Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson says the federal parties, other than the Conservatives, have been talking about issues most important to Canada's big cities. Photograph by DARRYL DYCK, THE CANADIAN PRESS

This article was published originally on the Vancouver Sun on October 1, 2015.

Conservative lag on commitments to cities, Gregor Robertson says

By Jeff Lee, October 1, 2015,

Vancouver mayor said other major parties are talking about issues like affordable housing

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson waded into an all-candidates debate on urban issues, saying the federal Conservatives are lagging behind other political parties in making commitments about affordable housing, transit and infrastructure.

In an unusual turn of events, Robertson found himself on the other side of an election panel, asking questions of federal candidates instead of answering them. And he left no question that he thought the NDP, Liberal and Green parties were making better efforts to deal with the issues of federal commitments to housing, transit and infrastructure.

The debate was co-organized by Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue and the City of Vancouver. Robertson, the chair of the Big City Mayors’ Caucus, was invited to co-chair the debate.

On the hot seats were Hedy Fry, the Vancouver Centre Liberal MP; Kennedy Stewart, the NDP candidate for Burnaby South; and Wes Regan, the Green candidate for Vancouver East. In a pattern that is repeating itself at all-candidates meetings across the country, no Conservative candidate agreed to participate.

Shauna Sylvester, the executive director of SFU Public Square and the moderator of Thursday’s debate, told the audience she had made repeated attempts to attract the Conservatives, to no avail. An empty chair, microphone, nameplate and glass of water was left in case the Conservatives relented.

Robertson and other mayors have argued that the rising power of Canada’s cities has fundamentally changed their relationships with Ottawa. He asked the candidates what that partnership should look like.

“We need an important discussion about how our cities factor in Canada’s economy,” he said. “Innovation is the real driver of economic growth here in Vancouver, so any party that is focused on strengthening Canada’s economy has to speak directly to cities and the economies we are building.”

Each of the candidates pledged better relations. Stewart noted that Stephen Harper, the Conservative leader and prime minister, rarely meets with premiers, let alone mayors. That has to change, he said.

“We will create a cabinet committee headed by the prime minister,” he said. “Actual dialogue and understanding with funding to back up the joint decisions that are made.”

Fry said the expired Vancouver Agreement involving Vancouver, the province and the Liberal government of Paul Martin “is a very good example of what equal partnership looks like.”

The candidates were also quizzed by the audience on issues including aboriginal housing, Canada’s commitment on the Syrian refugee crisis and the newly-unveiled concept for the Vancouver Art Gallery. None of the candidates made any commitments to fund the $100 million the gallery is seeking from Ottawa.

Robertson told reporters later that while the NDP, Greens and Liberals all appear to “up their game” in commitments to municipalities, the Conservatives are silent. He said both Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and NDP leader Thomas Mulcair had “repeatedly reached out” to him and other mayors, but Harper had not.

“It has been limited and that has been the pattern across the country. Talking to other mayors, I don’t think anyone has had access to Mr. Harper. But the other leaders have been making themselves available to contact mayors and come to city hall to talk turkey,” Robertson said.

“We have heard clear commitments on housing, transit and infrastructure from the three parties today and they keep elevating their commitments, which is heartening. This election is not over yet and we want to keep the pressure on and give them ample opportunity for further commitments, particularly on affordable housing.”