Before the feds bail out Canadian cities, Toronto would like a word

OPINION: COVID-19 is ravaging Toronto’s finances. If the federal government is going to step in, it should first prod Queen’s Park to reverse an odious error
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Apr 21, 2020
Premier Doug Ford speaks at an all-night session of the Ontario legislature on September 17, 2018, about a bill to cut the size of Toronto city council from 47 representatives to 25.  (Chris Young/CP)

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The economic numbers from the City of Toronto are grim: thanks to the pandemic and the associated economic fallout, the provincial capital is looking at a hit to its budget of at least $1.5 billion this year. And that could rise to as much as $2.7 billion if the quarantine lasts even longer and the economy is slow to recover.

Toronto currently has no capacity to handle a loss like this. As Brian Kelcey has noted in Spacing, even if the rest of the city’s fiscal machinery were still working entirely normally, the losses from TTC fare revenue alone would be disastrous. Under provincial law, the city cannot run an operating deficit, so it has two options: massive, unsustainable tax hikes in the midst of an equally massive economic contraction, or oblivion. Neither is good.

And Toronto is just one city. Multiply these issues by a dozen or so larger cities and hundreds of smaller municipalities around Ontario, and the bill becomes quite daunting — even for a provincial government that has substantially more fiscal room to operate than municipalities do.

So, in the final accounting, the bill (or at least part of it) will likely be picked up by the federal government. Never mind that municipalities are the creatures of the province: spending money rapidly is how Ottawa can play its part in pandemic response while the provinces do the important work of, you know, funding and operating the health-care systems that are currently keeping federal taxpayers breathing.

But before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gets our collective chequebook out, Toronto would like a word with the Liberal MPs it so energetically re-elected in the 2019 election. (Remember that election? It was six months ago. Does it feel like it was six months ago?) As Ottawa has a bit of leverage with Queen’s Park, it’s worth remembering that, while Premier Doug Ford has behaved commendably in the past few weeks, Toronto currently operates under a democratic deficit that Ford is solely responsible for.

One of the premier’s first legislative acts in government — an act of spiteful, narrow-minded vindictiveness that the Progressive Conservatives have likely hoped would be lost to the mists of time — was to undo the democratic decision of Toronto city council to slightly expand its membership to reflect the city’s growing population. Ford, swayed by some very bad opinion-writing in a certain local newspaper and unmoved by the advisers in his office who begged him to reconsider, rammed changes to the City of Toronto Act through the legislature, cutting the city’s elected council in half in the midst of an election already underway.

It was an obscenity then, and it’s a festering wound now. There’s no point of principle here: every other Ontario municipal council has the right to determine its own size. Ford wanted to kick some of his old rivals at council because he could, so he did. The fact that the Ontario Court of Appeal determined that the legislature was within its constitutional jurisdiction to have done so doesn’t change the fact that it was a gratuitous insult to an elected body first constituted before Ontario was a province.

(The Court of Appeal won’t, it turns out, be the final word on the matter: the Supreme Court of Canada has agreed to hear Toronto’s appeal.)

But, of course, if Ontario is going to ask Ottawa for a municipal bailout, then we’ve thrown the idea of “exclusive provincial jurisdiction” out the window anyway. Now the only question is what the federal government will demand in exchange for turning on the multibillion-dollar money hose.

If the prime minister is looking for advice, I have some. 

Ottawa should demand that the Ontario legislature, in its next sitting on May 12, (a) entirely repeal the changes to the City of Toronto Act passed in the summer of 2018, and (b) declare that (unless the Toronto council votes otherwise) the city’s next election will take place under the 47-ward map Ford tossed in the dustbin.

Would it be irresponsible to pick a fight with the provincial government during a crisis? No. The original sin here was the Ford government’s own irresponsibility (even if it has tried to pivot away from chaos since the premier turfed his chief of staff last summer). Leaving an error uncorrected is irresponsible; fixing it isn’t. The Tories could have corrected this error on their own any time before now; they’ve chosen not, perhaps because they’d rather not be reminded of their shame.

I am not optimistic that the Liberals will do this. There will be too many voices in Trudeau’s office counselling him against inflaming tensions with the premiers at a time like this and warning that an issue such as the size of Toronto city council is too arcane to start a fight over.

To that, I simply say: the Liberals currently have a minority in the House of Commons, don’t know when the next election is going to be, and can’t count on the generosity of Toronto voters to last unless they occasionally demonstrate that such support is actually worth something. This city ought to matter to at least one level of government in this country, after all.

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