Canada is the leading former British colony – that leads even its former British ruler – in the introduction and use of integrated regional systems. As such it has realized benefits that have eluded others. This article will discuss its system in the context of the United States which has lagged Canada since the 1950s. The reason is very simple. In the United States its vast municipal bond market has enabled local governments to maintain the status quo of a fragmented system with little, if any, integration.
It has been realized in the United States that collaborating is not easy as it does not come naturally to municipalities and it is very hard to sustain over the long term in spite of its many benefits. Decades of experience in Canada demonstrate how systems can prosper and be maintained and how different governments have devised their own solutions. As a result, Canada is one of the leading countries where regional governance is practiced. However, it is in three provinces (Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec) that the most extensive examples of regional governance can be found.

Lacking financial capability to build necessary infrastructure in a suburbanizing environment, Canadian provinces have guided their local government to embrace municipal reforms in their metropolitan regions. Consolidation or regionalization or a combination thereof have been the most potent instruments employed to recalibrate emerging metropolitan dynamics to curb the downsides of fast growth. As a result, regional governance has generally taken a deeper root in Canada since the 1950s. The result is that there is less suburbanization, less polarization and less inequity, while cities have been less hollowed out than those in the United States. In the US, this bodes ill for the country since its stands at the precipice of the minority majority era, in which the two dominant segments of the new majority have been disadvantaged both within cities and in the suburbs.
In Canada, local restructuring has been facilitated by the absence of home rule, voter approval requirements and the fact that local governments obtain their powers and jurisdictions from their respective provincial governments. The difference may be traced back to roots in colonial history in Canada and post colonial history in the United States, which also started much earlier in its case.
Emerging structural issues may be more noticeable to the provincial governments as the evolution of urban areas has been more concentrated in Canada. The majority of the population resides in a few metropolitan areas. Three provinces have led the establishment of regional solutions-and have implemented the most sophisticated applications.
The first regional system in Canada was the two tier system of metropolitan government introduced by Ontario in 1953. This was the influential formation of the Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto established to recalibrate service delivery arrangements amongst the City of Toronto and its suburbs. It is well known that in 1998 this system was consolidated into the city of Toronto, as were a select number of other regional governments (Sudbury, Hamilton-Wentworth, Ottawa-Carleton and Haldimand-Norfork). It is less well known that similar two tier structures (in Durham, Halton, Niagara, Peel, Waterloo and York) remained untouched in southern Ontario. Since the province dumped unfunded mandates on the consolidated units shortly thereafter, it appears, the main intention for the large consolidation may have been to save money for the province, while mandating that local governments with less revenues bear the burden of what had previously been a provincial responsibility.
The Toronto municipality delivered its primary goals of providing better services and improved infrastructure to the region before it was consolidated under a cloud of controversy. As noted in the Governing magazine article ”How Bureaucracy and Bickering Brought Down Niagara Falls” published in August 2009, regional collaboration on the Canadian side has been a key reason for the difference in the economies of the cities on either side of Niagara Falls. A noteworthy effort by this regional government left unmentioned has been its poverty reduction initiative. This is something of particular value for America where 2011 was-the first year white babies were a minority; while suburban poverty has grown more quickly and the working poor are increasingly present in economically segregated parts of metropolitan regions.

The Waterloo Regional Municipality established in 1973 is renowned for supporting and nurturing its manufacturing sector. This region has the highest concentration of manufacturing workers in a metropolitan area in Canada containing 2/3 of all Canadian start ups and approximately 23 percent of the national labor force employed in the manufacturing sector. As a 2009 Conference Board of Canada Scholar in Residence pointed out in a lecture, this region has become “the poster child for the kind of “big tent” mixture of government and governance we must develop to create successful 21st century cities.” But, while regional municipalities have demonstrated their value, they have not compensated for the growing suburban development outside their jurisdictions. There is still need for more regional collaboration or a regional body to fill the void. Both avenues have been the subject of discussion in the province since the closure of the Greater Toronto Services Board in 2001.

What has been called the most ambitious smart growth plan in North America was unveiled in 2006 for the fastest growing Greater Golden Horseshoe metropolitan region. Its aim is to manage growth and development in the framework of the Places to Grow plan. The goal is to enable this fastest growing area in the province (where already 84 percent of the population is situated) to enjoy the positive benefits of growth while curbing the “negative aspects associated with rapid growth”. This plan illustrates that even if the province hasn’t introduced more regional governance vehicles, it still retains a regional development awareness exceeding the ambitions of US regions and their respective states.
The pioneering regional system in Ontario inspired other provinces to think about ways to address the same issues of rapid urban expansion. In 1965, British Columbia pioneered an original way for practical institutional arrangements enabling the sharing and delivery of local goods, services and benefits across jurisdictional boundaries throughout the province. Originally 29 (currently 27) designated areas were identified across the province, that could be incorporated into a regional district by the municipal governments residing within their identified territory.

They have three primary roles. One is to provide regional governance and services for the entire region. Another is to serve as a vehicle for advancing the interests of the entire region and a third is to serve as a political forum for the representation of regional residents of unincorporated areas and communities. Functionally, they serve as a vehicle for the delivery of region-wide services and provide a political and administrative framework for inter-municipal or sub-regional service partnerships through the creation of “benefiting areas”. Any combination of electoral areas and municipalities can decide to jointly provide services and recover the costs from the beneficiaries.

The closest U.S. system to this Canadian example is the Charlotte-Mecklenburg County functional consolidation system where either the county or Charlotte provides services to the constituent parts of the county. This framework allows for more intensification of service sharing and has been key to the avoidance of the explosion of special districts in the United States in the postwar era. One can even say that is its greatest achievement. In British Columbia, they are well aware they have avoided this complication. Provincial officials also believe their system has enabled them to avoid the need for consolidation that other provinces have succumbed to. Municipalities currently seeking to save costs and maintain service levels through service sharing will find this system a good resource for figuring out how to deepen their engagements.

The most recent substantive regional innovations in Canada were implemented in Quebec. The province introduced a series of reforms first introduced in 2000 (but contemplated around the same time as Ontario changes were being announced). Two regional systems (one in the Montreal region and the other in the Quebec City region) and a number of decentralized city systems were established after the consolidation of neighboring municipalities. These consolidations also included the 3 urban communities (Outaouais, Quebec City, and Montreal) within the province which had a 2-tier system like the Ontario regional bodies (and the urban communities of France); but didn’t have the same powers. The Portland and Twin Cities Metros should take note that since 2000 they now have two younger peers in Quebec with a range of powers.

Quebec’s small municipalities also use inter-municipal agreements to obtain services they cannot afford. These agreements can provide a service from one municipality to another, transfer powers to a municipality in exchange for a particular service, or establish inter-municipal commissions to set up a common service. Some form of an inter-municipal arrangement can be found in almost all Quebec municipalities. In the vast majority of cases, the central city is the service provider or there is a transfer of powers to the central city. Of the three trendsetting provinces Quebec has used the most varied applications of regional governance. It also has the most number of municipalities with the vast majority being small municipalities. This may be why it has appeared to seek inspiration from France, where an extremely high level of fragmentation has been addressed by the application of the most networked system of regional governance in the world and its most varied applications.
While the three provinces have the most sophisticated systems; there is a growing trend since the 1980s of other provinces introducing regionalization. For instance, new regional bodies can be found in Alberta (Capital Region Board, Regional Services Commissions and Regional Economic Development Alliances), Saskatchewan (Inter-Community Cooperation Program), Nova Scotia (Joint Expenditure Boards) and New Brunswick (Greater Moncton Economic Commission which helped revitalize this area and new Regional Service Commissions). All of them, so far, are more modest and limited in scope than the least structured of the three provincial systems – the regional districts of British Columbia. Of course, their jurisdictions are not as highly urbanized and they are relatively new to regionalization of metropolitan governance.

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