It's time: An urban agenda for our cities and communities

Speech by Tom Mulcair to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities AGM (Vancouver)

It’s great to be back in front of the FCM. You’ve had quite a busy year.

Under Karen’s impressive leadership, the FCM has managed to put infrastructure front and centre on the national political map.

Cities and communities across the country owe you a debt of gratitude for that.

Now of course, there’s still a lot of work to do.

New Democrats have a long, proud history of working with the FCM to make municipal issues a priority… it’s one of Jack Layton’s greatest legacies.

As you know, Jack was once president of the FCM… and brought his devotion to municipal politics to the NDP.

I’m here to tell you today just how our party plans to continue that important work.

And how, by working together, we can make our cities and towns beacons of opportunity and prosperity… for generations to come.

Every time I’m here, I can’t help but marvel at Vancouver’s beauty.

But it’s not just the North Shore Mountains…

It’s not just Stanley Park or the Burrard Inlet…

It’s the strong and vibrant neighbourhoods full of history and diversity.

Of wonderful and welcoming people.

It’s the world-renowned centres of art and culture.

It’s the schools and the hospitals and the public transit routes that consistently make Vancouver one of the most liveable cities… on the planet.

In 2010, the world came here and learned what Canadians already knew: that Vancouver is a world-class city.

Now, this didn’t just happen by accident. It wasn’t just luck.

Metro Vancouver got to where it is today because of its long history of forward-thinking municipal leaders.

Leaders who worked together with business and labour, with different levels of government, and crafted a vision for this city—one of liveability and sustainability.

MetroVan isn’t just a beautiful city, it’s Canada’s gateway to the Pacific and a key gateway to the global economy.

The fact is, we live in a world that’s more interconnected than ever—and cities like this one will have to be ready.

Economic boundaries have been all but erased.

Information travels at the speed of light.

And national borders can seem like a thing of the past.

In the 21st century, our cities and communities will be on the front-lines of both the challenges we face—and the opportunities that await us.

They’ll be our economic engines…

The destination for the next generation of new Canadians…

And a key battleground in our fight against climate change.

Our future—the future of this country—will unfold on the streets of our cities and communities… both big and small.

I know—and you know—that they’re up for the challenge.

They always have been.

But to thrive in the 21st century, our cities and communities will need support from all levels of government.

They’ll need a federal government that has a vision for our urban centres…

A federal government that understands the vital role our cities play for the entire country.

New Democrats believe… it’s time we gave it to them.

I certainly don’t have to tell any of you that our cities and communities are overburdened.

They have a growing list of responsibilities… but few tools to raise revenue.

Municipalities are in charge of 60% of this country’s infrastructure…but have just 8% of the tax base.

For too long, our government in Ottawa has ignored the issues facing our cities.

Successive Liberal and Conservative governments dismantled federal support for affordable housing in the 1980s and 1990s.

Bit by bit, they’ve abdicated their responsibilities to municipalities in key areas, such as transit and housing.

We’re the only country in the G8 without a national transit strategy… and the only one without a vision for affordable housing.

And today we face a Conservative government that doesn’t even understand the challenges facing our cities and communities.

Take the latest budget, for example.

After months of pressure from the FCM, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced what he called, quote, “the largest and longest federal infrastructure plan in Canadian history.”

But it took just a few days for the Parliamentary Budget Officer to expose Mr. Flaherty’s budget as a sham.

What the PBO found is that Mr. Flaherty’s budget was actually a shell game... that it delivered $5.8-billion less for infrastructure funding over 5 years.

You heard that right—instead of increasing funding, they actually cut it.

The budget ignored the FCM’s calls for a plan to tackle the infrastructure deficit—which now stands at close to $200-billion.

There was nothing to combat gridlock and no mention of the unique needs of northern and rural communities.

So much for “a historic investment.”

What’s more, municipalities are still being forced to apply for funds through a partisan and cumbersome lottery-based system.

Need a new wastewater treatment plant? Throw your name into the federal hat and hope the minister picks it out.

And hope that the government doesn’t pick your name… then throw it back.

That’s what happened to Calgary two years ago when it was denied federal funding to build four recreation centres in the city—despite originally being told it would get the cash it needed…

…and after spending $3-million on the P-3 Canada application process.

The city, as you can imagine, was shocked and frustrated.

The fact is, smaller communities don’t even have the money to spend on applications—and no community should have to put up with an 11th hour change of heart, with no explanation.

That’s not how you build a strong partnership with Canada’s cities.

It’s time for Ottawa to step up to the plate.

That’s why New Democrats are launching a national consultation on urban issues in cities and towns right across this great country.

Our MPs from coast-to-coast-to-coast will meet with local politicians, chambers of commerce and community organizations to hear about the challenges facing our communities—and how we can tackle them.

New Democrats believe that the federal government can play a constructive role in supporting our cities—from job creation and transit to affordable housing, homelessness and the transition to a sustainable economy.

We’re committed to making sure the issues our cities and communities face are at the heart of our national agenda.

And with your help… we can do just that.

New Democrats have a proud history of standing up for our cities… of advocating for long-term, predictable commitments from the federal government.

It was Jack Layton’s relentless lobbying that finally convinced Paul Martin that cities needed a new deal.

Jack was also the one who, in 2005, forced the Liberals to cancel $4.6-billion in corporate tax cuts and invest that money into more pressing needs facing our communities—including $1.6 billion for affordable housing and $900 million for transit and green infrastructure.

Those are our priorities. That’s our record. That’s what an NDP government will do in 2015.

Jack Layton led the fight to give cities a new deal.

Today, Mr. Harper’s Conservatives have given them a raw deal.

New Democrats have also introduced a national transit strategy and a national affordable housing plan.

We’ve proposed transferring an additional cent from the existing gas tax to fund urban transit projects—bringing $420-million more into municipal coffers.

And we’re fighting to ensure every small town has access to high-speed internet.

In 2015, a New Democratic government will strengthen the role of the CMHC to offer low-interest federal loans to help fund new rental housing construction…

…and we’ll fully restore funding for the Building Canada Fund.

We’ll also make sure those infrastructure funds are allocated in a more transparent and accountable way.

The process has to be made fair.

But of course, the best and most innovative solutions will come from our communities themselves.

It’s always been that way.

Some of our most vital services—public transit, health clinics, libraries, food banks—got their start at the municipal level.

I talked earlier about the record of forward-thinking municipal leaders here in Vancouver.

Right now, Mayor Gregor Robertson is leading the charge against skyrocketing housing prices that have plagued this city for years.

And he’s doing it with some bold and creative ideas.

It should come as no surprise that living in a city as desirable as Vancouver comes at a cost—especially when there’s so little space to build new houses.

But the reality is that the high cost of real estate has pushed far too many people out of the housing market entirely.

Vancouver is the most expensive housing market in the country—by a wide margin.

The average bungalow will now run you over $1-million.

To combat that trend, the Mayor’s Task Force on Housing Affordability has set out to find innovative new ways to create and sustain low-cost housing here in Vancouver.

The goal is simple: to ensure everyone has an affordable place to live.

And the results have been impressive.

Since 2009, Vancouver has issued 800 permits to convert the city’s laneways into areas for affordable, single-family homes.

Not only do these laneway houses give Vancouverites a more affordable housing option—they can typically be built for under $200,000—it allows more and more people to become part of a community and keeps them living closer to work—cutting down on traffic and on air pollution.

The project has been so successful, it’s now being expanded.

And the good work doesn’t end there.

Just a few weeks ago, Vancouver’s city council approved a deal to lease four city-owned properties to a group of non-profit housing providers for a full 99 years.

In return, those providers will build and run 355 new units of rental housing, including condos, townhouses and riverfront properties.

What’s most impressive about the deal is that the profits from those in-demand riverfront properties will be channelled into supporting low-cost housing at the other three locations—including units that will be rented out at 20% below market value.

The arrangement is so innovative, it’s already attracting praise from as far away as Europe.

Of course, Vancouver doesn’t have a monopoly on innovation at the city level—far from it.

In 2007, city officials in Brandon, Manitoba, partnered with a local non-profit organization—as well as the province—to retrofit 120 low-income homes.

The initiative delivers some $30,000 in energy savings each year—not to mention saving 10 million litres of water annually.

And what’s more, local residents were the ones trained to do the retrofitting—giving them valuable job skills for the future.

In Toronto, the Tower Renewal Project under former mayor David Miller set out to make retrofitting a priority in city highrises.

Not only is it helping Toronto become a more sustainable city—while reducing energy costs—it’s making Toronto a leader in building retrofits, part of a flourishing global industry of clean tech.

And in Quebec City, former mayor Jean-Paul L’Allier made it his priority to revitalize the neglected St. Roch downtown core and attract local businesses back to the area.

The result today is a burgeoning tourist destination, one filled with new businesses that are helping to curb urban sprawl.

These are just some of the transformative ideas unfolding in our cities every single day.

Ideas that are confronting our 21st century challenges… while creating opportunity and prosperity for Canadian families.

The history of this country is filled with examples of what’s possible when we work together.

Business. Labour. And government.

But if our cities are going to thrive, they’ll need help.

They can’t do it alone.

They’ll need all three levels of government working together.

Because when we work together, there’s no challenge we can’t meet.

New Democrats believe that leadership is about choices.

The average Canadian spends the equivalent of 32 work days a year in traffic.

That’s a choice of previous governments… we can choose to do better.

Air pollution costs us over $8-billion a year.

That’s a choice of previous governments… we can choose to do better.

We can choose to accept less. Or we can work together to achieve more.

The choice before us is in our hands… if we want it.

The future is in our hands…if we work for it.

My friends, this is our moment.

To a write a new chapter in the history of our country… together.

To build even stronger communities for our children and grandchildren… together.

This is our moment to build the Canada of our dreams… and it starts with our cities.

Thank you. Merci. On continue.