Global Covid-19, Democracy, devolution and governance

Municipal responses to the Covid-19 pandemic in Canada

Canada endured a third wave of Covid-19, and as in many other countries, its larger city regions bore the brunt of the pandemic. In Canada, municipal governments, partially or wholly, fund and deliver many of the key services that residents rely on each day (the major exceptions being health care and education); as a result, they play a pivotal role in combating the spread of the virus and in adapting their services in responses to shifting restrictions emanating from provincial governments.

For those uninitiated in Canada’s form of federalism, municipal government is the jurisdiction of provincial government in Canada. As a result, all municipal power and authority emanates from each province (and the three territories). Health care also falls under the jurisdiction of provincial government. So, while the federal government regularly provides health transfers to the provinces, provides relief to the newly unemployed and businesses, and is working with the provinces to provide some relief for municipalities, ultimately, it is the provinces, their health agencies, and their municipal governments, that are in the forefront in combating the spread of the disease.

Although the scope of municipal authority varies by provincial jurisdiction in Canada, there is commonality in the responses of municipalities to the pandemic. The discussion below is not an exhaustive account of how Canadian municipalities are responding to Covid 19, but it captures many of the common policies and practises that some of the country’s larger urban and suburban municipalities have adopted. It also elaborates on some municipalities’ frustration with provincial governments’ responses to the pandemic.

States of Emergency

Municipal governments throughout Canada have the authority, under various provincial statutes, to declare a state of emergency (usually referred to as a state of local emergency). Declaring a state of emergency enables municipalities to access additional provincial (and sometimes federal) resources, and to pass and enforce by-laws that would usually require the intercedence of the provincial government. Currently there is no tally of the number of municipalities that have declared an emergency due to Covid 19, but the number might well be in the high hundreds or even thousands (there are roughly 5000 municipalities in Canada).

As of the third wave of the pandemic, the orders resulting from provincial states of emergency have superseded those of municipal government. Nevertheless, a number of municipalities have passed by-laws enforcing rules that go beyond those of the province. For instance, the City of Calgary implemented a 14-day quarantine period well before the Province of Alberta did so, and a suburban municipality on the Island of Montreal banned gatherings over 10 people when the Province of Quebec initially omitted such a ban in its own guidelines. Beyond such restrictions, many municipalities have used their authority to close down parks and playgrounds to the public and enacted fines for breaking those restrictions. Many provinces have also empowered their municipalities to enforce provincial restrictions as well.

Budget Cuts and Tax Deferrals

In certain respects, Canadian municipalities are in a better position to weather the pandemic financially then the provinces or federal government. Municipal governments in Canada rely heavily on the property tax and user fees. The former has remained largely unscathed during the pandemic. While many municipal governments are allowing both residential and business property owners to defer their property tax, the number of deferrals and delays seem to be low, with limited impact on budgets. This relative stability contrasts with the steep decline in income and sales tax the provinces and federal government have experienced at different points through the pandemic.

Despite the stability of the property tax, and federal funds to offset drops in revenue resulting from Covid, many of the countries larger municipalities have experienced periods of fiscal uncertainty over the last year, as revenue from user fees, particularly for transit and recreation, declined. Few municipalities have chosen to raise property taxes in order to offset those losses; instead, many have furloughed staff for extended periods and reduced service levels in order to cut costs. For instance, the City of Edmonton temporally laid-off 2900 of its employees, while the City of Vaughan, a suburb of Toronto, laid-off over half of its workforce. Along with these layoffs, many municipalities have significantly reduced public services, such as building inspections, or closed facilities such as libraries and community centres. Many municipalities with municipal funded transit systems have also reduced transit services.

Expanding the Outdoor Public Realm

In a bid to address the social impact of the various lockdowns and restrictions throughout the country, a number of municipalities throughout Canada have enacted measures to expand the outdoor realm in order to give residents the space to move and engage at safe distances. Cities such as Vancouver, Edmonton, and Winnipeg, have closed-down or restricted streets to car traffic in order to encourage people to go outside and walk and ride. They have also allowed for pop-up plazas and temporary patios in order to help businesses and restaurants to continue operating despite provincial and municipal restrictions.

Moving Online

Finally, many municipalities are moving many of their in-person services online, in order to allow for people to apply for various licences and permits throughout the pandemic. Some of the country’s larger municipalities, such as Toronto and Winnipeg, are also launching new websites for local businesses to help them connect with clients and apply for federal and provincial funding.

Growing Frustration

Arguably, Covid 19 has exposed more weaknesses than strengths in Canada’s federal system. The federal government in Canada has the authority to declare its own state of emergency, which would supersede that of the provinces, and allow it to coordinate a unified response to the pandemic. However, the federal government has been reluctant to do so, likely out of fear of the political ramifications of doing so, only once using the possibility of a federal state of emergency as a threat to cajole the provinces into action. As a result, outside of federal restrictions on international travel, each province has been responsible for orchestrating their own response to the pandemic.

For many of the country’s largest municipalities, provincial responses, and often slow reactions to changes in the nature of the pandemic, have been a source of frustration. Cities such as Toronto, Ottawa, Winnipeg, and Calgary, as well as some the regional municipalities surrounding Toronto, have repeatedly called for their respective provinces to implement tougher restrictions in their municipalities, or to empower the municipalities to do so.

Such requests have not always fell on deaf ears. At times, the provinces have appeared to be responsive to municipal pleas, and Doug Ford, the Premier of Ontario, even mused at one point about further empowering his province’s cities. However, despite theses occasions of receptiveness from provincial government, the fact that municipalities are restricted in their own actions by the emergency powers of the provinces is clearly an ongoing source of concern for municipal governments. In the long run, Canadian municipal governments’ pandemic experience will likely only intensive large municipalities’ demand for greater authority and increased autonomy from provinces.

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