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OPINION: The Grown-Ups Are Meeting In Calgary

Over the next few days Calgary is set to become the epicentre of municipal governance in Canada.

Municipal leaders from every corner of the country, representing communities from the smallest hamlets to the sprawling metropolis of Toronto, will converge to discuss, network, and debate the pressing issues that necessitate robust federal advocacy.

This annual gathering under the auspices of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) is a critical forum for municipal leaders to share insights and strategies for tackling the unique challenges they face.

This year's convention, however, is overshadowed by more than just the scheduled discussions and workshops. The interplay between municipal, provincial, and federal governments has reached a point of significant tension, impacting how municipalities function and deliver essential services.

In a December episode of Municipal Affairs, Scott Pearce, the outgoing President of FCM, likened municipalities to "the adults at the table," dealing with everyday issues while provincial and federal governments squabble. Pearce emphasized that these intergovernmental conflicts are ultimately irrelevant to municipalities' core mission: serving their residents.

This was on the heals of the FCM calling for a tri-lateral meeting between, Municipalities, Provinces/Territories, and the Federal Government to address crucial infrastructure issues.

In Alberta, recent legislative changes encapsulated in Bills 18, 20, and 21 have dramatically altered the landscape of municipal-provincial-federal relations. These bills have positioned Alberta as a testing ground for increased provincial assertion over municipal governance, placing local leaders in a precarious position.

During my visits to the SUMA convention in Regina and the AMM convention in Brandon, the conversations I had with municipal leaders were often dominated by concerns over what was happening in Alberta. The anxiety is palpable, with mayors, councillors, and reeves expressing fears that the provincial government might "shut off the taps" for federal grants, thereby stifling essential municipal projects.

This backdrop of legislative and intergovernmental tension sets the stage for the FCM convention in Calgary. As municipal leaders gather, they are acutely aware of the ticking clock leading up to the next federal election. With Prime Minister Justin Trudeau showing no signs of stepping down and only a few provinces, including New Brunswick, Saskatchewan, and Yukon, nearing elections, the next year promises to be fraught with challenges on multiple fronts.

Enter Geoff Stewart, the incoming President of FCM and current Deputy Mayor of Colchester, Nova Scotia. Stewart, who is also running for mayor in the upcoming Nova Scotia municipal elections, is stepping into a role that demands both diplomatic finesse and steadfast advocacy. Described by colleagues as a down-to-earth individual willing to collaborate across political divides, Stewart's leadership will be crucial in navigating the increasingly turbulent waters of intergovernmental relations.

Stewart's predecessor, Scott Pearce, was known for his commitment to engaging with municipal leaders across the vast geographical expanse of Canada, from Yukon to Newfoundland and Labrador. Stewart will need to continue this inclusive approach while advocating on a national stage for more collaboration.

His ability to build consensus and drive effective advocacy will be tested as he works to ensure municipalities receive the support they need from higher levels of government.

The challenges Stewart and the entire FCM Board of Directors face are emblematic of the broader issues at play within Canadian confederation. This years FCM convention will be more than just an annual meeting; it will be vital platform for municipal leaders to voice their concerns, share best practices, and forge a united front in their dealings with higher levels of government.

With a new President at the helm and significant legislative changes on the horizon, the outcomes of this gathering will shape the future of municipal governance in Canada. It's time for the two other levels of government to come to the table and start acting like adults.


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