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COLUMN: The new regional reality

With the pandemic affecting so many aspects of our lives, some municipalities may have to reassess their financial viability.
0101 Crouse file
St. Albert Mayor Nolan Crouse outside his office at City Hall in St. Albert January 5, 2017. DAN RIEDLHUBER/St. Albert Gazette

When Alberta Chief Medical Officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw holds her daily news briefings updating Canadians on the province’s COVID-19 crisis, most Albertans have no doubt heard her speak in terms of “zones”. For Dr. Hinshaw, zones are a version of “a region” and are defined by Alberta Health Services. It is clear that this approach does not have her present statistics by municipality. While some people would prefer to see data by municipality, she presents her data only with a regional viewpoint. Of course, if anyone wishes to drill down further, an online map (geospatial function) on the Alberta website shows additional data is broken down into more detailed sub-regions. Most coronavirus data, however, is not defined by municipal boundaries, and rightfully so.

So, what is my point?  Why does this matter?

You see, we each view different regions through different regional lenses, depending on the topic. For property taxes (and municipal spending) for example, the lens is a single municipality and not a region. For grocery shopping, the radius extends beyond municipal boundaries and we see shopping regionally. For the new transit commission formed in 2020 in the Edmonton area, the lens is now through the eyes of the communities who now belong to the regional commission. For the regional economic entity Edmonton Global, created in 2017, the lens is 15 municipalities who are “hunting as a pack” for better regional and local economic prosperity. And, for the St. Albert Gazette, their region is St. Albert, Sturgeon County and its many nearby towns and villages. But for Dr. Deena Hinshaw, it is five zones. That is her lens. So “reopening” will be more regional than by municipality.

"Modern regionalization” has been a growing concept around the globe since the 1950s. As increased globalization began to take foothold after the Second World War, so did regional efforts to address needs. Municipalities could no longer serve their residents alone, and now more than ever municipalities must work as collectives. For example, British Columbia has 162 municipalities but 27 formal regional districts. Manitoba has 137 municipalities, 23 census divisions and eight regions. Italy has 20 regions, yet 7,914 municipalities. Regions matter, depending on the context. Alberta can learn so much from other jurisdictions in Canada and indeed throughout the world about regional benefits.

With the pandemic affecting so many aspects of our lives, some of the municipalities may have to reassess their financial viability. Addressing recent debt incurred in 2020 in Canada and Alberta will be everyone’s responsibility to deal with over the coming decade. And, while bigger is not always better, many of the villages in Alberta are already reassessing their viability to serve their residents. The regions these villages are within may now even be better equipped to handle the financial burden than the villages can by themselves. Spreading the debt, tax burden and liabilities over a broader tax base is no doubt appealing to many. Unless Canadians begin de-urbanizing by moving into smaller communities as a result of COVID-19, the future of villages is even in more jeopardy. Many of the villages in Alberta may be faced with “handing their keys” over to their regional county partner.

We all know that little will be untouched by the virus.

Re-opening will occur more region by region.

Municipal policies will need to be re-written.

Regional policies will need to be re-written.

Municipalities will rely on their neighbors more than ever before.

Regions now matter more than ever before.  Guaranteed.

Now, I wonder what Dr. Hinshaw would say?

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