A few days ago, our friends at the South Fraser Blog published an infographic that captures some of the complexity of our system of government in the Lower Mainland.
British Columbia has five levels of government — federal, provincial, regional and local, plus First Nations territories that are building their own level of sovereignity — as well as agencies and arrangements that overlap in countless ways.
The South Fraser chart makes a good start, but the reality is even more complicated. Many agencies that serve Metro Vancouver spill over into the neighbouring Fraser Valley Regional District, making the two districts into a single Fraseropolis. These include a health authority, a library board, a transportation authority and a parks authority. All are labelled “regional,” but in each case the borders of their regions are different.
No chart can show the shifting ad hoc agreements that municipalities work out with each other to reduce costs. The District of Maple Ridge and the City of Pitt Meadows share policing, recreation, an airport and some (but not all) recycling programs. Nonetheless, they take different approaches to development, and sometimes to regional politics, enough to trigger harsh words and hurt feelings.
It’s sometimes proposed that we should simplify government by amalgamating municipalities. However, there’s expert opinion suggesting that megacities are more expensive than smaller, more competitive, more volunteer-driven units. Aside from that, the structure of the new supercities would be designed by veteran elected officials and senior administrators; there’s no reason to think that they would be any more transparent or self-explanatory than what we have.
Even in the present state of fragmentation, some institutions are huge, quite apart from their bewildering structures of governance. The Fraser Health Authority, one of two health authorities in Fraseropolis, has 25,000 employees spread from the boundary of the City of Vancouver to the gold mining settlement of Boston Bar in the Fraser Canyon. I realized when I worked there that the organization was too big and too complex for any one person to understand, no matter how senior their position. And so it goes: different populations, different communities, with different needs and priorities; governments and quasi-governments with gaps and overlaps; no way, really, to see the whole picture, even if you pay close attention; our security lies in a fragile social contract, in the hope that people will do their jobs in good conscience and act in reasonable ways.