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Canadian Cities: First responders on our urban frontlines

Interview with CEO Sevaun Palvetzian published on


  • Top decision makers in government, academia and business should reflect Canada’s diversity to strengthen economic and decision-making representation, and attract foreign investment and expertise.
  • Instead of relying on provincial governments to make top-down decisions, Canadian cities should have more independence in designing and implementing policies and programs that best fit their priority needs relating to key issues such as infrastructure, housing, climate change and more.
  • Affordable housing is more than a social net for Canadians—it’s also part of an economic strategy. If we let it crumble, we discourage companies from setting up offices in our cities due to the lack of housing options available for their employees.


I would call on all Canadians and ask them: “What is the issue you are most passionate about as an individual? How far are you willing to go to make that issue something that generates real momentum here in Canada?” I urge Canadians to think about that; and in particular, those who have particular privilege to do something about issues to stand up and take action. Nothing meaningful gets achieved by accident or through status quo thinking.

How would you define or describe the ideal future city, and how do Canadian cities compare to this ideal?

For me, the future ideal city is one that thrives with diversity, is powered by inclusive civic engagement, provides equal opportunities for its people, and seeks to harness the collective energy, leadership and big thinking of its leaders across all neighbourhoods and sectors.

Cities are living organisms that draw their shape and energy from the people who live and work within them, but also from the organizations, businesses and communities that call them home. When we put these diverse ingredients together, we see cities that collaborate and work together more successfully.

When I look at Canadian cities, I see more and more working towards this ideal—from Edmonton to Hamilton, to here in Toronto. But there’s still a long way to go, especially when it comes to harnessing the diversity of people.

Canada has made diversity part of its national calling—but is it authentic?I don’t think we can pat ourselves on the back for being progressive on diversity if we don’t have the same representation at the top levels of government, business, labour and academiaas we see on the front lines and the realities in the streets below.This is a topic area CivicAction will continue to work on.

I worked in the provincial government among senior executives for 10 years. When I think about all the decisions that were made in policy and programming, I think about the small group of similar people who designed and implemented them for nearly 13 million Ontarians.

It’s 2019—we’ve run out of excuses as to why our leadership positions from city council chambers, business hallways, executive boardrooms are not reflective of the diverse populations in our cities.If policies are not being dreamed up by a diverse set of thinkers, then how they end up being implemented will differ from what we expect.

To continue to attract foreign direct investment (FDI) and companies to open offices here, our decision makers need to reflect new entrants that come from different communities all over the world. Economic activity in Canadian cities will take root if new entrants and businesses enjoy a competitive advantage—in our case, diversity—that is hard to replicate elsewhere. We are sitting on a goldmine of expertise and talent, and it’s time we invest in and nurture diversity programs to improve hiring practices and address systematic biases in hiring and retention.

What are the top issues facing Canadian urban centres today? Who would you like to see tackling them and how?

One of the top issues is that the way orders of Canadian government are organized, and how they receive their requisite authorities and powers, is broken.At the apex of our government structure is the federal government. That, in turn, gives certain powers to the provincial governments and territories; including healthcare, education, and transportation. Cities, however, are almost an overthought in this 150-year-old structure.Back in 1867, only about 16% of Canadians lived in cities.

Today, however, 86% of Canadians live in cities. Because cities are still the creatures of the province, this creates a huge power imbalance that holds our municipalities back from deciding their priority needs on their own. This leaves them in profound and longstanding shortages in infrastructure development, affordable housing, a gap in social services—the list goes on and on.

For example, municipal governments are responsible for about 60% of our nation’s public infrastructure but they only receive about 12 cents of every tax dollar paid in Canada. How are cities supposed to build adequate and efficient infrastructure for public transportation, bike lanes, sewage and so on, with so little funding?

We are an urban nation and that reality will only continue to grow.  We need our governance structures to catch up and reflect that so cities can manage the realities of the complex problems they face on the front lines with residents, and do so with the right balance of powers and authorities.

Read the full interview here. 

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