Blogs & Comment

A tale of two mayors

Pitting Calgary against Toronto in the future of Canada's economy.

In 2008, Globe and Mail business writer Gordon Pitts published a not-entirely convincing book (not convincing to me, at least) about Canada’s economic future called Stampede! The Rise of the West and Canadas New Power Elite . It hinged on an overblown vision of Calgary in 2020, where the Toronto-Dominion Bank has become the Calgary-Dominion Bank and Alberta is the undisputed cultural and economic centre of Canada.

The book is actually subtler than its hyperbolic title suggests it’s critical both of Alberta’s unsophisticated history of boom-and-bust economics, and also of the dismissive perspective on Alberta often encountered elsewhere in Canada, where the young, hyper-educated, ethnically diverse province is still sometimes seen as a boom-time backwater.

But it doesn’t at any point justify its vision of Calgary in 2020. Instead, it illustrates some predictable old tropes: that Central Canada is risk-averse and old, while Alberta is energetic and entrepreneurial. But overblown as it may be, there’s a kernel of insight in there, and citizens of both Calgary and Toronto just saw hard evidence of it in their respective mayoral elections the new mayors of Calgary and Toronto are exactly what we should expect to see if Pitts predictions are to come true.

Consider Calgary’s new mayor, Naheed Nenshi. A progressive Muslim of Tanzanian heritage, he doesn’t resemble Alberta’s business or political elite in appearance, background or politics. Most recently and most tellingly, hes positioned himself for a head-on confrontation in 2011 with Calgary’s powerful real estate developers. Nenshi has said that he wants developers of new suburban communities to pony up more money for the cost of building new infrastructure in these areas, rather than having the cost borne by public funds. Keep in mind, this is in a city whose most obvious physical aspect is the way it creeps out over the prairie in a concrete entanglement of on-ramps, off-ramps, cul-de-sacs and master-planned communities of single family homes, and where previous administrations have largely taken a live-and-let-sprawl attitude.

If Calgary is to become a metropolis that can stand with the world’s real financial and cultural centres, it’ll need more of that urbanity that Nenshi wants to bring to it. For a city to transform itself from a boomtown into a permanent centre of business, cultural and political power, it has to offer something besides subdivisions and skyscrapers.

Lets be clear: Nenshi is not a far-left ideologue looking to foment revolution from within. He’s usually described as a Harvard-educated academic, but he’s also worked as a consultant for Fortune 500 companies. He will not overthrow the political establishment in Alberta, he’ll become part of it. Hes already pledged to cut bureaucratic and licensing hassles to make the city the best place in Canada to start and grow a business. He is, finally, proof that a wildly popular politician in Alberta can be pro-business without being an anti-tax, deregulation-crazed cowboy as well.

Wish I could say the same about Toronto’s new mayor. When Torontonians elected Rob Ford in October, he promised to make the city open for business. But his crusade to respect the taxpayer invokes nothing so much as Ralph Klein’s popular but financially reckless tenure as Alberta’s premier from 1992 to 2006 (and as Calgary’s mayor from 1980 to 1989.) Klein crowed about respecting taxpayer rights, and about the provinces debt-free status, even as he squandered $1.4 billion of public money by giving away un-taxable $400 prosperity bonuses to every Albertan in 2006, rather than investing in provincial infrastructure or savings.

Ford hasn’t done anything like that, but his sloganeering rhetoric and dubious financial savvy look similar. His first order of business after taking office was to eliminate a $60 vehicle registration tax which would have netted the city $64 million in 2011. His second has been to attempt the cancellation of a fully-funded transit plan in favour of a more expensive and less comprehensive subway plan of his own devising, which if successful will mean incurring massive contract cancellation fees for the city. Hes also been surprisingly quiet about the city’s punishingly high commercial property taxes, which especially penalize small businesses.

For all his bluster and hyperbole, Fords Toronto doesn’t seem especially business-friendly or financially well-run. Ford seems intent on ignoring Toronto’s recent ascension on the global urban and economic stage, focusing instead on a simple-minded message more befitting a government of the 1970s Toronto suburb where he grew up symbolic and meaningless budget cuts, an aversion to modes of transport besides the automobile and a complete resistance to ambitious and progressive city-planning.

Nenshi’s Calgary, on the other hand, despite stepping away from the traditional free market libertarianism associated with Alberta business and politics, looks like a city growing up and embracing its increasing complexity, diversity and urbanity. If Pitts vision of Canada’s future is to come true, it doesn’t just mean that Canada will become more like Alberta. It means, as he wrote in 2008, that Alberta will become more like the rest of Canada.