COLUMN: Cities have always worked together

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Back in the 1990s there was a worldwide push for banks to merge, and Canada’s banks were not immune.

When then-Prime Minister Jean Chrétien was asked in a media scrum outside the House of Commons one day what he thought about the issue, he said something to the effect of:

“Who says bigger is better? If I were 300 pounds, would that make me a better prime minister?”

But just as a child dreams of nothing but “growing up” and economies are always urged to grow, grow, grow—bigger is almost always seen as better in our world.

And for cities, bigger often comes in the form of amalgamation. Across Canada, many cities have almalgamated their metropolitan areas in recent years—Toronto, Montreal and Halifax among them.

Vancouver is a notable exception—which also explains why this grand, sprawling city only ranks as Canada’s eighth most populous.

In the case of New Westminster, its diminutive size (15 square km, 65,000 souls), is definitely part of its charm. But the expense of running this city often challenges the wisdom of going it alone—especially when compared to bigger neighbours, who, the logic goes, benefit from economies of scale to keep per-capita costs under control.

And in the case of our school board, aggravating delays in getting a new high school built and balancing the budget only serve to add ink to the pens of letter writers who say it’s time for SD40 to partner with Burnaby (where, of course, they’re eagerly waiting by the phone).

Many fear that “bigger”—in whatever form— also means less responsive to local needs.

Yet sharing the load is something municipalities do all the time. One has only to step outside the boundaries of New West and see municipalities sharing in the delivery of everything from education and public safety to fire protection.

On the North Shore, the city and district of North Vancouver share policing and a single school district.

In the Tri Cities, a single school district serves Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam and Port Moody. Yet for policing Port Moody has opted out of the trio to run its own municipal force. In the Langleys, the city and the township share both a school district and policing. Similarly, the Surrey school district includes White Rock.

Across Metro Vancouver, fire services are usually operated locally.

White Rock (pop. 19,300) has both its own RCMP detachment and its own fire service.

And over in the rarified air of West Vancouver, they do just about everything on their own, from police and fire to schools, and even down to their own bus service.  Blue Bus Transit is the oldest continuously operated, municipal system in North America, in service since 1912.

Sounds a bit like New West. Here we even boast our own electrical utility, the oldest continuously operating electrical utility in British Columbia—since the city started generating electricity for streetlights in 1891.

In all, it’s a hodge-podge out there in terms of how cities deliver key services, but one thing is clear: if the province were to one day step in to amalgamate Metro Vancouver, there would be an unholy hue and cry in cities like New West.

Meantime, we’re not as separate as we might think. For everyday services, there’s always been a lot of cooperation, formal and informal. And there’s no harm in talking about where it might work to do more in future.

Chris Bryan is editor of the NewsLeader.

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