Canadian cities ‘not gatekeepers’: Head of mayors’ group pushes back on Poilievre

Canada's municipal governments emphasized that mayors are community builders, not gatekeepers, countering the language frequently employed by Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre to criticize city leaders.

Scott Pearce, president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, speaks alongside Halifax Mayor Mike Savage as they hold a press conference during the Big City Mayors’ Caucus in Ottawa on Monday, Feb. 26, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Mayors are community builders, not gatekeepers, Canada’s municipal governments said February 26 as their spokesman pushed back against language Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre often uses to attack city leaders.

Scott Pearce, president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, was speaking at a news conference in Ottawa ahead of the spring budget to call on the federal government for more infrastructure money.

When asked about Poilievre’s proposed housing plan, Pearce appeared to reject the Conservative leader’s oft-levelled accusation that cities are the ones standing in the way of building more homes.

“Canadian mayors are not gatekeepers, we’re community builders. And I don’t build houses, developers build houses,” said Pearce. “So when the interest rates are at what they are, it’s more difficult to have builders build.”

Poilievre has been riding a wave of support since the summer as he focuses his message on affordability and housing. He often rails against “gatekeepers” in cities he says are snarled in red tape, high fees and delays.

Regardless of who is in power federally, municipalities will need more infrastructure spending to ramp up home construction, said Pearce, the mayor of the central Quebec township of Gore.

“Whether it’s Mr. Poilievre (or) Mr. Trudeau, whoever the government is, the infrastructure funding is the most important thing if we’re going to be successful in building the 5.8 million houses we need.”

The federation is open to working with all parties, added Halifax Mayor Mike Savage, the current chair of the group known as the Big City Mayors’ Caucus.

In a statement, a spokesman for Poilievre said Conservatives would reward those who get homes built and punish those who do not.

“If gatekeeper mayors have hurt feelings they should look to the hurt they and Justin Trudeau have caused for their communities,” said Sebastian Skamski.

“Only common sense Conservatives will build the homes and turn Trudeau’s hurt into the hope that Canadians need.”

The Canada Housing and Mortgage Corp. estimates Canada needs to build 5.8 million homes by 2030 to restore affordability, a goal that economists at CMHC have conceded will be very difficult to achieve.

Municipalities have been warning that their communities can’t build enough homes to match population growth without more money for things like water infrastructure and roads.

The federation estimates every new home built requires $107,000 in infrastructure, on average.

Pearce said it’s time for the federal government and provincial and territorial governments to stop fighting over jurisdiction and instead work on getting municipalities the funding they need.

“At this point, it’s almost like Mom and Dad are fighting and the kids are in the basement, starving,” he said.

“The municipalities are crying for help … because we can’t continue the way we are without infrastructure money.”

In a statement to The Canadian Press, a spokesman for Housing Minister Sean Fraser outlined the tens of billions of dollars the Liberal government has spent on infrastructure since 2015.

“However, we know that there is more to do, and we must use all of the tools available to us to solve the housing crisis,” said Micaal Ahmed.

Ahmed said the Canada Infrastructure Bank, a federal Crown corporation, is exploring how to use its capital to invest in infrastructure that supports housing.

“We will be sharing more details on this shortly,” he said.

As for Poilievre, his housing plan says Conservative government would withhold transit and infrastructure money from cities “until sufficient high-density housing around transit stations is built and occupied.”

He’s also promised to tie federal dollars to the rate of home building and withhold funding from cities that fail to ramp up construction by 15 per cent each year.

Savage said big cities “don’t have a problem” with the 15 per cent target.

“And in fact, through the housing accelerator fund, we’ve committed to incremental building that’s probably more than 15 per cent,” he said. “We want housing for all people, and we’re willing partners.”

Meanwhile, the Liberals have offered funding through their housing accelerator fund in exchange for a suite of changes to local bylaws and regulations that aim to increase home construction.

Poilievre has blasted the $4-billion fund, saying that it funnels money to the same gatekeepers who are contributing to the bottleneck.

The Conservative leader has also singled out mayors and municipalities for their track records on housing, a tactic that has led to friction with some local governments.

Last month, Poilievre took aim at the mayors of Quebec’s two largest cities, calling the local leaders “incompetent” and accusing them of blocking construction projects.

In response, Quebec City Mayor Bruno Marchand accused the Conservative leader of playing “petty politics” and expressing “contempt for elected officials (and) for all those who work on housing issues in our city.”

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante said Poilievre misunderstood municipal financing in Quebec.

And earlier this month, Pointe-Claire Mayor Tim Thomas hit back at Poilievre after the Tory leader accused the municipality of blocking a housing project from moving ahead.

In a post on Facebook, Thomas said, “there are some facts (Poilievre) may not be aware of,” as he defended the municipality’s record on housing.

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