Toronto has outgrown provincial oversight

Released March 9th, 2017

My Dad used to tell me that the hardest part of parenting is that your key role is to teach your kids the skills required to leave the house and make their own decisions, but your primal instinct is to keep them close and protect them. You can see this play out in every coming of age novel ever written. As tensions grows between a parent and their child, the burgeoning adult wants to break free from the shackles of youth, while the parent thinks they are not yet ready to take on new responsibilities.

Welcome to the last month (or several decades) of relations between Toronto’s City Hall and the Province of Ontario. The City of Toronto believes it is ready to shed its “short pants” and grow beyond the confines of being a “creature of the province.” Based on the existing City of Toronto Act, Queen’s Park agrees, sort of. The Act gives Toronto the authority to take on a number of issues in the municipal sphere, including the right to introduce tolls on roads it owns.  However, Toronto’s ability is limited by the amorphous spectre of “the provincial interest”, as the Province retains a veto right and can shut down the City’s aspirations if the province deems it necessary.  This was the grand bargain struck in 2006 – in the absence of the City being able to articulate what specific powers it needed and wanted, it was given a broad authority to be creative and expansive, but the Province retained a parental like authority to reign them in.

So how’s that working out for us?  A duly elected mayor and a duly elected city council decided to bring road tolls on to roads they own, only to be told by the province that they couldn’t do so. This despite the fact that through a series of initiatives both the City and the province have agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, tackle congestion and build transit to more efficiently move workers and goods across the region. In the face of such a multi-headed policy hydra, if a policy gets killed for political reasons at the provincial level it isn’t the city’s maturity we should be worried about.  Meanwhile, the City has taken little advantage of the powers they were given in the Act some ten years ago, likely because of jittery lawyers and threat of the looming scythe of the provincial veto to cut down municipal hopes and dreams.

After ten plus years of legislative life, the political and policy moment for a review and renewal of the Act is now. The next provincial election is in the spring of 2018 with the municipal election several months after that. Before going to the polls, all three provincial parties need to take a stand on the relationship between the City of Toronto and the province.  And the citizens of Toronto need to be able to vote on a council who can responsibly and effectively use any new powers given.

Why update the Act now? The City, world class in many ways, is beginning to fray. You can feel it every day. Subway delays are not “longer than expected”, they are a routine.  Public housing and municipal infrastructure are literally on fire and crumbling. The City is tasked with fighting these fights with one hand tied behind its back, and we as citizens get to now watch the typical pre-budget posturing where the Mayor asks for funding that Toronto requires to keep the lights on. That has to change. The need for a more autonomous Toronto, able to reach its full potential, has never been greater.  Perhaps with a greater understanding brought on by ten years of experience, the City will be able to better articulate its desires, and the Province more willing to give them the sole authority to do so. 10 years ago, the Act was used as a balm to heal the wounds of amalgamation.  The challenge today is fundamentally different, and a renewed act could be used as a platform to build the dialogue and institutions we require to build a true economic region that can compete globally.  A City of Toronto Act revision could go beyond moving costs and powers from column to another and completely reset the relationship to something approaching more equal orders of government.

I can imagine two main objections to giving the City of Toronto increased autonomy and greater authority over revenue tools. First, what makes Toronto so special? Why should they get this power and no other municipalities? I respond to that, not as a resident of Toronto, but as a proud product of St. Catharines.  I love my home town and will defend to the death its qualities – incredible people, a defiant and close knit sense of community and amazing public schools (Go Bulldogs!). But St. Catharines doesn’t generate 10% of Canada’s GDP, close to 25% of Ontario’s GDP, nor is it home to approximately 10% of the country’s population. Those characteristics, unique to Toronto, create the conditions necessary to provide its city council with unique powers and greater independence.  Furthermore, if Toronto can demonstrate an ability to govern well with increased autonomy, the province’s risk tolerance to expand those powers to other cities will improve as well. 

The second objection, and the harder to combat, is to ask what has the City done to demonstrate it is mature enough to take on greater responsibilities. While Mayor Tory and his council are rightfully being applauded for taking on the issue of road tolls, the $150-200 Million the tolls would have generated would have come far short of the $1-1.5 Billion required.  That is the amount of money required to deal with the City’s public housing needs and transit provision.  Without it, Toronto is stuck in a cycle of sporadic and episodic transfers from the province and the federal government.  The best way forward would be to give the City the power to levy taxes at that level of materiality, forcing council to own the political heat for doing so.

Let’s believe the current hype about Canada generally and Toronto specifically.  We are being lauded worldwide for our strong social fabric, our openness to immigrants and how attractive we have become to the world’s talent pool.  We need to build a city with the governance, funding and infrastructure required to not only welcome the world, but make them want to stay.  It’s time to let Toronto grow up, leave the Provincial house, and see what kind of city it can become. 

- Jamison Steeve

A shorter version of this article originally appeared in The Toronto Star.