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Christopher Hume: We are demolishing our heritage and turning Canada’s cities soulless

Commentary

Have we Canadians ever felt so abandoned, alienated, and angry? Our architecture might have something to do with it. Everywhere we look, towns and cities are turning into a terra incognita of cookie-cutter condos and jerry-built tract housing. 

One by one, the places that define our lives are being remade, remodelled, reduced to a façade, or razed to the ground. In their place we build another anonymous residential tower designed for offshore investors looking to buy low, rent high. Important heritage structures, whole blocks and entire neighbourhoods, some around since the 19th century, have disappeared but for a plaque, a shared memory, or, if we’re lucky, an exterior wall or two. More often than not, these remnants are unsettling reminders that growth has its losers as well as winners. 

Although growth-at-any-cost has been economic orthodoxy for centuries, it’s time for a re-examination. It has led to the unravelling of cities and communities and set the stage for soaring rates of depression among young and old alike.

The untethering of North America began in the 1950s and ‘60s with the rush to embrace modernity and the concomitant rise of corporate culture. A newly empowered development industry quickly saw the opportunity presented by the suburban dream. Governments then did their bit and built a vast network of highways, many running through cities and tearing apart established neighbourhoods. Fred Gardiner, the first chair of Metropolitan Toronto, famously called the process “multiplication by subdivision.” He would then have a Toronto highway named after him. 

Today, cities around the world are beginning to demolish those same highways, while suburbia reinvents itself. Decades-old shopping malls are being transformed into high-rise communities. As urban researcher Richard Florida and others have argued, quality of life is the new measure of progress, not elevated freeways. 

Sadly, Canada has not kept up with the times. Our faith in discredited notions of the superiority of vehicular mobility is undiminished. Consequently, our public transit lags behind much of the developed world and the country’s provincial premiers—the weak sisters of the Canadian federation —remain trapped in the amber of earlier times.

Along the way, all levels of government have willingly encouraged the corporatization of housing. The development industry, grown fat and happy thanks to the condo boom and sprawl, now calls the shots. Builders have become the de facto planners in cities, big and small, across Canada. So it’s no surprise we are living through the worst housing crisis since the Second World War and have no clue how to solve it. Developers aren’t interested; profit, not affordability, is their priority.

Vancouver has managed to retain some control over planning, but it’s increasingly difficult for local politicians to cope with the surge of urban growth. In Calgary, the car and an expanding grid of highways have led to sprawl stretching as far as the eye can see. Toronto, of course, has been overwhelmed by development. Weak provincial planning and heritage preservation legislation is bad enough, but Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s chumminess with big developers has allowed them to pretty much do what they want. Until the Greenbelt scandal caught up with Ford in 2023, he did the industry’s bidding. Under his regime, city planning and much of the apparatus of civic oversight have essentially been privatized.

In 2022, Ford forced Hamilton and 11 other municipalities in the Niagara region to expand their boundaries to accommodate private developer plans. In response to public outcry, those changes were rescinded last fall. Then there’s Ford’s fondness for MZOs—minister’s zoning orders—which allow the province to overrule municipal planning decisions. Since 2019, Queen’s Park has issued at least 110. By contrast, between 2003 and 2018, previous provincial governments issued only 18. A modicum of municipal input remains, to provide a fig leaf of political respectability. But bottom line, the city is up for grabs.    

To be fair, compared to Vancouver, Toronto planners have seldom been up to the challenge. They’re too busy ticking boxes to tackle the larger issue of what sort of city is taking shape around them.

Except for residential enclaves—sacrosanct—whole swaths of Toronto are there for the taking. Little remains of neighbourhoods from Queen Street West and Old Town to Yorkville and Liberty Village. Even the Financial District, slow to recover from the pandemic, is being eyed for condoification. All too often, historic buildings are reduced to facades that are incorporated into towers constructed overhead. Drowning in a sea of generic residential towers, communities are losing the landmarks that make them unique.

Men work at a construction site in downtown Toronto, on Thursday, June 30, 2016. Eduardo Lima/The Canadian Press.

Vancouver, overbuilt and unnervingly anonymous, is now a thicket of grey towers. In Calgary, a developer received approval last November to demolish the last two buildings remaining from that city’s second Chinatown, to make way for an 18-storey residential tower.

So it’s no surprise that the residents of these developer-driven conurbations are experiencing such a deep and disquieting sense of dislocation. Beset on every side by construction and congestion, closed corners, blocked streets, and inadequate public transit, our cities can no longer serve their inhabitants. Nobody says it out loud, but residents are becoming obstacles in the way of the city’s corporate masters. The new reality is that Canadian cities are assets awaiting monetization. They are still places we live, work and play, but only as long as we don’t interfere with the needs of the municipal-industrial complex.

The wake-up call came in 2016 when then Toronto Mayor John Tory announced a grand plan for a $1.7 billion 8.5-hectare park located over the Rail Lands. Sadly, it turned out the land was already slated for a massive condo development. Once again, the city was out of luck.  

This can also be seen in the streetscape of Canadian cities where the economics of development lead inevitably to the proliferation of the usual retail suspects. But how many Shoppers Drug Marts, Tim Hortons, Starbucks, or Dollaramas do we need? 

And so corporate branding has replaced architecture. Buildings are billboards, streets advertisements, and citizens shoppers. Condos are where you park your money, not your life. Domesticity is just another commodity, available to anyone who can afford it.

Perhaps the enduring popularity of remote work makes sense after all: if a man’s home is his castle, what better place to fend off the forces that would turn his comfort zone into a twilight zone?

Aaron Pete: I am a First Nations politician. Our chiefs and leaders must be held more accountable

Commentary

Growing up I often heard about the challenges with chief and council leadership. It’s not difficult to find stories on social media, including countless TikToks shared by First Nations people, about leadership problems. As a First Nations person with a keen interest in politics, I’ve always admired good leadership when I saw it. Leaders like Chief Derek Epp, Chief David Jimmie, Chief Clarence Louie, and Chief Willie Sellars stood out to me as excellent examples of true community leaders. Sadly they are the exception rather than the rule.

My upbringing has been shaped by my single mother born with fetal alcohol syndrome disorder, a consequence of her mother using alcohol to cope with the traumas of St. Mary’s Indian Residential School in Northern Ontario. This personal history has given me a deep understanding of what “intergenerational trauma” actually means. Growing up, we lived near the poverty line, often running out of money a week before the next social assistance cheque. School was tough too. Teachers doubted my potential, suggesting to my mother during parent-teacher conferences that I was more likely to drop out and join a gang than graduate.

However, I used these challenges as motivation. I graduated from the University of the Fraser Valley with a degree in criminology and criminal justice. I then worked to help Indigenous people navigate the criminal justice system and earned a law degree from the Peter A. Allard School of Law at the University of British Columbia. Not long after that, I ran for a position in chief and council for my community in British Columbia at 26 years of age. Today I am a councillor for Chawathil First Nation, a place my family has called home since before Canada became a country. 

Effective governance is critical for our communities, where overcoming challenges like addiction, poverty, housing shortages, crime, and unemployment hinges on strong leadership and administrative integrity. Yet, many First Nation communities face serious issues of corruption, nepotism, and collusion.

In 2022, the chief of Westbank First Nation stepped down over corruption concerns within his band. At Seabird Island First Nation, a finance department employee was sent to jail after embezzling $2.3 million between 2005 and 2013. In Peters First Nation, an investigation into leadership revealed nepotism and prompted an RCMP inquiry into the misappropriation of funds. Similarly, concerns arose in Frog Lake First Nation when $120 million in net assets went missing.

First Nation struggles are complex, with roots in historical injustices. Yet, as leaders, we must also look within and recognize our role. We are not just caretakers of the land but agents of change, tasked with the sacred duty of uplifting our people. Unfortunately, the silence around the fulfillment of our own electoral promises is deafening. As leaders, we should be starting conversations about our progress and actively seeking feedback.

Our Indigenous community members work hard to provide for their families. They deserve leaders who are relentless in their pursuit of providing better education, community supports, and job opportunities. They need us to form alliances that reflect our values. They need us to secure funding for crucial infrastructure like housing.

The often sad realities of chief and council

I’ve now served as a council member for my community Chawathil First Nation (about 10 minutes outside of Hope, B.C.) for more than 18 months, and I’ve seen firsthand the transformative power of accountable governance. Chief and council are often compared to a municipal government’s mayor and councillors. Similarly, we are responsible for ensuring the management of our administration office, sitting on various subcommittees, representing the community in forums and meetings, and advocating for change. But these First Nation leaders are unique because we are also responsible for managing reserve land, housing projects, and economic development opportunities, as well as meetings about our traditional territory (land that is not on the reserve but is where our nation was traditionally located). We’re also tasked with encouraging our members to pursue higher education, find gainful employment, and then bring that knowledge and experience back to the community. 

When I campaigned for council, there were no candidate forums, debates, or policy discussions; leadership choices were often reduced to familiar surnames on a ballot. I chose to run on a platform of increased economic development and a commitment to raise more money for community services. I hosted two all-candidate meetings with the one other council member who agreed to attend. I spoke with our local reporter and explained my vision of a bid for chief. While I was unsuccessful in my run for chief, losing by only 18 votes, I was elected as a council member. Without a clear presentation of goals and platforms, how can Indigenous community members make informed decisions about their leadership?

The role a chief or council member can play in our communities is significant. Prior to my arrival all 89 of our homes had significant health and safety issues. There was overcrowding and no plan for home repairs. There wasn’t even a housing manager or targets for new developments.

Once I took on the housing portfolio we turned a corner. To date, we’ve appointed a housing manager, completed extensive repairs in 20 units, and are in the process of renovating another 15 in the next six months. It is my goal that by the end of my term in September 2025, every home in our community will be repaired.  We’ve laid out a five-year strategy and are gearing up to apply for 30 new housing units.

The house that Louis Okimaw and his son live which has been deemed not fit for human habitation in the northern Ontario First Nations reserve of Attawapiskat, Ont., on Wednesday, April 20, 2016. Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press.
Journalists must hold our elected officials to account

The role of the media is vital in our communities. Investigative journalism must celebrate our wins, but also scrutinize our governance and constructively critique our failures. It is a catalyst for discussion and accountability. I’ve experienced the benefits of such scrutiny and understand its power to spark progress.

We all know the critical role journalism plays in local government. In one well-known Brookings study, researchers found newspaper closures had a direct causal impact on local government public finance. A loss of local newspapers meant a loss of accountability. The study showed that when newspapers folded, it led to an increase in government waste, corruption, and less informed voters. With 630 First Nation communities in Canada and journalism on the decline, one wonders how many investigative stories are simply being missed.

Canadian journalism is facing major financial hurdles. But it is crucial for the pursuit of reconciliation and addressing poverty in vulnerable communities. Supporting organizations such as IndigiNews, Overstory Media Group, and local journalists with increased funding is essential for covering local stories. We also need entities like the Assembly of First Nations to push for enhanced financial backing for these and other organizations dedicated to local investigative journalism, including coverage of chief and council meetings.

Ensuring a brighter future

Our communities grapple with significant challenges, including high rates of poverty, crime, and addiction, alongside lower levels of educational attainment and employment. 

In 2019, a study showed that 53 percent of First Nation children on reserve live in poverty. A 2020 report found that crime in Indigenous communities was six times higher than in non-Indigenous communities. Violent crime was almost nine times higher. Sixty-eight percent of non-Indigenous people have completed postsecondary education. But only 45.3 percent of First Nations people have.

First Nation communities are responsible for their own infrastructure like housing, water and sewage systems, and infrastructure. While the chief and council can’t single-handedly fix these issues, they can advocate for increased funding for educational opportunities, addiction services, and cultural support. Further, they can meet with stakeholders from Indigenous Services Canada, the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, and others to develop a plan to improve conditions.

I am certain First Nation communities are being held back from succeeding by leaders without a clear vision for improvement. This stagnation must be brought to light. As a community, we need to understand our leaders’ plans—or lack thereof—and hold them accountable.

I hear from members of other First Nation communities in my region who say their political leaders are not doing enough to address staffing issues or improve housing conditions. They add that some leaders are merely acting in their family’s own best interest. First Nations’ socio-economic success stories are celebrated because they are still the exception rather than the norm.

An Indigenous cultural shift is overdue. We need an environment where media scrutiny is routine, where community engagement is vigorous, and where stakeholders are held accountable. Leaders should welcome this shift, as it strengthens our strategies and reinforces our commitment.

I envision a culture of accountability, where leaders don’t just lead but also answer to the community. Where success is not just celebrated but also measured. Where every community member feels empowered to question and demand answers. 

Increased accountability and community engagement can lay the groundwork for First Nation communities to share their wisdom and culture, enriching Canadian society. 

As I advocate for this change, I extend an invitation to journalists, community members, and my fellow leaders to join in this newfound commitment to transparency and progress. It is crucial to remember that chief and council meetings are public forums. Despite some exceptions, there is ample opportunity for increased journalistic presence to shed light on decision-making and accountability.

We must acknowledge our vulnerabilities and commit to identifying and improving our weakest links. Only by holding our leaders accountable for their actions—or inactions—can we enact meaningful progress.

Together, let’s build a future where every First Nation community flourishes, guided by values of transparency, accountability, and continued progress.