As local councils were getting ready to wrap up for the holidays in December, Alberta’s municipalities received an email from Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver containing an unusual request: to provide an inventory of all agreements municipalities held with the federal government in 2022.

For everything from community mailboxes to RCMP building leases, municipalities are being asked to provide the names of federal entities involved, local partners, funding amounts, project costs, and commencement and conclusion dates, among other details. And they’re being asked to have it submitted to Municipal Affairs by Jan. 31.

The Dec. 14 email states the information is required to advocate for funding, and that “Premier Danielle Smith and her premier colleagues recently agreed on the need for unity to ensure funding envelopes from the federal government are shared equitably.”

Local authorities and political observers say it’s unclear why this information is suddenly of interest to the province, and that the request seemingly has more to do with plays at sovereignty and enmity with Ottawa than advocacy for municipalities.

“It’s not really clear why the government is asking for what agreements we have with the federal government – besides, perhaps, part of the Sovereignty Act components,” Todd Becker, Innisfail’s chief administrative officer, said in council on Dec. 18.

Becker said Alberta municipalities have increasingly been working with the federal government over the last several years to strengthen relationships and open more funding opportunities and that McIver’s request “makes me a little bit nervous.”

“Our role, on the governing side of things, is to be not so adversarial at times. And this puts us in an awkward moment,” coun. Jason Heistad said in council.

The Town of Innisfail voted not to provide the requested list of federal-municipal agreements.

Other municipalities have also raised concerns about the scope and intent of McIver’s request, according to Alberta Municipalities.

“Some of ABmunis’ 260 member communities have expressed concerns about this request. Specifically, they have questions about the provincial government’s goal, the scope and timing of this request, the amount of effort needed to provide a thorough response by January 31, and whether they should include information about funding arrangements that may exist between the Government of Canada and third parties that work closely with municipalities,” ABmunis said in an emailed statement.

Keeping Ottawa in its lane – and municipalities in line

“This is not about municipalities. This is about fighting Ottawa,” said Duane Bratt, political science professor at Mount Royal University.

“The provincial government believes municipalities are not just creatures of the province but almost children of the province. And they don’t like Ottawa working with them and bypassing the provincial government.”

The request from Municipal Affairs touches on two different aspects of provincial governance, Bratt said. “One is trying to keep Ottawa in its lane, as it were. They believe municipalities are clearly in the jurisdiction of the provincial government. And the second is to keep municipalities in line.”

“We saw this was with the housing announcement, where the province was so upset with what they see as the federal government making side deals with municipalities,” he said.

In November 2023, when federal housing minister Sean Fraser indicated the ministry wanted to work with municipalities to fund housing projects, McIver released a statement saying the federal government was overstepping its authority, and that Alberta may table legislation “which requires the federal government to engage in negotiations with our province, rather than side-stepping us by engaging only with municipalities.”

While the provincial government is intent on stopping direct movement from the federal government to Alberta’s towns and cities, cash-strapped administrations see it as a source of much-needed funding for things like housing, policing, and transit, Bratt said.

“And obviously the provincial government wants to shut off all those channels of communication.”

Bratt said he is unaware of a previous example where a similar request for details of federal-municipal agreements has been made by the Alberta government.

Red tape, meddling, and money left on the table

Kyle Kasawski, Alberta NDP municipal affairs critic, said in an emailed statement the NDP did not request this sort of reporting on federal-municipal relationships while in government, and that this latest request is indicative of how the UCP government views municipalities.

“The UCP have not been good-faith partners with municipalities since they were elected in 2019. They have aggressively cut provincial transfers to municipalities and interfere when municipal governments seek other sources of funding to operate.

“We need to remember that this was a provincial government who once referred to municipalities as ‘children of the province’ who needed to ‘get spanked’ if they did not fall in line with the UCP’s political ideology.

“That is not the action from a government who is interested in creating strong partnerships with their municipalities. The UCP are letting Albertans and municipalities pay the price for their inability to manage relationships with the federal government, and they’re only adding more red tape and meddling middle management in the process that could risk leaving federal dollars on the table,” he said.

Right to govern municipalities

When asked to comment on concerns and criticisms raised over the municipal affairs request, a spokesperson for the ministry reiterated that they want to understand the agreements in place between the federal government and municipalities to “get the best possible deal for Albertans.”

“Alberta’s government will continue to stand up for our constitutional jurisdiction while ensuring we are working with municipalities to receive equitable funding from the federal government,” press secretary Scott Johnston said in an email.

The emailed statement also includes, verbatim, a paragraph from McIver’s Nov. 20 statement issued over federal housing announcements saying Alberta may table legislation to prevent the federal government from engaging directly with municipalities.

“It’s important for all levels of government to work together and respect constitutional jurisdiction – including provinces right to oversee the governance of Alberta’s Municipalities without federal interference.”

By Brett McKay, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Jan 15, 2024 at 14:39

This item reprinted with permission from   St. Albert Gazette   St. Albert, Alberta

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