Failure to Launch

October 12, 2017


In the American romantic comedy, Failure to Launch, Matthew McConaughey’s character, Tripp, lives at home and shows no interest in leaving a comfortable life under his parents’ roof. In some respects, this is the tale of local government in Canada.

In the movie, Sarah Jessica Parker’s character, Paula, is hired by Tripp’s parents to encourage him to leave the comfort of his parents’ home. It is time for Tripp to grow up but this proves challenging. In a similar fashion, there have been efforts to encourage greater municipal autonomy, but the ties that bind prove as hard to shake in politics as they do in families. Maybe harder. Unlike Tripp’s parents, provincial politicians and bureaucrats have been less inclined to see their children grow up. Just ask John Tory. Yet, the sustainability transition depends upon it.

Ontario communities are being asked to solve economic and social problems arising from a whole host of system transformations, not least of which is energy, without the capacity and tools they need to address them. Though, let me say this, not for the want of trying.

Across Ontario, the consequences of our unsustainable habits are catching up with us. I just spent three days in the Haliburton area, and that was long enough to grasp the significant challenges these small communities face dealing with septage to protect water quality and natural systems, let alone other environmental legislation coming down the pipe from Queen’s Park.

Now, this will sound like a broken record to provincial and federal politicians and bureaucrats, and it is. This record has been playing since Confederation.

The call for local self-government was one of the grievances that sparked the 1837 rebellion in Upper Canada. In those days, decisions on local infrastructure and services were a matter of life and death for settlers. Those early reformers were not successful in having municipal legislation introduced to Upper Canada largely because Britain feared a repeat of the unruly democratic experiment south of the border. Toronto was granted the authority to elect a mayor and council in 1834. Soon after, Toronto’s first mayor, William Lyon Mackenzie, went on to lead the rebellion of 1837. This only hardened Westminster’s fears of local autonomy.

The passing of the British North America Act in 1867, enshrined legislative and fiscal powers for the federal government and its provinces, but not local government.  To this day, Canadian municipal governments are “creatures of the province”. 

This history has serious implications for Canada in a world that is going local. “Think globally and act locally” is more than a cute slogan. Sustainability will be won or lost in our communities, but our municipal leaders are left to respond to 21st century issues with 19th century legislation and attitudes.

No where is this more acutely felt than in Ontario’s rural communities. I have been invited to speak to rural audiences about our sustainability work in Guelph on several occassions. They flip between a sincere desire to understand how their communities can benefit from the sustainability transition and, in abject frustration, playing the victim card with Queen’s Park.

Like Tripp, in Failure to Launch, when you are a creature of the province, you don’t have to grow up. In the movie, Paula must resort to drastic measures to get Tripp out of his parent’s home; she falls in love with him. Perhaps we need such a drastic measure to fully launch Ontario’s municipal government into the 21st century. Maybe we need to reimagine local government so we can fall in love too.