HALIFAX — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau touted co-operation in a speech before Canada's municipal leaders in Halifax on Friday, although he offered nothing new to address their concerns.
The country's big city mayors have made a wish list that includes funding for affordable housing, climate change and new revenue tools ahead of next year's federal election.
But instead of offering specifics in those areas, Trudeau stuck to broad themes, telling delegates at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities annual conference that they are "essential partners" in shaping Canada.
"The federal and provincial governments not only need to have a good understanding what's happening on the ground in our cities and towns, we also need to be willing and ready to help implement solutions," he said.
He said his government doesn't believe in an "Ottawa-knows-best approach," and respects local leadership.
To that end, Trudeau said his government has made significant financial commitments in areas important to municipalities, including infrastructure and child care.
Trudeau's plan is far-reaching
He also pointed to its $231-million commitment in tackling the opioid crisis, saying the money would "remove barriers to life-saving treatment and strengthen our borders."
"At the core of these examples lies a common rationale: strong, resilient communities are the heart and soul of this country," he said. "And in order to keep it that way, we need to invest our time and effort into growing and bettering the places that people call home."
Trudeau also mentioned the $40-billion National Housing Strategy announced last November, calling it "a blueprint for the future of Canadian housing."
He said consultations have also been ongoing with various levels of government on addressing gaps in the current homelessness strategy. As a result, he said Employment and Social Development Canada will release the federal government's new plan "very soon."
"By listening to people with lived experience and taking a data-driven approach, we're confident that, in the next decade, we can reduce chronic homelessness in this country by a full 50%," Trudeau said.
The prime minister was briefly interrupted by protester Robin Tress, who blew a whistle and carried a sign that read "Blowing the whistle on Kinder Morgan."
Tress, of the Council of Canadians, was quickly escorted away, but Trudeau made note of her interruption.
"It's the people of Canada who we work for and it's the people of Canada who we serve," he told delegates. "I know you take that responsibility seriously as do I, and whether we agree or not we are going to keep talking and we are going to keep listening."
In an interview following the speech, Tress said she felt compelled to take her message to Trudeau on the Liberal government's $4.5 billion plan to buy Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline.
"There are many ways to participate in our democracy and one of them is by protesting unwise decisions made by our governments," said Tress. "People have been telling him for years that they don't want this pipeline ... and he hasn't been listening."
Andrew Scheer, the leader of the Conservative Party, also delivered some criticism of the Liberal government in a speech before the delegates.
He told the municipal politicians they hadn't seen solid results so far from the infrastructure projects the Trudeau government had promised in the last election campaign.
"They said they would inject tens of billions of dollars into new infrastructure projects and that was the justification for going into deficit," he told the delegates.
"Where are we today? The deficits are much, much bigger than they said they would be ... but they haven't produced meaningful results."
Scheer also said his government would emphasize local decision-making, rather than keeping infrastructure spending closely under the control of federal bureaucrats.
"The Conservative approach will be to empower local decision-makers and ensure they have the resources they need to do their job."Andrew Scheer
He cited Ottawa's handling of disaster relief in his riding of Regina-Qu'Appelle.
Scheer said municipal authorities asked for flexibility on where to rebuild part of the town's water system after flooding, but federal officials said it had to be rebuilt where it was.
"The Conservative approach will be to empower local decision-makers and ensure they have the resources they need to do their job," said Scheer during his speech.
He also criticized the Liberals' proposed Canada Infrastructure Bank, whose new chief executive recently announced it will be nine to 18 months before its first announcement.
The Conservative leader noted this was the latest delay in the rollout of the plan, and said it's not a good model because it leaves taxpayers with the risk while profits are guaranteed to private corporations who partner with the bank.