Municipal Intergovernmental Interaction and the COVID-19 Pandemic

Written by Laura Conrad and Jack Lucas

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, municipalities across Canada have implemented dramatic policy measures to curb the spread of the virus and provide support to local businesses and vulnerable populations. These responses have required extraordinary levels of intergovernmental coordination and cooperation between municipal, provincial, and federal governments.

Over the past year, the Canadian Municipal Barometer has fielded two surveys – one in April 2020 and one in January 2021 – which asked municipal representatives across Canada in municipalities with a population of 9,000 or greater for their perspectives on intergovernmental coordination in the time of COVID-19. We also partnered with the University of Toronto’s Policy, Elections, and Representation Lab, led by CMB team member Peter Loewen, in an additional survey of municipal representatives in September 2020. In general, we find positive assessments of intergovernmental collaboration and provincial/federal performance in all three surveys. However, the initial wave of exceptionally positive attitudes has clearly faded.

We first find that municipal representatives’ approval of both federal and provincial responses to COVID-19 have steadily declined over the year. In April 2020, 79% of municipal representatives approved of the federal government’s response and 90% approved of their respective provincial government’s response. These numbers declined to 68% and 75% respectively in September 2020, and declined even more so to 56% and 59% respectively in January 2021. So while a majority of municipal representatives still approve of federal and provincial COVID-19 responses, that majority is much smaller now than at the beginning of the pandemic.

The same pattern is visible in municipal representatives’ ratings of the effectiveness of COVID-19 collaboration with other levels of government. While 25% of municipal representatives rated the effectiveness of collaborations with the federal government as “good” in April 2020, only 13% said the same in September 2020 and just 11% in January 2021.

We see similar trends in municipal representatives’ assessments of intergovernmental coordination with respect to provincial-municipal efforts. In April 2020, 47% said the relationship was “good”, but this number dropped to 22% by January 2021. However, for both provincial and federal governments, a strong majority of municipal politicians still rate the collaborations as “fair”, suggesting that there is still a general feeling of positivity.

Given the extraordinary challenges COVID-19 has created for all governments, it is perhaps unsurprising that tensions have increased in intergovernmental relations. Our data suggest that there is still a sense of optimism among municipal representatives across Canada that the provincial and federal governments are adequately responding to the pandemic and that collaboration between municipalities and other levels of government remains effective. Over the course of the past ten months, however, this optimism has certainly begun to fade.  

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