What Brampton & Mississauga should learn from two of Canada’s most innovative mayors
About a decade ago, Edmonton and Calgary faced the type of economic headwinds that would turn most leaders into cowering wrecks.
Instead, Don Iveson and Naheed Nenshi arrived as if sent together from heaven, calmly rolled up their sleeves and got to work.
On Monday, each will hand over the keys to the mayor’s office, Iveson in Edmonton, Nenshi in Calgary, having led their city through one of the most challenging periods in Alberta’s history.
Each streamlined and modernized local government, they moved these once sclerotic municipalities in entirely new directions and ushered in an era of economic optimism that neither city saw coming in the darkest days before their arrival.
For Mississauga and Brampton, facing out of control municipal labour costs allowed by decades of irresponsible leadership, the need to transform their suburban economies and a generation of residents demanding high-rises and higher-order transit instead of sprawl and gas-guzzling cars, Iveson and Nenshi have practically drawn up the blueprint for change.
The outgoing mayors of Calgary and Edmonton have taken fierce stances on critical issues and pivoted both cities toward the future.
Their unflinching progressive and aggressive mandates on affordable housing, light rail transit, smart growth, runaway municipal budgets and economic development serve as a model for Peel’s two cities, and what can be done with strong leadership.
Alberta can seem like another country to many in Southern Ontario. But while the provinces have their differences, Calgary and Edmonton share many of the same pressing issues Mississauga and Brampton face.
Homelessness, economic transition and rapid urbanization, all under the spectre of climate change, challenge all four cities. But unlike the leaders in Canada’s sixth and ninth largest municipalities, Nenshi and Iveson have turned the third and fifth largest cities around.
As they officially step down with Monday’s municipal elections across Alberta, with their legacies firmly in place, Nenshi and Iveson leave municipal thinkers much to contemplate.
Two cities forever changed by their outgoing mayors.
(Calgary image from Yolanda Lie vis Wikimedia Commons/Edmonton image from IQRemix via Wikimedia Commons)
“Have courage,” Iveson told The Pointer. “I was afraid at the beginning, because I had this big store of political capital, and I didn't want to spend it. But the best way to replenish your stored political capital — I've learned the hard way — is to spend it courageously.”
The man who was born in a suburb of Edmonton and grew up in the city’s south end, clearly has a sense of community flowing through his blood.
Unlike Brampton’s Patrick Brown, who parachuted in to save his political skin and has treated the city like a layover before his next move, Iveson bled Edmonton from the day he took a council seat 14 years ago, at the age of 28, then became mayor in 2013, in his mid-30s.
Now 42, he lacks the hubris and blind ambition of career politicians who feel entitled, as if members of royalty, to lifelong tenures at the head of the table.
That courage he mentioned was tested early and often, in the political pit of municipal politics, where many old guard incumbents grow more interested in hanging onto their cushy jobs than doing what’s best for the taxpayers who put them there.
Iveson has been a champion of “smart debt” to fund critical infrastructure, a notion leaders in Peel have been practically allergic to, because of their backward political fear of debt. A year after becoming mayor he ushered in a period of smart savings, demanding the municipal government become more efficient. But unlike Brown, who has spent irresponsibly on his own staff and high-level bureaucrats recruited to protect his agenda, while slashing badly needed infrastructure projects, Iveson found $127 million in savings by cutting out wasteful spending, including on senior-level staff positions deemed unnecessary.
Like all bureaucratic systems, municipal governments grind slowly over many years. Having a mayor who can put their foot down and advocate tirelessly and fiercely for the city is what residents expect.
In 2010, Nenshi came in like a bull looking for a fight, after decades of mismanagement inside city hall and developer-dictated policies that had brought the city to the brink of economic turmoil.
He pushed for density instead of more developer-driven sprawl and even became the subject of an ugly effort by one particular builder who tried to hand-pick a slate of candidates supported by the development industry to put an end to Nenshi’s smart growth mandate.
He reduced the number of municipal staff, including many in management roles, despite Calgary’s hyper growth at the time.
In a recent note ahead of Monday’s election, he penned some thoughts that seemed written just for politicians like Brown, who make wild, irresponsible promises just to get elected. Nenshi warned voters not to fall for the dangerous claims of candidates who promise to freeze taxes while growing their cities.
He said this can only be done by cutting services and badly needed capital programs, exactly what Brown has done.
Bonnie Crombie has been more responsible around tax policy, but she has refused to look at Mississauga’s ballooning labour costs, driven by lavish compensation packages for managers and other senior non-union staff.
The biggest difference between the two booming Alberta cities and their counterparts in Peel is not their politics, but how they have moved forward on their most crucial needs. Affordable housing is a dire situation in Peel and in both of the Alberta cities. Many residents cannot afford the skyrocketing prices for housing.
Iveson, unlike his Peel counterparts, has gone on a mission to address rising homelessness in his city, putting it at the top of his agenda, and spending large amounts of political capital with the Province of Alberta, demanding support.
With the support of staff and his council last year he proposed innovative construction methods to create more affordable housing stock, pushed to take advantage of ideal financing and real estate conditions to dramatically boost affordable housing assets and asked the Province of Alberta for more than $17 million in annual operating funding to provide rental subsidies for hundreds of families in the city.
Meanwhile, the demand for subsidized housing in Peel has skyrocketed 50 percent in one year, during the same period over the pandemic, with Brown and Crombie largely silent on the issue.
In July, Nenshi said Calgary could end homelessness and asked the federal government for $46 million in capital funding on top of $13 million in operating funds to help the City’s own commitments. The City also committed to a plan to build more housing units in cooperation with the Province and Ottawa, with Nenshi pushing the proposal.
It was done in the backdrop to his ongoing fight with developers who have ignored the housing crisis in their quest for profits. Last year, Nenshi took a stand when builders sought to have 11 new communities approved on the outskirts of Calgary — this coming after city council approved 14 new growth areas just two years prior. Nenshi pushed back against what he saw as sprawl just for sprawl’s sake.
"We shouldn't have approved the 14 that we approved two years ago. We should have approved eight or nine. The remainder should have been approved this time," Nenshi told the CBC.
"But since we already blew the bank and approved five or 10 years worth of new communities, it's going to be very hard to convince me that we should be adding more to that list in this economy and in this growth environment where fewer people are moving to Calgary." He has noted that a priority is to stabilize the housing situation for those who cannot secure proper shelter, not creating more spread out development because the private sector wants to continue gobbling up land for profit, while ignoring smart growth that mitigates climate change.
This resistance to developer interests is uncommon in much of Ontario and the GTA where mayors have for decades approved new growth with few questions about creating affordable housing stock, or other pressing issues like the environment.
Like Peel, Edmonton is also seeing a housing affordability crisis exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, the waitlist for subsidized housing grew from 6,000 to 10,000 people in Edmonton. After not meeting its 10-year plan to end homelessness, the city pivoted in October to smaller, more manageable ideas to get people off the streets before winter struck.
A 24/7 accommodation site opened at the end of October 2020 to give shelter for those who tested positive for the virus. It allowed people to social distance properly and gave them a place to stay during the day. The city used $8 million to run the program. Other areas of the short-term plan involve advocating to higher levels of government for funding. The money will be used to bridge the permanent supportive housing gap and find more permanent homes for those in need.
“I was blessed with councils who were elected feeling they had the same mandate that I did, and that was responsive to what Edmontonians were concerned about, which was housing affordability for themselves or for their kids,” Iveson told The Pointer.
Iveson has advocated for further housing support. In April, the Federal budget allocated $1.5 billion for the Rapid House Initiative, a policy designed to spark affordable housing projects across Canada. Edmonton is receiving $14.9 million from the program. While Iveson graciously welcomed the federal commitment, he continues to advocate for more.
Another looming problem Nenshi and Iveson have taken strong leadership on is climate change, specifically the impacts of bad planning and yesterday’s transportation.
In 2019, Alberta emitted 275.8 megatonnes of carbon. This compares to Ontario’s 163.2 megatonnes. Alberta’s numbers come despite having a fraction of Ontario’s population — about 4.4 million residents compared to 14.5 million. Its greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) are largely created by the oil and gas industry. According to Statistics Canada, Ontario’s previous drop in GHG emissions, prior to the arrival of the Doug Ford PC government, was the result of shutting down coal-fired electricity generation plants in the 2000s under the previous Dalton McGuinty Liberal government.
One of the responses both Alberta mayors got behind was the expansion of light rail transit (LRT) and improvements in bus transit.
Nenshi and Iveson have been loud proponents. Calgary’s Green Line LRT (an expansion on existing lines) will be the largest infrastructure project in the city’s history, with commitments from the federal, provincial and municipal governments. Kickstarting jobs with greener implications, the line will help connect existing affordable housing and reduce congestion on inner city roads. Construction on the first 20 kilometres will begin this fall as approval by the Federal Government was granted in early July.
Along the journey towards transit connections, Nenshi has had to fight setbacks from the provincial government. Obtaining approval from the province on specific alignments for the trains and securing funding were two of the mayor’s biggest successes. Fighting criticism from Alberta’s Transportation Minister Ric McIver over parts of the plan, Nenshi fought for the accessible lines throughout the entire city. He continuously connected the success of the Green Line with Alberta’s emissions targets and painted a vivid picture of a connected and accessible city.
Above is the newly funded Green Line, in grey is the phase two of the project.
(City of Calgary)
Similarly, Edmonton is also working to promote green transit within the city. Within the past seven years it has improved and built up its LRT system. Currently, the city has 18 stations with two lines (north and south) and more are under construction.
“When I became mayor it wasn't exactly a referendum on LRT, but I certainly had a very strong mandate coming in,” Iveson said. “We had a lot of turnover in our council at that time, and so there were a number of people who came on to council sort of aware that that was something that I was driving very hard. And so in that sense, I didn't have to do too much arm twisting.”
On his personal website, Iveson laid out his plans for the Edmonton LRT in a campaign style blog. He clearly advocated for upper levels of government to assist with the project and promised to only have citizens pay for a third. The results were nothing short of astounding. Between 2015 and 2019, Edmonton received about $2 billion in federal infrastructure funding, the lion’s share for LRT expansion. (Over the same period, Mississauga and Brampton, which together have a much larger population, received about 7 percent of the infrastructure funding Edmonton got from Ottawa.)
Iveson believes transit should not eliminate all traffic, but that vehicles and the LRT can coexist in the city. He wanted to secure funding for the southeast and west lines of the LRT, something which Iveson successfully did shortly after getting elected.
Calgary and Edmonton are both pushing forward with major LRT projects, something Brampton has struggled with, while Mississauga’s Hurontario LRT project has faced setbacks such as the loss of a planned downtown loop.
While construction finally started on Mississauga’s portion of the Hurontario LRT, Brampton is in a perpetual state of delays and wishful planning made chaotic by Brown’s lack of interest in finding a true solution. A goal of the Peel LRT plan was to connect Brampton and Mississauga and create more north-south travel options between the two major cities. Without any sort of concrete plans and funding, the 2015 dream of having a connective LRT into Brampton’s downtown is slowly evaporating.
Renderings of the future LRT in Brampton have been circulating for years.
(City of Brampton)
While Mississauga continues to plan around its LRT, it is far behind the Alberta cities. Just in the past few years Metrolinx made alterations to the original Hurontario LRT project, cutting approximately 2.4 kilometres of track. The selling point of the rapid transit line was how convenient it was going to be, but as parts of the line were altered, trains and stations were cut along with it.
As a direct result, wait times between light rail vehicles at peak time will increase 50 percent.
The LRT is also two years behind schedule. When the $4.6-billion contract was awarded to Mobilinx in 2019, Infrastructure Ontario noted there would be a new delivery date for the completed line. Originally the system was supposed to be up and running by 2022, residents need to wait until 2024, now, assuming no further delays.
Once again, the big difference comes down to leadership. Calgary and Edmonton are steaming ahead with their LRT expansion projects, thanks in large part to Iveson and Nenshi.
Brampton is now trying to decide what to do about its future growth, with Brown, as usual, all over the map, telling environmentalists he supports smart growth, while telling developers he supports their desire for the GTA West Highway and all the sprawling subdivisions it will bring. On one day he votes in support of a climate-change emergency declaration, and the next he pushes more highway construction and sprawl.
Iveson says his reckoning against sprawl occurred more than a decade ago.
“The principle that we were able to unite by and behind was something we call compact infrastructure efficient growth,” he told The Pointer.
The term which the mayor admitted was “jargony” paints a picture of how Edmonton is going to grow and where it will not grow. He does not believe in a hard urban boundary because the topic “is polarizing and really misses the point of prioritizing where you are going to grow.”
The municipality strives to build medium to high density housing for residents in already urban areas. Each district of the city has targets only allowing a certain density of housing to be built in the area.
Even without making a hard urban boundary, the city and its residents understand the benefits of denser communities over time. These communities will likely be on transit lines making commuting easier, and will be more walkable, increasing exercise and time spent outdoors which are both linked to healthier living.
“Even the people in the newest neighborhoods, right on the edge of town or out in the suburban communities kind of know that if we keep doing that [sprawl], that their lifestyle will be unsustainable,” Iveson said.
While all cities strive to create safe, prosperous and inviting communities, they can learn from one another. Nenshi and Iveson leave with impressive track records, knowing their ambitious agendas helped turn around two of Canada’s most dynamic cities.
“If you are going to get stuff done, there is no time to waste,” Iveson said. “The years have gone by and I have few regrets.”
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