With trains, when they spring leaks, they usually aren’t detected right away, and since they don’t know where the leak occured, they can’t be cleaned up easily unless the problem is seen right away.
      Do some research please, pipelines are a LOT cleaner than rails and safer as well.

      • Very quick research: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/alberta-pipelines-5-major-oil-spills-in-recent-history-1.3156604

        Individual spills from trains do, by and large, tend to be bigger. But they are actually less frequent than from pipelines. (I would post another link but experience has taught me Macleans only allows one per post.)

        Pipelines should be the better option – if monitored properly. But as the recent report from the environmental commissioner attests, we have a lot of work to do on that front.

        • Good lord Keith let’s not forget where that crude came from. It was volatile crude from North Dakota. It explodes and has done so in two trains wrecks. The crude coming out of Alberta does not behave in the same way. So let’s just say we let American fracked Balken oil destroy a town in Quebec without making a stink but we can’t envision a Canadian pipeline. How people has a pipeline in Canada killed?

          • I think there have been about 45 people killed by pipelines in Canada, so rail vs pipeline in terms of fatalities is pretty much even.

    • Do you realize that Quebec and other provinces in the east are getting oil via ocean tanker from Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and South America? Do recall the Exxon Veldez? Who cleaned that us? How about BP oil in the ocean off the US south? Never mind that these countries where this oil is coming from have atrocious human rights records especially toward women. Some how is the right thing to buy Canadian except when it comes to energy even though when we are talking about climate change it is a global issue and whether we drill in Canada or Saudi Arabia, the emissions do the same damage to the planet.

  4. “Our federation was designed in 1867 by and for the two big players: the provinces and Ottawa.” That’s ridiculous and inaccurate: first, ‘Ottawa’ implying a federal government did not exist and was not at the table; second, the original impetus was maritime provinces wishing to strengthen their economic position against the US followed by a reaction from the Canadas to derail that objective with an arrangement that would tilt the advantage in their favor. One might note that one of the things that the Canadas brought to the table was a considerable quantity of liquor. It’s also a fact that Nova Scotians soon caught on to this ruse and tried to get out of the whole thing. It’s also a fallacy to frame things that occurred when the country was largely a rural economy with an emerging agricultural sector in the light of a modern urbanized economy. It’s merely a fact not an accusation that our constitution is archaic … that can be said about anything that’s old: John A in his wildest dreams imagined that some highways would be paved or at least planked and wide enough that carriages could easily pass and that Canada would be free to distill as much liquor as it could drink. Even the sea to sea vision was a reaction to inroads by US enterprise and to divert trade from what would become western provinces through Ontario and Quebec and away from routes through the US – not because anyone other than BC had a strong desire to join.

    • Read a book. Ottawa was named the permanent capital of United-Canada in 1857. It was a colonial government, but Jonh A. like you call him already had the federation in mind, which is what Canada was when ratifying the constitution in 1867. The reason to form the new country was mainly for defence purposes and for governmental stability, which makes sense to build a Federation. (remember, a federation is the union of states/provinces/landers in a single central government). The question today is: Should cities have more to say in Canadian politics?

      • Well, I can read and Ottawa was named the capital of the Province of Canada not the country Canada in 1857 which is something else all together and this out of exasperation in London that provincial government kept around e.g. Kingston->Montreal->Toronto->Quebec->Toronto->Quebec at great expense to the crown.
        Some representatives of the government of the Province of Canada were involved in initial discussions but not Governor General Head nor anyone else from the senior government of the day in London England. Canada as a whole did not support the constitution in 1867: PEI was dissatisfied and opted out, Newfoundland did not participate, Nova Scotia realizing it had been snookered tried to renege, the Hudson’s Bay Company was not involved, only Ontario and Quebec got what they wanted which was to be separate provinces. Note: the British North America Act is an act of British Parliament creating a federal union of the provinces of Canada, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia (only). The British Parliament decided that Ottawa would be the capital. Of course, the BNA did not suggest that city governments should be the lackeys of the federal government nor that they should be made to be silent as suggested by Canada’s current right wing party; it does suggest that local governments should manage affairs within their scope with the exception of where the national government declares a national interest (let them put the pipe through your bedroom not mine). The only mention of cities specifically is to name the provincial capitals so that they would stay put and to establish rights to federal representation of some cities existing at the time which suggests that the answer to the question is yes.

  5. “Coderre is about as subtle as a kid who burps the alphabet” well at least we have balance with Brad Wall, a true 19th century politician, and Rona Ambrose, Canada’s answer to Sara Palin. On that note, Canadians are supposed to be apologetic so Rona, on behalf of the CPC, should apologize to the east for the 180,000 middle class jobs they nuked in 10 years and/or the autocratic and monomaniacal approach they took to engineering an economy. When even the know-how of arranging a consultation between Ottawa and provincial and municipal governments has been lost through a decade of disuse, one can understand why there might be some degree of discontent and discord.

    • Ah is it just me or does Justin appear to be a real person or an extremely advanced hybrid mechanical clone ? His eyes and body language kind of betray an eerie scenario of politician-bots sent here to distract us from the simple fact that human governments can’t even solve the basic issue’s like, poverty, crime, injustice, etc. Look closely at Rona too. I tell you the first clue is their hair….very distracting !

      Reply ↓

      • It’s just you. But that’s because you’re a bot posting the same comment over and over.

    • I’m not a huge Ambrose fan – but comparing her to Palin? That’s just nasty!!!

    • If you think that Rona Ambrose is anything like Sara Palin then that would make you more like Sara Palin. The jury will remain out on this until the new government proves that it can move forward with new jobs and so far we haven’t seen anything. There are no new jobs here.

    • Relying on the Canadian dollar to stay at $0.60 wasn’t much of an economic plan actually. It would have been nice to have seen Canada take advantage of a strong dollar but apparently eastern Canada would much prefer to remain Mexico North. Just so you’re aware, China’s manufacturing sector has taken command, no matter what our dollar’s value drops to it can never compete with slave labour. In the 21st century we have no choice but to rely on our natural resources, it is our one advantage. It is disheartening,to say the least, that there are so many Canadians so ignorant to globalization that they will instead to chose western Canada as the scapegoat. So we bicker and blame and try to block another province’s progress because of this insipid need to be provincial in our terms of thinking.

      • The funny thing is that the only growth Canada saw in manufacturing occurred in Alberta where we saw a growth in manufacturing parts for the oilfield. There was really no excuse for Ontario when the dollar was high. They could have brought in specialty equipment and manufactured specialty items. Other countries do it like Germany. Canadian beef is doing well and so Canadian tourism. Ontario can’t seem to compete because their power costs are so high.

    • You actually believe in Dutch Disease? Explain then what happened to American manufacturing?

  6. Sorry, Evan,

    You got it wrong.

    Remember, Coderre was front and centre in the cabinet when the sponsorship program was going on. He’s now a mayor….but he hasn’t changed.

    coderre is looking for his “Cut” or “share” he feels he’s entitled to. (entitled to his entitlements). If someone at Transcanada agrees to paying him off….the pipeline will go through.

    Once a liberal…always a Liberal. Canada is back alright.

    • Junior Trudeau is as bad as his father but doesn’t seem to have the intelligence (malevolent) that his papa had. And it is not about hairdo but about being two-faced, dishing Harper overseas and giving a different version here – and that’s just one little sample. Fortunately his wife seems to have many more times the intelligence as he does so maybe she can influence toward sanity.

      I think the attack ad WAS right: he just isn’t ready. The twitter twits don’t work on that plane though, just looks and images.

  7. Why do big cities have so little respect?

    They have the ability to raise all the money required to met their fiscal obligations.(police, fire, infrastructure, city management)… by simply raising property taxes. Cities are so bad fiscal managers that they have to get someone else to pay for their projects.

    • BC voice of reason….

      clearly, if someone in BC is calling for an increase in property taxes to pay for services, it is clear that you may have a voice of Reason in BC……but you certainly don’t own property there.

      let me guess……living at home, or living in subsidized housing project?

    • One of the big problems with that is that it disproportionately targets owners over renters. A huge chunk of city dwellers pay a disproportionately small portion of the taxes – and ironically that huge chunk uses up a disproportionate amount of the money collected.

      Just for fairness, an alternate method of tax collection is needed in cities.

  8. Cities are creatures of their respective provincial governments. If they feel they are being short-changed in some manner then its from their provincial governments they should be seeking redress.

    Their provincial governments could give them the power to levy city-specific income and sales/HST taxes. But of course the cities wouldn’t want that; they want increased grants and other payments.

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