Canada’s Prairie Cities Step Up

Calgary, Caffe Rosso.jpg

Traditionally, the discussion of Canadian urban issues focussed almost exclusively on the Big Three cities: Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal, with the occasional nod to Ottawa. Calgary, Winnipeg, and Regina were generally only mentioned as punchlines, and, until recently, no one in urban Canada really knew what was going on in Edmonton other than that they had a winning hockey team in the '80s and a really big mall. Saskatoon, which Joni Mitchell famously escaped as soon as she could, hasn’t historically been on anyone’s radar, and Regina is scarcely mentioned outside the context of football. It’s not surprising that many Prairie residents are defensive or bashful about their cities, given the PR they’ve gotten over the years. But from an outsider perspective, now is a very good time to live on the Prairies.

With Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, and Saskatoon perennially vying for the title of fastest growing Canadian city, and with Winnipeg in the early stages of an urban renaissance, it’s getting harder to ignore Canada’s Prairie cities. The narrative is shifting. The election of young, urbane, and pragmatic mayors in Calgary, Edmonton, and Winnipeg has put the spotlight on these once ignored cities.

Naheed Nenshi, a Harvard-educated McKinsey consultant turned university instructor, was improbably elected Mayor of Calgary in a 2010 landslide victory. His quick wit and social media savvy have made him a darling of Canadian urbanists. He was recently short-listed for the World Mayor Prize. Regardless of what one thinks of his policy agenda, he is a good ambassador for the city.

Not to be outdone, Edmonton elected 34-year-old city councillor and self-proclaimed nerd Don Iveson as mayor in 2013. Iveson recently made headlines for showing up at a comic expo in full Star Trek attire. His nerd-chic appeal has resonated with a cohort of young Edmontonians who feel that the city’s creative community gets short shrift. He, like Nenshi, is thought of as a smart, moderate mayor, an image that flies in the face of the redneck Albertan stereotype that hasn’t been an accurate representation of either of these Alberta cities for quite some time.

Winnipeg has followed suit, electing privacy lawyer Brian Bowman as mayor. The 43-year-old has chaired both the Winnipeg Art Gallery and the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce. Like Nenshi and Iveson, Bowman was elected with a diverse support base, including the business and arts communities. Being of Metis descent, he is also considered to be in a strong position to address some of the challenges facing the city’s large, indigenous population.

The three mayors have more in common than belonging to roughly the same age cohort. All three are seen as moderates, and all have had some minor political experience but aren’t identified strongly with any political party. Each grew up in his respective city. Their biographies underscore an often overlooked advantage of Prairie cities: opportunities for economic mobility.

As Canada’s Big Three cities get more expensive, Prairie cities are becoming increasingly attractive to recent graduates and early career professionals. Relatively affordable rents and tighter labour markets make them bargains, relative to Toronto or Vancouver. Tighter labour markets combined with the general default instinct among young professionals and graduates to move to Toronto or Vancouver mean that Prairie cities are a good place to get from the bottom to the middle in one’s industry. While there is a ceiling – the best paid financial sector employees will be in Toronto for the foreseeable future – there is less competition. Being able to live in the most attractive urban neighbourhoods for less than the cost of living in generally undesirable Toronto neighbourhoods, or being able to buy a house for a fraction of the sale price in Vancouver, sweetens the deal.

Prairie cities are also a great place to take a chance. Lower rents mean that someone who wants to open a business needs to accumulate less capital and borrow less money than he or she would in a bigger city. That makes opening a restaurant or founding a start-up a less risky proposition. The same goes for aspiring artists. Relatively cheap gallery space makes it much easier to display one’s work. Whereas it might take family connections or years of networking to get on the board of a non-profit in Toronto or Vancouver, opportunities abound on the Prairies.

In the world of politics, contrast Nenshi, Iveson, and Bowman, all from fairly ordinary families, with the winner of the last Toronto election.

Toronto’s new mayor, John Tory, was born to the founder of the prestigious law firm Torys LLP. Tory was given his start in business at telecom giant Rogers by family friend Ted Rogers, the son of Rogers founder Edward Rogers, and went on to later run Rogers. His career also included running the Canadian Football League, making partner at the family firm, serving as principle secretary to former Premier of Ontario Bill Davis, chairing the campaign of former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, and leading the official opposition in the Ontario legislature. In short, John Tory is the epitome of the Canadian establishment. His chief opponents weren’t exactly political novices either.

Could Nenshi, Iveson, or Bowman have plausibly become the Mayor of Toronto? The answer is likely no. While some might argue that the level of political competition is necessarily higher in Toronto, the bigger reason is that the entrenched political and business elites in the three major cities have more clout than their Prairie counterparts.

Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, and Saskatoon are dominated by new money. While Winnipeg has some influential legacy families, the political barriers to entry are generally much lower than they are in Toronto. A person of Bowman’s upbringing would have had an exceedingly difficult time becoming chair of the Chamber of Commerce in Toronto. An academic City Hall gadfly like Nenshi wouldn’t have a chance, even if he considered making a run for Mayor of Toronto. And someone as young as Iveson would have a hard time getting elected as a city councillor in Toronto, let alone as mayor. That isn’t meant to take away from them in the least. It is merely a recognition that the political system in Toronto is much more elite-driven.

The combination of affordability, opportunity, and economic mobility presents a major opportunity for Canadian Prairies cities. Lower political barriers to entry can facilitate more responsive local governments. Relative isolation can help to spawn innovation of necessity. And upward mobility can help lure young talent from across the county.

Cynically – or optimistically, depending on one’s view – none of these young mayors has a great deal of power to bend the trajectory of their cities. Mayors are merely single votes on councils, and even city councils are only one of many actors that shape these respective cities. Arguably the most important thing that mayors can do is serve as good ambassadors for their cities. The first step is to convince residents of the reality that things are going pretty well, and even better times lay ahead. The rest of the world won’t believe in Prairie cities until their own residents do. Civic pride is contagious.

So far Nenshi has been an exceptional civic booster, and Iveson appears to be on that trajectory, too. Bowman seems keen on following in their footsteps. Hopefully, mayors and councillors in the rest of the Prairie cities can do the same. Prairie cities are having a moment, and that moment could potentially be a very long and a very good one.

Steve Lafleur is the Assistant Director of Research for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. He currently lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and has lived in every major Prairie city with the exception of Saskatoon.

Flickr Photo by Elsie, Calgary Reviews: A chai latte at Caffe Rosso, Calgary


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Toronto mayors?

"An academic City Hall gadfly like Nenshi wouldn’t have a chance, even if he considered making a run for Mayor of Toronto."

Instead, Toronto only elects button-down, establishment-type mayors such as Rob Ford.

Had to cut out my explanation for length

Ford isn't the everyman he's portrayed as. His father was a member of provincial parliament who started a successful business. Rob essentially became the official opposition as city hall. The official opposition is still part of the establishment. Like Lastman, he was a suburban elite in his own way.