Skip to content

Letter to the Editor: Cities at the mercy of province in addressing homelessness and addiction, says former mayor

Former Cambridge mayor Doug Craig writes that the current political structure is 'deeply flawed and historically outdated'

CambridgeToday received the following from former Cambridge mayor Doug Craig.

Hazel McCallion, the former mayor of Mississauga, clearly highlighted the plight of local municipalities a number of years ago by criticizing the relationship between cities and the upper orders of government when she stated that, “the feds have all the money, the province has all the legislation and the cities have all the problems.”

There is no greater truism present today in our municipal world as our communities confront an overwhelming number of serious issues.

Presently, we are faced with the ever growing and serious challenges of homelessness and drug addiction. Last year we lost 158 souls in the region to drug overdoses and there are over a 1,100 homeless individuals with up to 400 living in local encampments.

What is not understood is that local politicians do not have either the legislative authority, the financial resources or the most important attribute for a number of them, the political resolve to solve these problems.

As a result of the restrictions imposed on them by the federal and provincial governments many local politicians find themselves on the sidelines trying to justify a failed drug strategy and a homeless problem that is growing out of control.

To find a solution starts with understanding the impediments posed by the provincial and federal governments .

As it has been noted by a number of political scientists, cities are simply “creatures of the province.” 

In other words, they have no legitimacy in the Canadian constitution. Cities can not only be dissolved at any time, but they can be mauled by Queens Park for any political advantage on a moment’s notice.

We saw all of this unfold in the Mike Harris years with the amalgamation of a number of municipalities and during this present provincial term with the reduction of Toronto councillors during the past civic election.

Provincial politicians regulate cities on every possible level from the thickness of asphalt on city streets, to the size of debt they are allowed to carry to the required density in subdivision planning.

In all, legislative power resides completely at Queens Park. This leaves cities with little room to be innovative or cutting edge when it comes to the implementation of new and necessary programmes dealing with the burgeoning social issues such as opioid addiction and homelessness.

Coupled with this are the financial resources of cities which find themselves only receiving nine cents out of every dollar that is collected in taxes throughout Canada with the other 91 cents going into respective federal and provincial coffers.

As a result, cities are in a perpetual state of being cash starved as their income is limited to the local property tax, user fees and the various provincial grants that may be applied for but not always guaranteed.

Understanding these restrictions opens up a clear lens on why we are losing the battle to solve or substantially curtail drug addiction in our region and produce enough affordable units for all those in need.

Complicating this situation is a further concern. It’s a well known fact that Queens Park and Ottawa representatives view municipal politicians as children in the Canadian political structure who must at all times be guided and regulated.

Consequently, a fealty relationship has evolved between Queens Park and local politicians.

Mayors and councillors know that their very existence depends on their compliant behaviour towards their overlords at Queens Park and their stated policies. They also recognize that any harsh criticism of those policies may well result in less grant money for projects or a shunning that results in a dismissal of a community’s valid concerns.

Bottom line, the docility by many local politicians is not working and they need to be reminded that they are elected to serve the interests of the public good and not the self serving agendas of federal and provincial politicians that restrict solutions to our local problems.

In this regard, the province’s paternalistic attitude needs to be challenged and the concerns of the local electorate should be paramount above all other considerations in spite of possible repercussions.

Regardless of the outcomes and possible reprisals from Queens Park, more assistance is absolutely necessary. Otherwise, we will simply accept failed drug policies and inadequate funding for affordable housing which together will further impact the health of our communities.

The result will be crippling. The homeless numbers in the future will increase and the deaths from overdoses will continue their upward trajectory all because of a lack of courage at the local level and a political structure that is deeply flawed and historically outdated.

- Doug Craig