Doug Ford didn’t mention the climate crisis once during a speech to some 2,000 municipal leaders gathered last week in Ottawa.

This was somewhat strange considering the climate emergency was a major theme at the three-day conference hosted by the Association of Municipalities of Ontario — the first in-person gathering of its kind in three years for the province’s municipal leadership.

Mayors and councillors from across the province who attended the event were still reeling from severe flooding and heat throughout the summer and worrying about the looming energy supply crisis. But Ford stuck to his talking points: promising a robust electric vehicle industry without offering any incentives to encourage consumers to buy the cars or funding the stations they need to charge; and building highways that are known to increase traffic congestion and exacerbate the pollution that causes global warming.

“I don’t know why he didn’t talk about climate change,” said Marianne Meed Ward, mayor of Burlington, in southern Ontario. “It’s something every mayor is worried about right now.”

Many explained at sessions that they were looking for direction, policy ideas and funding from the province that would make it easier for them to implement robust climate resilience and adaptation policies in their communities as they brace for more extreme weather, like the derecho storm that hit southern Ontario and forced three towns and cities to declare a state of emergency. 

With the housing crisis and homelessness top-of-mind and growth plans in progress, mayors and councillors also called on the province to create legislation that enabled sustainable, climate-friendly development solutions that would rapidly reduce emissions and ultimately save money. 

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The Narwhal’s Ontario bureau is telling stories you won’t find anywhere else. Keep up with the latest scoops by signing up for a weekly dose of our independent journalism.

“I think this government is aware that if they just want to talk about pocketbook issues, this is one of the biggest pocketbook issues,” Meed Ward said. “There’s no dichotomy between what’s good for the climate and what’s good for the pocketbook.”

And with municipal elections set to take place in October, many politicians know their constituencies want real action on environmental concerns. Here are four things local politicians from across the province told The Narwhal they are seeking from the Ford government to help them cope with the climate emergency. 

1. Money 

Funding for everything — but especially climate resiliency and adaptation — was top of mind for many municipal leaders in attendance. The pandemic has tightened and strained city budgets but has also highlighted the need for sustainable growth. Several councillors and mayors told The Narwhal their cities are increasingly looking to electrify public transit and to make both existing infrastructure and new development more sustainable. But they can’t do it without the provincial or federal government bolstering their limited city coffers.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, who is not running for re-election, told The Narwhal his city’s plans to convert its entire bus fleet to electric is only possible because the cost differential between fossil fuel and electric buses is funded by the Canada Infrastructure Bank, the federal Crown corporation tasked to finance infrastructure projects. 

“Everything, unfortunately, trickles down to money,” Watson said, noting that the next phase of the Ottawa LRT relies on both the federal and provincial governments providing a third of the needed funding each. “We have very few revenue streams. We have property taxes. We have grants. We have user fees. That’s basically it. We don’t have the tools the higher levels of government have to do what we’d like to do.” 

Ann-Marie Kungl, a councillor from Barrie, said her city has a climate adaptation and resiliency plan in place that includes more electric vehicle and transit infrastructure and sustainable buildings. When the Ford government took office in 2018, it scrapped charging stations and purchasing incentives for electric vehicles, as well as any green requirements in the provincial building code. 

“Now it’s all about dollars actually needed to do all this,” Kungl said. “Because our budgets are tight and will continue to be tight. We have residents asking for more progressive, more quicker action to reduce emissions but we can’t do that without some support.”

Kungl, Watson and many of their counterparts thought they’d get some direction on climate action from the premier at the conference. Instead, they left the conference uncertain. 

“It was a pretty vague speech so it’s hard to read the tea leaves as to what they’re going to do. Because unfortunately, whether we like it or not, they are the ones that control a lot of the new revenue that we need to fight climate change,” Watson said. 

Housing development outside of Milton, Ont.
Municipalities across Ontario, like Milton in Halton Region, are at the centre of a tense battle between provincial orders to build more housing and local demands to be sustainable and climate resilient. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

2. Stronger climate directives in development legislation

Municipal leaders are first to note that cities are creatures of the provincial government. Most of what they want to do is dependent on legislation over which they have no control. Many gave the provincial planning act as an example: it’s a piece of legislation that determines what kind of buildings can be built and where, but includes essentially no incentives for developers to build sustainable, emissions-free buildings and communities. 

While Ontario cities must address an urgent homelessness and housing affordability problem, they want the province to help them keep costs manageable in the long-term by ensuring new development is both environmentally conscious and resilient to extreme weather. 

Cam Guthrie, mayor of Guelph, told The Narwhal he’d like to see the provincial government embed net-zero development — buildings that use only the amount of energy that is created on site, by solar panels, for example — in all planning legislation. “It’s more imperative now that we always tie any type of climate change initiative into all affordable, residential and commercial buildings.”

Guthrie and other mayors from the province’s most populated cities are united in one specific ask: that the Ford government re-introduce climate requirements into Ontario’s building code, which it removed upon taking office in 2018.  

“Wouldn’t it be beautiful if we had legislation that included things like net-zero, affordable housing, green roofs, innovative drainage systems?” said Kungl, the Barrie city councillor, adding she’d like to see “firmer guidelines” to push developers towards such things as infill development and sustainable stormwater management systems. 

Meed Ward said that Burlington’s current climate efforts — greening its public transportation, mandating net-zero public buildings and installing electric vehicle chargers — only address 10 per cent of its emissions. The city can’t do anything about the remaining 90 per cent without the provincial government creating strong legislation (and offering funding). 

“We can’t compel sustainability in [private] buildings,” Ward said. “We need a building code that does that.”

3. Flexibility to make climate decisions locally

Many mayors and councillors at the conference were looking for autonomy and flexibility to adopt provincial guidelines and legislation in the best way for their cities. Bryan Paterson, mayor of Kingston, in eastern Ontario, told The Narwhal local decision makers should be able to work directly with private developers and non-profit organizations to create housing solutions tailored for their communities. Right now, much of the dealings on this occur with the province. 

Paterson said he’d like the ability to be creative and “rethink” how housing and servicing could work in Kingston, so the city could better integrate development with nature instead of building big, concrete, sprawling communities just because they had to. 

“At the end of the day, we are the ones that are on the ground. We’re seeing exactly where the needs and opportunities are,” Paterson said. 

Other local leaders also desired flexibility to adapt provincial legislation in ways suited to their cities. Lisa Kearns, a councillor in Burlington, told The Narwhal the city was already 10 years ahead of the growth targets handed down by the provincial government. 

“Now there’s continued pressure to meet new levels of development that don’t necessarily take into account that we’ve gone as far as we were asked to,” she said. “We want to plan responsibly and have the infrastructure in place so people can enjoy the quality of life they’re used to. We need the province to allow us to do that.” 

Housing in Hamilton, Ont.
Ontario mayors are seeking flexibility and strict provincial guidelines to build climate-friendly and sustainable housing tailored to the needs of their cities. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

4. Clear, funded emergency preparedness plans 

At the first in-person gathering of local leaders since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many mayors and councillors were discussing how to better prepare for emergencies, including those caused by climate change. Many were looking for a provincewide strategy for climate resilience, but while the premier and his entire cabinet attended the conference, including Environment Minister David Piccini, Energy Minister Todd Smith and Natural Resources Ministers Graydon Smith, none of them mentioned the subject at all. 

Penny Lucas, mayor of the Township of Ignace in northwestern Ontario, told The Narwhal about the challenges faced by her community of 1,202 people, surrounded by forests. This past May brought a once-in-50-year flood,which  have a 2 per cent chance of occurring in any one year, that weakened a bridge along the main arterial road that connects Ignace to the only healthcare facility in the region, which is a whole 100 kms away. 

The township had to declare a state of emergency. Now it needs to repair the bridge, which will cost between $750,000 and $1 million — money it doesn’t yet have.

“The community needs a good economic base” for both the repair and ongoing climate resiliency,” Lucas said. “We want to do our part to help and preserve the world, but how do we do that if we don’t have an economic base and so many challenges?” 

Bernard Derible, the recently appointed deputy minister at Ontario’s Office of Emergency Management, confirmed that mayors and councillors across the province told him they need help planning for future emergencies. He said many questions were about how to preserve telecommunications and infrastructure during extreme weather events. 

“To start, we need everybody at the table,” Derible told The Narwhal. “We need to spend time on reconnaissance and reflection. We need to start doing all of this quickly.” 

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The Narwhal’s reporting team is busy unearthing important environmental stories you won’t read about anywhere else in Canada. And we’ll publish it all without corporate backers, ads or a paywall.

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We’ve got big plans for 2024
Seeking out climate solutions, big and small. Investigating the influence of oil and gas lobbyists. Holding leaders accountable for protecting the natural world.

The Narwhal’s reporting team is busy unearthing important environmental stories you won’t read about anywhere else in Canada. And we’ll publish it all without corporate backers, ads or a paywall.

How? Because of the support of a tiny fraction of readers like you who make our independent, investigative journalism free for all to read.

Will you join more than 6,000 members helping us pull off critical reporting this year?

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