By Amy Oldfield
The city of Ottawa is massive. Amalgamation has made the city so bloated that it’s difficult for a progressive candidate to win the mayoral seat — as we saw in last fall’s election — even with the strong support of the central wards of downtown Ottawa. This problem compounds disastrously as Doug Ford passes bills that divert power away from city councils into the hands of “strong mayors.”
Just how big is Ottawa? A graphic created by the city shows that the cities of Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver could all fit together inside the Ottawa municipal boundary.
This wasn’t always the case — the city looked very different before amalgamation in 2001. Under Mike Harris, former leader of the Progressive Conservatives, the old city of Ottawa was combined with the municipalities of Vanier, Nepean, Kanata, Gloucester, and Cumberland — as well as the townships of Rideau, West Carleton, Goulbourn, and Osgoode and the village of Rockcliffe Park. Before amalgamation, these 11 local governments all operated independently, while coordinating shared services — transit, waste and water management, etc. — through a body called the Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton.
By rolling all these municipal governments into one, Harris’ Conservatives promised amalgamation would make local government simpler and more efficient, reducing the number of politicians and lowering taxes. Though these savings never materialized, we continue to live with the political consequences of amalgamation.
In the most recent municipal election, Mark Sutcliffe and Catherine McKenney vied to become mayor of the sprawling city. Sutcliffe’s support came, by and large, from the suburbs and rural villages that joined the city in 2001, while progressive candidate Catherine McKenney swept all five of the central city wards. Of the 62,850 votes cast in the five urban wards, McKenney won 38,354 (61%) to Sutcliffe’s 19,876 (31.6%). Across the full slate of 24 urban, suburban, and rural wards, however, Sutcliffe earned 51.4% of the vote — beating McKenney, who only garnered 37.9%.
The vote breakdown mimics a map of the city of Ottawa before amalgamation — after the election, voters took to Twitter to demonstrate this. First, Michael Buettel created a map showing the margin of victory by wards.
Then, using Buettel’s map, Earl Washburn overlaid a map of the city of Ottawa boundaries pre-amalgamation. (Neighbourhoods won by McKenney are again in blue and Sutcliffe in green, with the heavy black lines showing the pre-amalgamation boundaries)
These maps visualize a fact that many progressives bemoan: McKenney would have won the mayoral election if the old City of Ottawa boundaries were still in place. This is a point of tension in Ottawa municipal politics: the interests of downtown residents are often in conflict with the goals of suburbanites — and, in a sprawling city, the five centre wards don’t have the numbers to compete with the outer nineteen.
Different wards, different priorities
The mayoral candidates had conflicting priorities, which often reflected the priorities of the wards that voted for them.
Transportation was a particularly divisive plank in the candidates’ platforms. If elected, McKenney said they would freeze transit fares, introduce free transit for youth ages 17 and under, and increase transit operations by 20% over the next four years. They also pledged to make Ottawa a “world class city for cycling” and told CTV News they would use a $250-million green bond to build 25 years’ worth of bike infrastructure in 4 years.
Sutcliffe criticized McKenney’s free transit plan, arguing that this service would cause as much as a 10% increase in property taxes. Instead, he said he would focus on improving road quality and safety for drivers. He planned to increase road maintenance and winter clearing budgets by $100 million over 4 years, create a “pothole-line” for residents to report damage on their streets, and double the traffic calming budget per ward.
The candidates also had divergent views on community safety. The first bullet point in Sutcliffe’s official campaign priorities under the category of “a safer Ottawa” stated he would “Not defund the police.” He also said he would prioritize resources for the Ottawa police to focus on “vehicle-related crimes, including theft, stunt driving and speed racing, which continue to be major problems in our suburbs.” The co-chair of Sutcliffe’s campaign, Eli El-Chantiry, is the current chair of the Ottawa Police Services Board. Sutcliffe was also the only mayoral candidate who was in favour of naming a new police chief before the next council term.
The Ottawa Police Association (OPA) did not endorse a candidate. In a statement read by interim president Brian Samuel, they said this was because “our members respect the democratic process.” They did, however, single out McKenney for “policy decisions and public statements that must be denounced.” The OPA criticized McKenney for supporting council decisions that would “defund police.”
This isn’t exactly true. In 2020, as councillor for Somerset Ward, McKenney and councillor Shawn Menard proposed limiting police budget increases to 1.5% and redirecting the estimated 4-million-dollar difference to public health.
Consequences of a suburban- elected mayor? More suburbs
Another difference in the two candidates’ plans was their attitudes towards urban sprawl and new developments. Sutcliffe said he would prioritize road infrastructure supporting growth in new neighbourhoods, while McKenney said they would aim to prevent sprawl from developing agricultural land and maintain the current urban boundary. Sutcliffe criticized McKenney in a news release for voting against an expansion of the urban boundary in 2020, saying they voted against a “council plan to build 23,000 new homes.
To tackle the housing crisis, McKenney instead favoured eliminating R1 zoning, which limits residential areas to single family homes. In its report, the Ontario Housing Affordability Task Force found that “about half of all residential land in Ottawa is zoned for single-detached housing.” The Ottawa Citizen reported that in 2021, 44% of the land parcels in Ottawa suburbs were R1 zoned, as were 31% of land parcels in the inner urban area, and 63% in the outer urban area (inside the greenbelt). Downtown, just 2% had R1 zoning.
Sutcliffe told the Ottawa Citizen that eliminating R1 zoning altogether was “an overly simplistic answer.”
To solve the housing crisis, then, Sutcliffe seems to favour sprawl over intensification — new suburban development served by car, instead of urban densification served by public transit. In this, Sutcliffe seems to be marching in lockstep with the province, which is forcing sprawl on cities.
In Hamilton, the provincial government is forcing an expansion of the city’s urban boundary, overriding the city council that voted 13-3 to reject an expansion of the boundary. The 2021 council vote took into consideration the results of a survey commissioned by the City of Hamilton, which found that 90% of residents opposed an urban boundary extension.
Similarly, the minister of municipal affairs and housing amended Ottawa’s Official Plan last November to expand Ottawa’s urban boundary by 654 hectares. This expansion is not open to appeal. This is a 50% increase to the 1281-hectare expansion that the city council approved in May 2020. Former mayor Jim Watson said, “This is going to create more urban sprawl. It’s going to be expensive for taxpayers,” CBC News reported.
In Ontario, sprawl often means cutting into public greenspace. Ford’s Bill 23, the More Homes Built Faster Act, would cut 7,400 acres from the Ontario Greenbelt to be designated for housing development in Southern Ontario’s Greater Golden Horseshoe. The bill would also reduce the powers of conservation authorities across the province, giving them less of a say in the development approval process.
This move contradicts the recommendation of the Ford-appointed Housing Affordability Task Force. “Most of the solution must come from densification,” the Task Force wrote in its official report, “Greenbelts and other environmentally sensitive areas must be protected, and farms provide food and food security. Relying too heavily on undeveloped land would whittle away too much of the already small share of land devoted to agriculture.”
Looking at suburbs and new developments to solve the housing crisis also has economic implications for the city. Civil engineer and city planner Charles Marohn argues that suburban developments operate like a “Ponzi scheme” that negatively contributes to cities’ overall wealth and well-being. In an article for his organization Strong Towns, he writes: “What we have found is that the underlying financing mechanisms of the suburban era—our post-World War II pattern of development—operates like a classic Ponzi scheme, with ever-increasing rates of growth necessary to sustain long-term liabilities.”
The upshot of all this is that poor urban neighbourhoods end up subsidizing wealthy suburban neighbourhoods.
One reason for this, Marohn says, is that the revenue collected from suburbs is not enough to cover the costs of maintaining the outsize infrastructure they require. He gives an example from his hometown Brainerd, Minnesota. He calculated that an “old and blighted” block in Brainerd with several street-facing small businesses — a traditional “main street” fallen on hard times — generated 41% more taxable value than a nearby “shiny and new” redeveloped block with a new fast food franchise and ample parking.
This held true for residential streets as well. Marohn found that higher property taxes from single family homes did not make up for the cost of infrastructure in new developments. He writes, “The reason we have this gap is because the public yield from the suburban development pattern—the amount of tax revenue obtained per increment of liability assumed—is ridiculously low.”
This means property taxes from the rest of the city need to fill in this gap. The upshot of all this is that poor urban neighbourhoods end up subsidizing wealthy suburban neighbourhoods.
Amalgamation is contentious, but unlikely to be reversed
If amalgamation gave urban Ottawa a raw deal — from having to subsidize the suburbs to having less say in its own neighbourhoods — that doesn’t mean we can put the genie back in the bottle. Some have tried. In 2009, Clive Doucet, then the councillor of Capital Ward told CBC News that the city should re-evaluate amalgamation and hold a referendum on it. A promise to re-evaluate amalgamation was part of his failed bid to become mayor in 2010. (This promise disappeared by the time Doucet ran for mayor again in 2018, though he still spoke of measures to increase local autonomy.)
On a parallel track in 2010, some councillors told the Ottawa Citizen that a borough system might solve some of the problems caused by amalgamation by devolving certain powers to a more local level than city council. Jim Watson proposed introducing four boroughs when he successfully ran for mayor that year, where boroughs would be governed by small groups of elected community representatives that would have jurisdiction over local issues.
At the time former Rideau-Goulbourn councillor Glenn Brooks said, in favour of the borough system: “communities ought to govern communities on local issues.” Former Somerset councillor Diane Holmes commented: “If people were delighted with amalgamation, we wouldn’t be talking about a borough system. Certainly my residents are becoming more and more unhappy about the lack of resources going into the downtown wards.”
Former Kanata North councillor Marianne Wilkinson, also the mayor of Kanata from 1978-1985, supported the idea of a borough system. Wilkinson told the Ottawa Citizen that up until her retirement in 2018, some Kanata residents would still ask her “When can we get our city back?”
Nothing ever came of these proposals, however, and amalgamation has since limped on and become the new normal, even as its flaws have become more apparent.
Though Ottawa’s 2001 amalgamation was a Progressive Conservative project, in 2015 conservative think-tank the Fraser Institute published a study that found amalgamation did not deliver what it promised. Authors Lydia Miljan and Zachary Spicer wrote, “A vast amount of research has found that consolidation fails to produce promised cost savings, rarely leads to more efficient service delivery, and reduces the ability of citizens to be involved in the life of their local governments.” Still, the current PC provincial government does not seem likely to reverse it.
In fact, the Ford government seems to be moving in the opposite direction by diverting power away from local city councillors to city-wide mayors. Amalgamation watered down the democratic power of the municipal government by making it more difficult for communities (particularly urban and rural wards) to elect a mayor that represents their interests. Yet city council at least served as a check and balance on mayoral power, since each ward elects their own councillor. But two bills passed by the PC provincial government in 2022 will further weaken the city council and concentrate power in the hands of the mayor.
Bill 3, the Strong Mayors, Building Homes Act, allows the mayor to veto bylaws if they believe the bylaw could “potentially interfere with a prescribed provincial priority.” While the city council can veto this decision with a two thirds majority vote, the mayor is a voting member in this decision. This decision cannot be overturned by any court “because of the unreasonableness, or supposed unreasonableness, of the decision.”
Additionally, the bill gives the mayor more control of the city budget, allowing them to single-handedly prepare the budget and then present it to the city council. To make any amendments to the proposed budget, the council must pass a resolution — which the mayor can veto. Bill 3 also allows the mayor to appoint and dismiss chairs and vice-chairs of local boards and establish or dissolve committees.
These “strong mayor” powers achieve the same objective as amalgamation did in 2001: devolving local decision-making power and reducing the number of decision makers.
Bill 39, the Better Municipal Governance Act, allows the mayor to force a by-law through city council with only one third of the council’s support, if the mayor is “of the opinion that a by-law could potentially advance a prescribed provincial priority.” For now, the “provincial priority” is housing, but Housing Minister Steve Clark told CTV News that this could change.
These bills, and the “strong mayor” powers they create, achieve the same objective as amalgamation did in 2001: devolving local decision-making power and reducing the number of decision makers.
In a sprawling city, where urban wards are outnumbered by suburban and rural wards, a mayoral candidate must cater to the outer reaches of the city to win. It isn’t surprising that Sutcliffe swept the suburbs, as his platform focused on issues that concerned suburban voters. Although McKenney was the preferred candidate of the city center — essentially pre-amalgamation Ottawa — they couldn’t compete.
That said, by carving up farmland and greenspace for suburban developments, has Ford created a potential wedge between suburban and rural voters? If progressives want to make change, they will need the support of rural wards — or to set their sights on the provincial government.