A Tale of Two Cities

It IS the best of times. Edmonton and Calgary, led by progressive young Mayors, have never been stronger; economically, politically or culturally. Edmonton’s “cooler than you think” catches the spirit of the city. Calgary’s “Stampede” shouts out more than a summer fair; evoking a shimmering, can-do entrepreneurship that has made the city a major financial centre. It can still be imagined as the economic centre of a new frontier; its impressive skyline makes it feel that way.

At the same time there is, in some quarters, a sense of unease about the direction the provincial government seems to be taking. Instead of building toward its extraordinary potential Provincial Premier Alison Redford is disappointing many who supported her by seemingly caving in to financial advisors whose preoccupation with lowering taxes stifles progress. We should, instead, be investing heavily in a potentially magical future.

The federal government, meanwhile, seems driven by an ideologically-based suspicion of government itself. Both domestically and externally, Harper is, with calculated deliberation, changing the face of the country. Under his lengthening leadership, Canada is seen as less and less charitable to our more deprived citizens, less and less the peace keeper, the honest broker, the country of refuge and new beginnings for the persecuted and war weary of the world. We seem more and more the belligerent intervener, less and less the Good Samaritan; Harper is changing the way the world sees us.

Arguably, this calls for a review of the role of government; of the way our version of democracy works. Fear of opening the constitution should not deter us. What better time, when we are stable and prosperous, to review our fundamental premises. Many will agree that the government that is closest to you is the government that should have the most power and authority over you, more than distant regional or federal centres. Citizens have more control over, and more opportunities to influence local and regional governments. The time may well be at hand for a dramatic re-structuring of the political pyramid; the relationship between cities and their provinces; between the provinces and Ottawa.

Constitutionally, cities are the creatures of the provinces. When the country was formed it made sense to divide this vast territory into provincial and territorial units. First, it was “lower Canada”; Quebec, along with Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island; and “Upper Canada” e.g. Ontario, as founding members of the “Confederation”. British Columbia, after cutting the deal for a trans-continental railway, joined Canada in 1871. In 1905 Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, their territories arbitrarily carved out of the great plain, joined the “Dominion”, which boasted one major city, Montreal; with Toronto rushing to catch up.

In the 21st century, Calgary and Edmonton have emerged as super centres. But digital communication erases a lot of geography. We have the opportunity and the technology to get the two cities working together; functioning as a single super-centre creating one of the strongest economies in the country. A high speed rail link would make it possible to travel from Edmonton to Calgary in less time than it takes to drive from Scarborough to Mississauga. Editorial pages in both cities muse about the prospects. Both supporters and nay-sayers have numbers that support their case.

But this should not be a numbers play. The power of the two cities acting as one, would offer unique opportunities both for citizens and entrepreneurs. But it is going to take a balletic leap of faith.

Let’s dance.