UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Partisanship, ideology, and civic autonomy : towards a comprehensive framework for measuring autonomy in Canadian cities Kowalchuk, Katelynn Rae


Notwithstanding the expansion of the role, capacity and democratic legitimacy of municipal governments in modern public life in Canada, they remain vulnerable to the whims of their respective provincial governments. Smith and Spicer’s (2018) work, “The Local Autonomy of Canada’s Largest Cities”, is the first attempt within the Canadian urban politics field to quantitatively measure local autonomy in Canadian cities, drawing on previous qualitative research within Canada and international quantitative indices. Most of their measures of local autonomy are naturally suited to quantitative research (such as per capita expenditures); however, other measures are more challenging to place within a quantitative framework, prompting the opportunity for critique and refinement. My thesis argues that two of Smith and Spicer’s indicators of political autonomy are not fully supported by the literature, lack a strong theoretical narrative for their explanatory power, and are limited by the constraints of their strictly quantitative methodology. Additionally, I contend that their universality is overestimated, and that political autonomy would be captured more powerfully through an understanding of the historical context and the motivations of powerful actors in cities and provincial capitals. These two measures of political autonomy, and Smith and Spicer’s index more broadly, would benefit from additional nuance stemming from historical qualitative research which can illuminate the details, contingencies, and unique dynamics that can be lost within the requirements of quantitative research. My thesis aims to demonstrate the importance of capturing this nuance through an examination of the history of Vancouver politics vis-à-vis the BC provincial government throughout the 1930s. This historiography supports my assertion that political actors are not bound by the institutional constraints assumed by Smith and Spicer’s measures of political interconnectivity. Rather than Smith and Spicer’s assumption that politically migratory politicians will always support policy which favours municipalities, one can adopt an alternative institutionalist lens which instead assumes the careerist aspirations of Canadian politicians and how they behave when vying for political power. The presence of a political threat further contributes to this behaviour, suggesting that the index may benefit from accounting for ideological and partisan conflicts.

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