A few notes of caution — and crankiness — on the question of a Toronto ‘city charter’

OPINION: If Toronto wants to talk about protecting its policies from the whims of Queen’s Park, it needs to stop treating the rest of Ontario like some sort of barren wasteland
By John Michael McGrath - Published on June 20, 2019
Toronto skyline
Some advocates say that Toronto needs a “city charter” that would clearly lay out its rights and privileges. (iStock.com/R.M Nunes)

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On Tuesday evening, city councillor Josh Matlow convened a panel in midtown Toronto to talk municipal empowerment. With TVO.org’s own Steve Paikin acting as moderator, Matlow, former mayor John Sewell, former city councillor John Parker, MPP Nathalie Des Rosiers, and Cherise Burda, executive director of Ryerson University’s City Building Institute, debated and discussed whether Toronto should have entrenched protections against interference from Queen’s Park in the form of a “city charter” that would clearly lay out Toronto’s rights and privileges.

At roughly the same time, 330 kilometres to the east, a Brockville council committee was rejecting one councillor’s proposal to shrink the town council by two members. The choice may have been good or bad, depending on your vantage point, but it’s one that Brockville — the town where MPP Steve Clark served as mayor many years before becoming minister of municipal affairs — has the right to make for itself. Under legislation promulgated last year by Clark and Premier Doug Ford, Toronto has no such right.

That’s one of the reasons Matlow (a councillor who survived the Thanos-like cuts) and municipal mainstays such as Sewell are arguing that Toronto needs the kind of guaranteed autonomy that would shield it from the whims of capricious premiers.

It’s certainly true that last year’s cut to city council — which took place during the municipal election and was finalized only after the legal nomination period had already closed — was an insult to democracy that shouldn’t be allowed to happen again. I wrote last year that an Ontario-only amendment to the Constitution would be one possible way forward: advocacy group Charter City Toronto, of which Sewell is a member, would seem to agree.

The Tories, though, also cancelled democratic elections for the position of regional chair in Muskoka, Niagara, Peel, and York regions. But that fact goes unmentioned in Toronto’s discussion about its proper role in Ontario. Even worse, some of the city’s imagined slights are propped up by fictions. For example, as of this writing, Charter City Toronto’s website complains that Ontario’s capital is run by “politicians from the hinterland” and asks, “Why do we let Smallville run Metropolis?”

A brief refresher because one is apparently required: Ford does not hail from the hinterland; he’s not a problem that rural Ontario imposed on Toronto. He is a Toronto MPP, was a Toronto city councillor, and ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Toronto — and his Tories won 11 of the 25 seats that were up for grabs in the 416 last year. If Toronto thinks that Ford is a problem (and recent Raptors-related booing suggests it may), then he’s a problem that Toronto exported to Ontario, not the other way around.

Toronto’s parochial view of the situation reflects how backward this whole conversation is. The city wasn’t alone in having its elections violated by the Tories, and it isn’t the only large city struggling to meet its obligations to residents given current provincial policy. Advocates have the opportunity here to create common cause and bring about real change in how Ontario governs its large municipalities. But that won’t happen as long as we’re dismissing the cities next door to us — cities that have TTC subway stops, for God’s sake — as “the hinterland.”

Even it weren’t parochial, it would still be lazy: broadening this conversation beyond “what does Toronto want” to “what would be good for large Ontario municipalities” would force us to consider hard questions. Progressive Toronto thinks that Queen’s Park shouldn’t be able interfere in its local land-use decisions, as Clark recently did when he modified a pair of the city’s official-plan amendments. Does it also, then, think that Niagara Region should have final say on local land-use decisions — even if that could mean cutting into the Greenbelt? Of course it doesn’t. In both cases, the issue is how to balance local and provincial priorities (Clark’s priority is getting more housing built; the Liberals wanted to protect open green space) and who gets the final say. A constitutional entrenchment of rights has to be approached carefully, because the whole point is that it’s more difficult to reverse than a simple piece of legislation.

Recognizing that the Earth orbits the sun — not Toronto — doesn’t mean that we can’t have a wide-ranging argument about what rights and powers large municipalities are entitled to. Experts and pundits alike have filled volumes on the rationale for expanding municipalities’ funding base beyond simply property tax and assorted user fees, for starters. Numerous cities around the United States (including several that Toronto would never deign to recognize as peers) have local sales taxes. Others are allowed to have income surtaxes. Farther afield, some global cities with relatively weak taxing powers receive more generous transfers from higher levels of government. It’s possible that any of those solutions could be made to work in Ontario; it’s impossible to imagine that none of them could.

But if we’re going to have that debate, we have to have it in Ontario, with other Ontarians. The alternative is that Toronto just keeps talking to itself — and squanders the opportunity of a generation.

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