Capital, the window through which the world peers into one’s country…

                  — Beth Moore Milroy, Canadian urbanist

Canada has one of the most difficult federal capitals to govern. As Donald Rowat noted, “Canada’s constitution grants the power over local government to the provinces … and the control over Ottawa’s metropolitan area is split between two provinces (with different majority languages and legal systems) … Legally, the federal government has no control over its own capital area.”1

This has not prevented the federal government from the late 1960s on from formally regarding the cities on both sides of the Ottawa River and their surrounding areas as “the National Capital Region.” It has invested massively in the construction of federal buildings on the Quebec side of the river, and has planned to direct 25 per cent of its new office space there.

What has not been established is a governance structure of this de facto federal capital region that would ensure the required degree of coordination among the urban/rural agglomerations on both sides of the river and the various federal authorities. Federal and provincial governments have refused to give serious consideration to the idea of a federal district, and the population, when consulted, has been divided on this question. As a result a baroque polycentric governance structure has emerged, composed of a Crown corporation (the National Capital Commission or NCC), diverse federal departments and the administrations of the two cities and of surrounding areas, along with the provincial governments of Quebec and Ontario.

A mandate review of the National Capital Commission in 2006 proposed an enhanced status for the NCC (to become an agent of Parliament), a sharper focus on planning, a refurbished toolbox (so as to make the NCC into the Grand Coordinator of the federal presence in the area) and new rules calling for greater openness, greater involvement of the partners, a reformed board of directors and the development of a culture of consensus.2 Some changes along these lines have taken place, but unfortunately the governance problem is still not resolved. The federal government still has no direct control over its own capital, and the extreme timidity of the NCC in exercising its mandate is largely the result of the open hostility of certain “partners” to any form of collaboration.

What is local and what is national?

The main challenge facing the federal capital region is that it serves many quite different constituencies: various local populations as well as the Canadian citizenry as a whole. In an ideal world, it would be possible to separate cleanly the local goods and services provided for the benefit of the local populations from the federal goods and services provided for the benefit of all Canadians at home and abroad. In the real world, trying to do so is fraught with disputes.

A useful approach is to identify, at least notionally, three categories of public goods and services: (A) those that are routinely provided by localities to their inhabitants (for example water, sewers, refuse collection, snow removal and social services), (B) those that are provided exclusively for the benefit of Canadians at large, either domestically or in dealing with the external world (for example national security, bureaucratic services to Canadians abroad and diplomatic services) and (C) those that serve both purposes to some degree (for example national ceremonies that aim at forging national symbols and boosting national pride but that entail local benefits, from tourism and the like, or costs in the form of impediments to local activities and services).

Such a partitioning would have to be negotiated by the NCC and its local partners, and would require some accommodation. However, if the NCC were mandated to shoulder these responsibilities and thus seriously to take on this overall negotiating task, it should be possible to arrive at a workable arrangement that is technically feasible, socially acceptable and not too politically destabilizing. Concretely, this would mean that “A” goods and services would be entirely left to the responsibility of local governments, “B” goods and services would be funded by the federal government and “C” goods and services would be the subject of specific financial arrangements (conditional grants from the federal government, cost-sharing based on the degree of the “national interest” or adjustments to be taken into account in establishing payments to the municipalities from the federal government in lieu of property tax).

Fixing the NCC’s mandate

Governance is defined as effective coordination when power, resources and information are in many hands. In the National Capital Region there are many different groups of stakeholders at the federal, provincial and local levels, each one with a portion of the relevant information, power and resources. So a simple two-tiered (federal and local) arrangement would poorly accommodate the multiple relationships of these stakeholders with one another and with the other affected entities (the other parts of the federal government, eastern Ontario, western Quebec, Ottawa-Gatineau, etc.).

The panel reviewing the NCC mandate in 2006 (after a six-month study period and extensive consultations with a wide variety of stakeholders) made a number of recommendations in its report aimed at renewing the governance of the National Capital Region:

  • The role of the NCC should be enhanced to oversee the federal government’s policy of assuring a 75/25 Ontario/Quebec ratio of federal employment and investment in the National Capital Region, and to coordinate interprovincial and federal government transportation initiatives on both sides of the Ottawa River.
  • The plan for Canada’s capital should be tabled with the Standing Joint Committee of the House of Commons and Senate on the Library of Parliament and approved by Parliament, in order to enhance the legitimacy of the NCC and its interventions and thus the credibility of its definition of national interests in the accommodations required from the various partners.
  • A Federal Council for the federal capital region (or some such instrument) should be created to ensure the interdepartmental coordination absent in the activities, operations and responsibilities of federal agencies in the region. Such a federal council (to be added to the 13 Regional Federal Councils for the 13 provinces and territories of Canada) should be composed of the senior officials of the federal departments and agencies in the National Capital Region so as to allow the Treasury Board Secretariat that coordinates the work of the other 13 to better grasp the specific problems of the federal capital region.
  • A troika composed of the mayors of Ottawa and Gatineau and the chair of the NCC (with additional stakeholders invited as required) should meet quarterly to coordinate activities and priorities3 and facilitate discussion of all issues of common concern as well as nurture the commitment needed for collaboration.
  • A municipal consultative committee of senior officials from the NCC, the city of Ottawa, the city of Gatineau and the Municipalité Régionale de Comté (MRC) des Collines-de-l’Outaouais should be established to meet quarterly to act as problem-solving working group open to the full participation of the other local partners on any relevant issue.
  • A quinquennial roundtable of all the relevant stakeholders (similar to the current practice at Parks Canada) should be convened to ensure that the evolving plans and activities in the National Capital Region are discussed and critically appraised by all those in a position to do so. The results of the deliberations of the advisory committees of the NCC (Planning, Design and Architecture; Environmental and Assets Management; Parliamentary Precinct, Official Residences and Heritage Buildings; and Celebration, Commemoration and Promotion) could thus be usefully communicated to this broader community and Canada-wide feedback sought.
The missing link: Federal-provincial partnership

However elaborate the structures suggested above might appear, they will not in themselves suffice to ensure effective collaborative governance for they do not give a sufficient place to a few other stakeholders that need to be brought to the table – in particular the governments of Ontario and Quebec, which have constitutional authority on portions of the territory of the federal capital region. Their interests – financial, jurisdictional, ideological, etc. – in the federal capital region are quite important and diverse.

There are many issues that could not readily be resolved by the existing structures (such as interprovincial bridges, transport infrastructures, rules and regulations to simplify life in the National Capital Region transborder community). A tripartite negotiating committee with representation from the governments of Canada, Ontario and Quebec, set up to meet annually to find ways to eliminate federal-provincial blockages and irritants, would facilitate resolution of such matters.

This will take time (as it did in the case of mutual arrangements for the interprovincial circulation of construction workers within the federal capital region), but the process should generate a set of precedents that would make these issues easier to resolve in the long term. Such a forum might lead to the development of social innovations sensitive to provincial principles like territorial integrity for Quebec. An example can be found in the experience of the Société du Havre de Montréal – a nonprofit corporation created jointly by the federal government, the Quebec government and the city of Montreal “to propose the major elements in a concerted plan for the development of the harbor front and the urban areas around it, as well as an implementation structure and financial strategy.”4

Such a tripartite committee would be essential to develop failsafe mechanisms that would come into play in the case of differences of opinion that could lead to destructive stalemates. These would take the form of arbitration processes (as is done internationally) or imaginative arrangements (such as three-way financing of special-purpose nonprofit corporations in which federal, provincial or local partners might take the lead depending on which one is best suited to do so most effectively).

By adding to the institutional landscape, these structures will make decision-making for the federal capital region more complex. But this is inevitable: the problems posed by the federal capital region are complex and the arrangements likely to be up to the task need to be complex too. Special-purpose interjurisdictional authorities for river stewardship or infrastructures of all sorts have been experimented with in Canada and the United States to allow federal, provincial/state and local voices to participate effectively in the governance of what could only be joint initiatives because of the need to take into account potentially divergent interests and invite the contribution of many parties.

While the production of local public goods and services can be assigned to the municipalities, the production of the variety of federal and mixed public goods and services (material, symbolic, etc.) requires the collaboration of many partners in a federal capital like ours. Such collaboration is contingent on structures and forums providing opportunities for the requisite sharing of information and negotiating arrangements, including suitable platforms for experimentation.

A smart megacommunity

It would be unwise to presume that the only key actors in the federal capital region game are state actors. A thriving and inspiring federal capital region has to be a smart community that learns fast and well. A smart community is a fuzzy geopolitical entity that has not only assets, skills and capabilities but also a soul, a collective intelligence and a capacity to transform (i.e., to learn) that reflect the contributions of all sectors – private, public and civic. Social learning is the means by which we make the best use of all the community’s intelligence and resources (intellectual, social, physical, financial, personal).5

To achieve a smart community based on collective intelligence and social learning, we need to uncover ways to organize the various elements of the National Capital Region as a megacommunity, “a public sphere in which organizations and people deliberately join together around a compelling issue of mutual importance following a set of practices and principles that will make it easier to achieve results.”6 Civic architects are required to work at improving the learning relationships, networks and regimes, and to transform them as required. There is also a need for a range of interventions by civic engineers to invent mechanisms to reconcile the different logics and belief systems and to stimulate and support collaboration. Moreover, smart communities need civic entrepreneurs who can play a significant role as “interpreters” and “promoters,” helping to define the style of the community.

It is unfortunate that the NCC’s contribution of the toward the emergence of a smart megacommunity has been anemic, except when Douglas Fullerton (1969–73) and Jean Pigott (1985–92) were at its helm.

For much of its history, the NCC has not been the catalyst required to give impetus to the emergence of an ardent civic architecture, engineering and entrepreneurship for the National Capital Region. My diagnosis is a lack of affectio societatis: the will to associate, the engagement to commit with creativity, imagination and gumption to the partnerships required for the progress of the region. Instead, the NCC has shown a certain aloofness in the interpretation of its mandate and – except episodically – has eschewed a proactive duty to intervene to undergird the development of the civic architecture, engineering and entrepreneurship in the National Capital Region.

There are other sources for the lack of affectio societatis in the region, but by its failure to nurture the required vibrancy, the NCC has contributed to the grievous lack of interest in the National Capital Region both in the Ottawa-Gatineau area and in the rest of the country. The result has been a fractiousness that continues to keep the National Capital Region a geographical rather than a living entity. To transform it into a living entity, adding federal buildings and jobs on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River is not sufficient.

Fostering the work of civic architects, civic engineers and civic entrepreneurs will depend on the NCC’s developing a kind of super-vision that can help overcome the crippling fractiousness. The NCC has been unwilling up to now to engage in this sort of reframing of perspectives directly, for fear of exacerbating certain tensions (cultural, linguistic, geographic) and, perhaps, antagonizing the Quebec government that has been somewhat hostile to the silent integration of the National Capital Region. Such timidity will have to be overcome if a super-vision and the requisite affectio societatis are to materialize, and the megacommunity is to progress.

NCC stewardship will entail taking on the role of educator and animator to reframe views of the public realm and initiate the learning process necessary to bring to the surface whatever latent consensus exists among the parties that need to collaborate.7 This sort of role has not been regarded as a central function of the NCC in the past – except, perhaps, during the Pigott era.

The indictment of the Canadian capital by Andrew Cohen in his book The Unfinished Canadian8 is more than a cahier de doléances: it is a call to action to change a whole culture. And it is unlikely to materialize without a combination of three unpopular virtues – responsibility, compromise and patience – and the mobilization of the collective intelligence and capacity for social learning of our megacommunity. There are no shortcuts, no magical solutions. Such a transformation will need more than new information or new analyses. It will depend on something much more profound: a change in the “code of honour”9 from one based on entitlements (claiming humiliation when preferences are frustrated) and on envy (resentment of the success of others) to one based on reciprocity and mutual responsibility.

Already there are signs that our code of honour is evolving (albeit very slowly) as we move from a language of rights and entitlements (a world of either-or) to a language of reasonable accommodation (a world of more-or-less à la Bouchard-Taylor) to deal with contentious issues.10 What is honourable is increasingly the creative and fruitful compromise rather than the fundamentalist pur et dur stand. We are seemingly rediscovering the crucial importance of the principle of fair play as an overriding Canadian principle: it is already guiding important national conversations and defining limits to the Canadian disposition to excessive tolerance.11 This may help in making the federal capital conversation less confrontational and more forward-looking.

So even if I am not hopeful, I have hope.

Continue reading “Canada’s capital – 1: Getting the capital’s governance right”