Pierre Poilievre’s obsession with urban planning drives him to run for mayor of Canada

As many Canadians know by now, Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre claims to be a candidate for Prime Minister (he is not). But if you listen to his speeches at recent rallies, you might think Poilievre is running to become mayor of all of Canada, given how much rhetorical energy he expends on land use planning.

At an event last week in Toronto, the Conservative leadership candidate spat out more ideas on how to reform zoning and make housing in major urban centers more affordable – for example, offering an incentive $10,000 for each new home built and would make federal infrastructure funding contingent on municipalities approving high-density zoning.

“I will demand that hugely unaffordable big cities like Toronto and Vancouver increase residential construction by 15 per cent or lose some of their federal infrastructure funds,” the Nepean-Carleton MP said. Told a crowd.

This incentive certainly seems costly and would represent an annual budget item of $2.4 billion based on last year’s new housing starts. It is debatable whether this would hurt affordability, given that the sum is equivalent to about 1% of the average price of a house in Canadaand would probably be absorbed by the developers anyway.

The most important point here is that, despite Poilievre’s newfound enthusiasm for planning, Ottawa simply does not have the capacity to influence zoning, directly or indirectly, through the fiscal coercion he touts. Being a Member of Parliament, he likely understands that the distribution of powers assigns exclusive responsibility for municipal government to the provinces.

Moreover, if Ottawa wants to transfer money to cities, it can only do so through formal federal-provincial agreements, such as those the Trudeau government negotiated for child care and the Harper government made with infrastructure (2009). (The exception is that in Ontario and British Columbia, some federal infrastructure funding goes to provincial municipal associations who distribute the money to their members.) Perhaps Poilievre was too busy spinning suggestive and disturbing conspiracy theories about “globalists” and “bankers” and failed to notice the constitutional intricacies.

Something else he didn’t notice: that the big cities have, in fact, tried to delimit themselves, although this process often seems to get bogged down in landlord politics. Vancouver started this process years ago. House price inflation has happened anyway, suggesting that the root of the problem lies elsewhere.

In Ontario, the Ford government passed planning reforms three years ago requiring municipalities to increase the area around existing and planned transit stations; the City of Toronto has spent the past two years adjusting its own official plan to accommodate these overdue reforms. Strange that a city-minded Tory like Poilievre didn’t notice that decision either.

I don’t mean to suggest that municipalities have a particularly strong track record here. Toronto council has ignored or turned a blind eye to some of these issues for decades, largely because local politicians solicit votes from landlords and landlords have been very resistant to change. Poilievre can kneel on issues with big city ‘gatekeepers’ until he’s, well, blue in the face, but that won’t change some of the structural barriers that have kept Canada’s big cities to take a more proactive approach.

To be clear: I’m not naive about what Poilievre is doing. He obviously doesn’t care about the finer points of politics and bets the people who organize his rallies don’t either.

He fishes where the fish is good, as the old saying goes.

Yet it’s also important that everyone be crystal clear about what’s going on here. Poilievre promotes a complete myth about federal or prime ministerial power. He invents it as he goes along. People eagerly signing Conservative membership cards and taking selfies with him are encouraged to partake in Poilievre’s wishful thinking. One day they will learn – the hard way – that he is selling them the political equivalent of a Florida swamp.

Corrigendum — April 25, 2022: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Pierre Poilievre is a lawyer.

John Lorinc is a Toronto-based journalist and covers urban politics for Spacing magazine.