By: Jennifer Burgess Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The normally sleepy Ministry of Municipal Affairs has perked up over the last month. In August 2023, buried halfway in Premier Smith’s mandate letter to Minister McIver, was the strikingly political request to “Protect[ing] the province’s constitutional right to oversee the governance of Alberta’s municipalities without federal interference.” This charge’s time has come, and within a few days of an underwhelming announcement about the long-awaited Local Government Fiscal Framework. A lot is being thrown at municipalities at once- what’s going on here?
On December 14, 2023, McIver wrote directly to municipalities asking them for a list of all agreements in place between the municipality and the federal government. For many municipalities, this is likely a long list. Most infrastructure projects have federal matching dollars, not to mention many social programs that draw on federal funds. The story about this letter first broke with the Town of Innisfail releasing the letter and saying publicly they will not be sending the list.
Calgary and Edmonton half-heartedly said they would send it. Then Alberta Municipalities released a statement with concerns about the letter, including the workload this would put on short-staffed municipalities over the holidays. Paul McLauchlin, president of Rural Municipalities of Alberta, also expressed concerns. McIver’s move is certainly not “maintaining and building relationships of trust, partnership and open dialogue with municipal leaders across the province,” as is also listed as the next point in his mandate letter.
I don’t think you need to be a political pundit to see the game being played here. Smith’s government has been combative with Trudeau since, well before she was elected. Her relationship with large cities has not been strong; this is not the first time her Minister of Municipal Affairs has attempted to insert themselves into city operations. As Dave Climenhaga pointed out, this is likely a fishing expedition to see what comes up as politically useful in these lists.
However, intergovernmental relationships are a long game. There could be unintended consequences to the pandora’s box McIver has opened. First of all, I suspect McIver’s office will find many of the funding agreements municipalities have with the feds are for popular programs and not effective political fodder. There will be no support for going after Canada Day celebrations, literacy programs, buses to the mountains, or upgrades to water treatment plants. If the lists are released publicly, Albertans might be surprised by the amount of federal funding our fiercely independent province receives.
Secondly, all levels of government know affordability is going to be the issue heading into upcoming elections. Premier Smith will have a difficult time standing in the way of federally funded affordable housing and new buses. And she will be heading into an election with many municipalities weary of her intentions.
The coming months will tell how the next moves in this long game play out.