Finding the Trolls under Your Bridge: The New Case for Party Politics in Canadian Cities

By Lightbody, James | Journal of Canadian Studies, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Finding the Trolls under Your Bridge: The New Case for Party Politics in Canadian Cities


Lightbody, James, Journal of Canadian Studies


Through the twentieth century, Canadian city politics has operated under the pretense of non-partisanship. Municipal governments have been a refuge for special interests who, garbed in antipartyism and common sense, were left alone to rule their local roosts. For instance, the Civic Non-Partisan Association, Vancouver's dominant political organization and living oxymoron, long espoused the Burkean notion that council "should not be a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests."1 With its recent and massive restructuring of urban government in Ontario however, the government of Premier Mike Harris has rendered Canadians a service: by focussing public attention on "who does what" at both levels of government, Harris inadvertently smoked out almost everyone with a priorized municipal agenda. In spite of its somewhat brutal methods, the Ontario provincial government has provoked a broad rethinking of how local political business should be transacted.

Canadian city politics have yet to mature, either as they might or as their citizens have a right to expect. In the small debate about local democracy and citizen-centred government one obvious question is scarcely considered: should formal parties be introduced into civic elections in Canada's major cities?2 Over the years non-partisanship has veiled a conservative and incrementalist policy-making style that seems inappropriate for postmodern metropolises. That non-partisanship is a conservative force is really not all that surprising. Among the political gladiators in Vancouver, Canada's most overtly partisan city, the most conservative faction has seen the city as a business and somehow independent of politics.3 The Maud Commission in Great Britain found anti-party feeling strongest among rural, suburban and more conservative councillors generally.

In Canada, voter turnout is very low municipally compared to other political levels, perhaps because the issues at stake are obscured by the lack of coherent policy positions. Debates and decisions of local councils are generally understood to be muddled when not petty; this obscures partisan ties to other levels and to avoid quasi-ministerial accountability for the consequences of council actions. In addition to this general concern with appropriate representation, non-partisan local politics has not been benign but inefficient and wrong. When well-educated citizens are denied fundamental opportunities for reasonable democratic choice, as Henry Milner's comparative study has convincingly argued, municipal electoral participation is discouraged.4

There may well be a growing appreciation among the civic political elite of the importance of these issues in big city elections.5 But by the evidence from the playing fields, little partisanship is admitted to in Canadian city politics in the 1990s.6 Even where they have been most successful over the years, Canada's purely local city parties have been very small cadres, often no more than a few dozen activists in the gladiatorial roles. For example, in Edmonton, the Citizens' Committee that held all council seats between 1945 and 1959 was never a large group: "when founded in 1936 it comprised 41 professionals and businessmen led by the president of the chamber of commerce, and at its nomination meeting in 1962 only 27 members were present, including candidates."7 Enough party-like activity, such as slate-making, has taken place during the twentieth century to inform a small debate as to whether such behaviours, or even open party politics are desirable.8

Across the Prairies, the hypocrisy of pretended non-partisanship prevailed in city elections in Regina and Saskatoon in October, 1988. These elections saw Saskatoon Mayor C. Wright retire after being given an Order-in-Council appointment by the provincial Conservatives, to be replaced by 12-year council veteran and New Democrat Henry Dayday. In Regina's march of the political toreadors, new Mayor D. …

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