10/11/2013 05:26 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Pushing Towards a Deeper Federalism

I've been to a lot of doors this summer. At some point early in the conversation I ask, "Do you follow federal politics?", or some variation on that theme. Some say, "Yes." These are the brave souls who dare, the political junkies who can't help but watch, or the very hardened. Most say, "No." With little deviation, virtually all tell me that what time they're prepared to give over to politics is given to municipal politics.

Much has been said and written over time about the political disengagement of Canadians from federal politics. Certainly it has been suggested that the moments in which it grabs our attention serve to be more discouraging than captivating. Such is the present state of affairs, no doubt -- the House sits dark, Parliament prorogued, our Prime Minister counting on memories fading of a tired, scandal-plagued government limping to the Summer recess last June.

But here in Toronto, it is not as though a different kind of politics, a less ugly form, attracts our gaze and gives us hope. In fact, our Mayor and our Prime Minister took to the field as teammates a couple of weeks ago -- as they occasionally do -- to play a crude game of one-upmanship with billions in public funds, exploiting the deep desire in this city for public transit. (To be sure, a willing participant in this game, in the form of our provincial government, was already suited up and taunting them off the sidelines).

So, clearly, the greater attention to municipal politics is not because it is a source of light or redemption -- at least not in this town. The municipal focus is, I believe, a matter of relevance to my constituents certainly, and to the vast majority of Canadians, I believe.

"This is the moon," an experienced civil servant told a room full of rookie MPs, myself included, shortly after the last election. "Back home in your riding, that's Earth." Perhaps it's always been thus. But clearly, too, successive federal governments have become increasingly remote from the immediate, everyday cares and concerns of the vast majority of Canadians.

They have failed to recognize -- or deliberately ignored -- that we have become an urban nation and the everyday cares and concerns of the vast majority of Canadians -- over eighty percent of us -- have some very immediate connection with the place we live, our city. They're the environments we've built for ourselves to live in. They impact our health. They're responsible for 80 per cent of our greenhouse gas emissions. Cities are where 80 per cent of us work or search for work.

The implications are profound for policy and governance in Canada. Cities have to be not just part of our national project, but central to it. What we want for our country, we must also want for our cities.

We have not, and have never, fully and seriously accounted for this reality in federal politics. When we settled on the division of powers for this country in 1867, only 15 per cent of Canadians lived in Canada's cities. It has been said that poultry in the streets and public drunkenness were the great urban issues of the day. An exaggeration, no doubt, but federally, we still govern to the letter of the Constitution -- or at least that's the excuse for the absence of federal support for the places where most Canadians live. "That's not our responsibility," has been the defense of successive governments, neglecting the habit -- historical and current -- of downloading responsibility (and costs) to, ultimately, the municipal level.

Periodically, federal support has come to where we live. But it is usually cynical, as evidenced by the recent Scarborough (subway stub) transit funding announcement in favour of political friends and in a bid to outmaneuvre political foes. And always, it is the exception.

Our cities have displayed remarkable resilience in the face of federal neglect and gamesmanship. But that resilience is not sustainable. What is presently being exhausted and verging on lost is the potential of our cities; economic, social, and environmental. And Canada is falling short of the country it could be as a result. Capturing that potential is the great opportunity of our country.

What is required is not different government but a different form of governance -- one that recognizes that we have a national interest in the success of our cities. Canada needs a new collaborative and inclusive form of governance -- a deeper federalism. When we catch up to -- and govern to -- this reality, we'll find an urban agenda at the forefront of our national agenda. And then our cities, and the communities therein, will be reconnected with federal politics and Canadians will, I believe, find something more relevant in federal politics again.