Minister of Infrastructure and Communities Catherine McKenna’s speech to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ Sustainable Communities Conference


Ottawa, Ontario

Thank you very much, and hi to everyone. I am very happy to be here.

I want to start by recognizing that we’re currently on the traditional territory of the Algonquin and Anishinaabe peoples.

And I want to, first of all, welcome you, Garth, and Carole in her new leadership role, and just to say how great it is to be continuing to work with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

I’ve recognized, since the day I think I started in government as Minister of Environment and Climate Change, but also as a local MP for Ottawa Centre, the critically important role of municipalities across the country, and the role that you play in making a real difference in the lives of people in your community.

That’s really my focus: getting outcomes for people. It’s also tackling really big issues like homelessness and inequality, but it also includes tackling issues like climate change, because I do think that really is the biggest issue and challenge we face as a country.

Climate change is not going away. We are in a pandemic, to be sure, in a health crisis, an economic crisis, but we are going to come out of it together. But we’re still going to have another crisis, and that is climate change.

So, I really do want to thank the FCM. Your leadership has been incredibly important, but the leadership of your members… In towns, cities across the country, coast to coast to coast, in every province and territory, I’m seeing really significant action to build a cleaner future. And I just can’t emphasize that enough, how important municipalities are in the fight against climate change.

I thought I’d start just by talking a little bit about our priority for municipalities and my priorities as Minister of Infrastructure.

When I took on this job, I was very excited, I kind of joked that I was Minister of Environment and Climate Change where you’re kind of cajoling people, you have regulatory tools, people aren’t always that happy. I became Minister of Infrastructure and Communities, and then you actually have investments to make, so that’s always a more positive place.

And as soon as I came in, I said I had three priorities: one is to work collaboratively with different orders of government to get projects built quickly that improve lives, create jobs and economic growth; two, to build infrastructure, more public transit, high-speed broadband, waste water, clean energy, affordable housing and improve the quality of life for all Canadians, from coast to coast to coast with an inclusivity lens; and third, I didn’t leave the previous portfolio, climate change is across every file, to build greener, cleaner, more resilient communities across the country.

And we’ve been doing that even in spite of the pandemic. And I know it’s been very hard for municipalities, so I want to recognize that. I am your champion – I’m not just Minister of Infrastructure, I’m also Minister of Communities.

And I know public transit was really difficult. It’s still difficult for you because you don’t really have the revenues like you did before. So, it’s why we invested, so we can help you.

That’s why the pandemic has created real challenges for communities. We could go through a huge list, I think we recognized them through our Safe Restart Agreement, but I know public transit is one of the top amongst them. It’s critical to building cleaner communities, it’s critical to get people around faster, and it’s the most marginalized and often the most vulnerable who rely on transit in our communities.

So, we’ve been focused on doing all of that, but also focused on the infrastructure file and getting things built quickly. We have our new COVID-19 stream, so I would certainly encourage everyone who’s listening to go to your provinces and territories and say, how are you investing that money in our communities? The intent was to get projects built quickly. We’re still waiting for most provinces to tell us what their priorities are going to be.

We’ve been more flexible: it includes things like active transportation, it can include pop-up bike lanes, it can include more access to nature. It can also include investments we don’t usually make in areas of other jurisdictions, so that would include health care and childcare, in particular making them resilient in terms of the pandemic response.

There’s also an 80-20 split, so I know those of you who are responsible for money, you understand how challenging it is, we recognize that as well.

And I’ll do one last shout out for a program that I think is going to make a real difference, it’s called the Canada Healthy Communities Initiative. It’ll be launched soon. We’ve already talked about this, this is for smaller projects in communities across the country, directly with municipalities and with organizations. So, this is directly with you, we often hear the interest in that. And those are initiatives that would just make lives better in your community, and they’re really intended to have local solutions, so whether it’s community gardens or pop-up bike lanes or apps to help support local markets, it’s really up to communities to come up with solutions. So, stay tuned for that.

Let’s talk about the Green Municipal Fund. Green Municipal Fund has been active for 20 years, it is really incredibly important for action on climate change. I know many of you, if not all of your communities, have accessed this fund, and it’s really intended to implement innovative ideas. And I think this is really important, the idea of innovation.

Often we’re thinking people don’t like it that there’s a top-down approach by the federal government, I think you need some top-down policies, you need investments from the federal government but, of course, you also need the local communities looking at what are the opportunities and what are the challenges and coming up with local solutions.

Our government has committed, just in 2019, over a billion dollars to this program. So, this program has had significant support in investments by the federal government.

You probably all know this but, it’s a good reminder that the Green Municipal Fund funds from 50% to 80% of eligible project costs, up to $10 million for municipal environmental projects. And I’ve seen so many great examples, innovative projects, reducing air and water pollution, minimizing waste, expanding recycling, improving drinking water, cleaning up contaminated land, building or retrofitting energy-efficient buildings and, of course, transit.

I just saw recently that Saskatoon is going to test some electric buses in its public transit fleet against the prairie winter. We can innovate here and find solutions that can be used across the globe. If this pilot is successful, which I have great faith that we will figure this out, Saskatoon transit plans to replace its conventional buses to create an all-electric fleet over the next 14 years.

We have committed to 5,000 electric buses, and we have said that our investments will, in the future, just be in electric when it comes to buses. So, good opportunity for all of you folks to follow Saskatoon’s lead to at least do a pilot. I know many of you have already embarked on the electric bus journey and I will tell you, your residents love it. That is actually the greatest feedback I get and the most tangible thing that I hear about are electric buses. People can understand that the future is clean and that’s a good thing, it improves their lives.

In BC, the district of Saanich has a two-year pilot project supporting energy-efficiency upgrades in lower-income households through a property assessed financing model. So, what are we doing there? We’re not just cutting emissions, we’re actually cutting costs for households. And that’s another story that we cannot tell enough: that being smart on climate change is also being smart on the bottom line. I think that we need to always talk about climate action as also supporting the most marginalized who often have done very little to contribute to climate change.

York region and Lake Simcoe region conservation authority are designing the ways to get the best environmental benefits from low-impact development and green infrastructure. And these are just a handful of projects, projects that I’ve personally seen, announced, that are improving the quality of life, reducing municipal costs, creating sustainable jobs, and also driving economic growth.

I care about how much emissions we’re reducing or are we being more or less resilient. If you look at the Green Municipal Fund projects, they have combined to reduce carbon emissions equivalent to keeping 608,000 cars off the road, that’s 2.7 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions avoided.

Green Municipal Fund, over its 20 years, has created more than 12,000 person-years of employment. We all need jobs in our communities, especially now, so a great job creator.

Green Municipal Fund projects are diverting more than 173,000 tons of waste every year from landfills. Let me tell you how much Canadians like that, Canadians do not like waste in landfills.

And the Green Municipal Fund is supporting communities of all sizes, right across the country, helping to build better lives and create a more sustainable future.

Local action is critical and leaders like you are on the frontlines in cities and communities across the country. So, thank you from me. Keep on coming up with innovative, practical and affordable solutions. We all need to learn from each other, and I think that’s the huge opportunity: when you implement these solutions, these are solutions that other people can emulate, or they can build on. And we’re all in this together.

But I don’t come without an ask: I’m extremely ambitious about what we need to do and to be honest, we don’t have a choice.

We committed, as a country, as a planet, to stay well below two degrees. We are not going to meet that without the help of municipalities across the country. To put in context how important you are, 40% of emissions are within your control, 40%.

So, with this comes great obligation, obligation not only to your communities to have cleaner air and cleaner water and less waste and more jobs and saving money, but also to the kids in your community who are looking to leaders like you, like me, across the country to make a difference.

This is my call to action. I think we need to all do something together. Canada has a target. We have a target, reducing our emissions by 30% by 2030. We have another target, being net zero by 2050. The only way you reduce emissions is by having targets.

Every single community, big and small, across Canada should commit to evidence-based decision-making, should commit to a very clear and ambitious target.

And there’s a quid pro quo that I will commit that we will look at how we continue to support you through the Green Municipal Fund, but also through other investments our government is making.

In the Speech from the Throne, we talked about investments in infrastructure, investments that all of our communities desperately need. Investments in clean infrastructure, that’s everything from clean energy to more public transit, clean public transit, to energy efficiency, massive retrofit programs across the board, to waste.

But the only way we can actually get the reductions in emissions is not just by being green, huge reductions in emissions are better, more resilient communities are critical.

I think that working together, providing more support, the federal government has committed to support you so that you can develop ambitious climate plans with clear targets, identifying where you can get the biggest bang for your buck, and then we can work directly with you to actually achieve those gains.

Because I know we will not get there, we will not get the ambition we want without you, but I know with you we can exceed the ambition.

And so, that’s my call to action. I think that there’s a huge opportunity, and I’ve seen such leadership, such leadership from municipalities across the country. We don’t always see that from all orders of government, let me be clear, but I see it from municipalities, that you are always pushing us to help support you to do more.

So, let’s do it. Let us do it, we do not have a choice, but we do have a huge opportunity. And so, that is my call to action.

The kids are looking at us right now and they’re saying, what are you going to do for the planet? And so, every day when we wake up and we make those decisions, let’s remember that and actually remember this is a huge opportunity to be ambitious, and when we work together, we will increase our ambition.

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