Harper treating municipalities like “provincial creatures”: Ignatieff 

Liberal leader draws a crowd of municipal leaders

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The federal government is treating municipalities like "creatures of the provinces," Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff said at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) conference Sunday.

Ignatieff, Leader of the Official Opposition, was delivering a keynote speech in which he touched on the importance of municipalities to Confederation and took pointed shots at Stephen Harper's approach to dealing with local governments.

"Three years ago at your meeting in Montreal, the Prime Minister Mr. Harper told you that his government would deal directly with the provinces and that's it," he said. "He described you basically as creatures of the provinces. I think we need a better way to do things.

"My basic vision of our federation is clear. We are equal orders of government working together for the benefit of all Canadians."

Ignatieff's speech came on the last day of a forum for Canada's biggest municipal lobbying organization. The conference drew approximately 1,700 delegates to the Telus Conference Centre - the most Whistler has ever hosted for a conference.

Ignatieff went on to say that municipalities should never be seen as "whiners" and "pot-hole fillers" and that they are the first responders of Confederation.

"If you're going to be a good federal party, you can't just pass our problems on to (local governments)," he said. "We have to give municipal governments a seat at the table. I'm already trying to practice what I preach. I don't go anywhere in Canada, anywhere, unless I sit down and talk to mayors and municipal councillors as part of every visit I make."

Ignatieff's assessment of the Prime Minister's attitude toward municipalities was accurate, according to Whistler Mayor Ken Melamed.

"The federal government does not have a strong relationship with municipal governments," he said. "We have spent, as an organization, years investing time and energy, capital resources, personal capital into building relationships with Ottawa to put municipal interests on their radar.

"Basically we felt like the door had been slammed in our face when the Conservatives got elected, and frankly not much has changed since then."

Melamed went on to say that municipal politicians do some of the most important work in the country on behalf of residents and that they're "continually marginalized" by higher powers. He noted that 52 per cent of gross sales tax (GST) revenues go to the federal government, 40 per cent to the provincial governments and just eight per cent to municipal governments.

As a comparison Melamed brought up the example of Sweden, where he said 70 per cent of all tax revenues go to municipal governments.

"That has to be a clear message because the Swedes have one of the highest standards of living, the most successful economies on the planet," he said. "There's a business case to invest more money at the municipal level. But our governments are loath to give up any of that tax room and they're loath to share any of their power, control or wealth."

Pemberton Mayor Jordan Sturdy, meanwhile, expressed an attitude far different from anything that Ignatieff or Melamed said. He said the Village of Pemberton has a good working relationship with MP and Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl and that he's been open and responsive to the community's concerns.

Sturdy admitted, however, that there are challenges when working with different levels of government and their funding programs.

"Our last go-around here with our well application, for our new well, I recall specifically that Minister Strahl and (provincial MLA Joan) McIntyre came up and made an announcement December 18 and it was pretty much September before the money came in the door," he said.

"(This) was particularly problematic because it brought us into a construction window which ran through the winter, which raised our costs. I think it has been recognized by the federal government that this kind of delay is not acceptable, that it raises costs and delays projects."

West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky MP John Weston, a Conservative himself, said Ignatieff is doing his job as leader of the opposition but said that money is certainly flowing to his riding - specifically $1.1 million he's announced for infrastructure projects in recent months.

"I think we're in a new era," he said. "I would say given the challenge of the economic recession that we're facing globally, the response to deal with that effectively is to communicate clearly and to cooperate effectively and so there's excellent communication between my office and between the Sea to Sky municipalities."

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