May 11, 2021


The prospect of a Canadian federal election looks more likely in 2021. More than a year into the COVID-19 crisis, the country’s mass vaccination campaigns are gaining momentum and most Canadians should receive their immunizations from local health authorities in the coming months. Notwithstanding the unknowns about the duration of protection afforded by the vaccines and their effectiveness against new variants, the odds in favour of a national election look better than those against. If the vaccination campaigns across the country avoid a major disruption and Canada achieves herd immunity, the broad protection against infectious disease that a population develops through vaccination or an earlier infection, the federal Liberals will be able to follow up the 2021 budget with an election call.  

Three core issues are most likely to frame the election campaign when Ottawa drops the writ – the COVID-19 pandemic, sustainable development, and international mobility including immigration. The pandemic and Canada’s response to it (including the country’s indebtedness) will be the core issue up for debate. The social and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have been devastating. Regrettably, Canada reached a new milestone in April – 1 million COVID-19 cases and 23,000 deaths. The unfortunate reality is that pandemic will continue to test the limits of our collective resilience and adaptive capacity, even with an effective vaccine rollout campaign. Additionally, policy makers face the unenviable task of fostering a long-term economic recovery strategy that does not imperil the planet’s ecological capacity. 

Like several European countries and the United States, Canada has committed to ambitious climate action targets. The recent Supreme Court of Canada decision1 on the constitutionality of carbon pricing means that Ottawa can confidently advance the sustainability measures outlined in the Throne Speech including its commitment to “build back better” with priority investments in building retrofits, clean energy, and the production of electric vehicles.2 While immigration policy may not be openly debated like the COVID-19 pandemic or global sustainability, given that Canada’s main political parties share a consensus view that immigration is key to the country’s economic security, seamless travel in and out of the country will shape Canada’s recovery trajectory and its engagement with the world.   

Despite the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ottawa recently announced its intent to raise permanent immigration levels to more than 400,000 for each of the next three years.3 Achieving this target would set a new immigration milestone. However, there are two reasons why such a commitment is unrealistic. First, many countries around the world are unlikely to achieve herd immunity by 2022, and international travel will remain fragmented for the foreseeable future. Second, Canadian cities will have trouble accommodating a sharp influx of newcomers given the housing affordability crisis and rental supply shortage. With an estimated 147,000 first-time home buyers locked out of the market since the introduction of the Canadian Mortgage Stress Test in January 2018, the decision to welcome 400,000 newcomers annually is impractical.4 

Should Ottawa call a federal election this year, it will be an opportunity to reflect on Canada’s recent past and to engage in a national conversation about the country’s future, especially when it comes to the country’s large and medium-sized cities. One of the most unique aspects about Canada is that 80% of the population is urban. This is one of the highest urban population concentrations among the G7 nations. The urban population is highly concentrated among 35 census metropolitan areas with more than 12 million people living in Toronto (5.9 million); Montreal (4.0 million); and Vancouver (2.4 million).5 In fact, the future of cities could appear as a “sleeper” campaign issue in an upcoming election. Apart from the urban concentration of the Canadian electorate, a key reason why cities could garner more attention is the indivisibility of urban governance from the pandemic recovery strategy, sustainable development, and international mobility.   

In recent decades, there has been a growing recognition among academics and policy analysts that urban interventions are the proper way to address many contemporary challenges (ie., global economic competition, endemic poverty, inclusive development, environmental sustainability). The conceptual framing of contemporary policy issues is less technical and segmented and more networked and contextualized.6 Indeed, a key policy lesson of 2020 is that urban planners need to design strategies with a view to helping more people, in more places, and more often. This calls for much more holistic thinking about the multifaceted character of Canadian cities as well as the urban governance capabilities needed to secure an open and welcoming society. 

For years, international observers have recognized Canada’s large and medium-sized cities as some of the world’s best places to live and work.7 Large cities such as Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, and Calgary consistently score high on global rankings because of their openness to newcomers and their vibrant artistic and cultural sectors. To sustain those advantages over the long-term, municipal leaders in partnership with government and community stakeholders, will need to commit more resources to the systematic analysis of urban sustainability. A signatory to the Paris Agreement and the United Nations-led 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, Canada has a moral duty to end poverty and promote inclusive development while simultaneously protecting the environment. Translating the aspirational goals of the 2030 Agenda into tangible outcomes will entail considerable investments across a range of urban infrastructure capabilities (ie., human capital, innovation, technology).   

With regards to its economic competitiveness, the consensus view among national policy makers is that Canada is still disadvantaged by the small size of its cities and aging demographic. In fact, Toronto is the only city in Canada capable of competing directly with London, New York, Paris, Berlin, Shanghai, or Tokyo. This is important given that world’s largest 600 urban centres, including 100 cities in China alone, are forecasted to generate as much as 60% of global GDP by 2025.8 To boost Canada’s competitiveness and global influence, one domestic think tank is proposing that Ottawa consider raising the population to 100 million by 2100.9 Of course, this would place enormous pressure on Canadian cities. Although Canada’s international reputation for welcoming and integrating newcomers is unparalleled, many urban planning assumptions would need to be re-examined by Canadians working collaboratively within a national dialogue framework. 

In that regard, Prime Minister Trudeau directed Marco Mendicino, the Minister of Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), to introduce a Municipal Nominee Program (MNP).10 Much in the same way that the Provincial Nominee Program (1999) has helped to facilitate migration to less populated parts of the country (ie., Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and the Atlantic region), the MNP would allow local communities, chambers of commerce, and local labour councils to directly sponsor permanent immigrants. The COVID-19 pandemic derailed the MNP initiative, and it is unlikely to garner public support until the pandemic eases and Ottawa can relax international travel restrictions. 

Nonetheless, this delay offers a window of opportunity to design a national urban strategy tied a broader vision about Canada’s position in the 21st century global economy. This is a responsibility that Canadians should not take lightly as there are a multitude of urban models and development strategies to consider. With or without a federal election, Canada’s approach to the management of its large and medium-sized cities will be a determining factor in how it prepares for and adapts to a rapidly changing world.    

1Supreme Court of Canada, Supreme Court Judgements, “Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act,” 2021 SCC 11 (15 March 2021).

2Governor General of Canada, Speech from the Throne (23 September 2020).

3Government of Canada, Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), 2020 Annual Report to Parliament on Immigration. (31 December 2020).

4Canadian Home Builder’s Association, “Canadian Home Builders’ Association Hopeful that Announced Federal Budget Measures Will Help Ease Housing Affordability Crisis,” (19 March 2021).

5Statistics Canada, “Population Size and Growth in Canada: Key Results from the 2016 Census,” (08 February 2017). 

6Neil Bradford and Michelle Baldwin, “New Civic Leadership for Mid-sized Cities.” Evergreen. (2018).

7Deloitte, “The 2020 Deloitte City Mobility Index,” (2020).; Bicycle Network, “Melbourne and Sidney Lose Out on Livability,” (6 May 2020),; The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), “The Global Livability Index 2019 (22 October 2019).

8McKinsey Global Institute, “Urban World: Mapping the Economic Power of Cities.” (2011).

9Century Initiative, “For a Bigger, Bolder Canada. Long Term Thinking, Starting Now.” (2020). 

10Government of Canada, Office of the Prime Minister, “Minister of Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada Mandate Letter,” (13 December 2019).

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