ULI Toronto News

The life and death of the New Deal for cities

Richard Joy, Executive Director, ULI Toronto





The dream that Canada’s largest urban hub municipalities, the engines of the national economy, will someday control the levers necessary for the advancement of their economic and social well-being is dying. Also on life support is the twenty-year effort to strengthen the regional cohesion of the Greater Toronto Areas (GTA), long considered critical to the global competitiveness of Canada’s economic capital.

For the second time in 18-months a provincial government has thwarted the initiative of a major Canadian city to advance its clear and unequivocal interests. Ontario’s denial of Toronto’s road toll plan follows British Columbia’s imposition of a no-hope plebiscite on the Vancouver region, crushing the bold leadership of almost all its mayors to fund transit expansion.

In the wake of the forced amalgamation of Metro Toronto in 1998, a national urban movement emerged led by philanthropist Alan Broadbent and Jane Jacobs. A major milestone of this effort was the convening of the C5, the mayors of Canada’s five largest cities. It exposed a complex set of challenges facing Canada’s big cities – none more fundamental than the lack of secure sources of revenue. It’s an idea that stood in contrast to what Jacobs described as the “sporadic acts of largesse” of senior governments to fund cities.

Other progressive developments combined to stoke a sense that Canada, a country constitutionally molded to an agrarian sensibility, was on the brink of an urban renaissance. The Supreme Court of Canada agreed that a suburban municipality of Montreal had the right to impose a pesticide ban despite not having clear legislative authority to do so – ruling that such a ban advanced a clear municipal interest. It was a legal break-through that turned on its head the idea that municipalities were nothing more than the narrow authority of powers prescribed by their provincial governments.

In the spirit of this constitutional ruling, two successive Ontario governments strengthened municipal authority by transitioning toward municipal acts that advanced broad spheres of power to allow greater interpretation of the municipal interest. Most significant of these reforms was the City of Toronto Act (2006) which further removed legislative boundaries to maximize public policy innovation opportunities. Across both waves of reforms, the city was given the authority to toll roads (Harris government) and a range of other taxing powers, including such things as a liquor tax (McGuinty government).

Federally, the NDP backed Liberal minority government (2004-2006) led to what became known as the “New Deal for Cities.” It recognized that, notwithstanding the constitutional authority of provinces over municipalities, modern national governments must direct increasing resources toward their major urban metros. Though a brief tenure, it ushered in the first, non-project specific, federal support for municipalities in the form of a gas tax share (a reform that the Harper government made permanent).

Regionally, the concept of the GTA had taken hold, the result of a landmark commission led by Anne Golden and an ongoing editorial campaign led by the Toronto Star. Golden’s 1996 report underscored the urgency for a wide range of regional governance constructs to coordinate services and policies that required such macro leadership. And while the amalgamation of Metro Toronto (1998), affecting only half of the region, ran counter to such recommendations, the creation of a weak but significant Great Toronto Services Board (GTSB), established a regional mindset across the GTHA (including Hamilton).

A few years later, the institution of the regional transit agency, Metrolinx, (which started out with a board of mostly municipally elected leaders), sought to channel and formalize this regional sensibility.

A decade or so later, so much has unraveled.

While senior government funding and investments have significantly improved, Mayor John Tory rightfully complains that as Canada’s largest global city mayor he still must walk up to Queen’s Park like a “boy in short pants” to seek permissions to govern. Not only was Toronto denied the authority to toll two major and expensive urban freeways (one of which was a former provincial highway) even less controversial taxing powers, like a liquor tax, have been denied.

Federally, expectations are rightfully high that the Trudeau government will be making massive investments into Canada’s large urban cities. But missing seems to be the central principle that such investments not be project specific – an issue that deeply complicates the ability for local governments make long range infrastructure plans based on their defined priorities.

Regionally, the symbolism of Premier Wynne announcing her refusal to allow Toronto road tolls at a press conference in Richmond Hill was a clear exploitation of the most troubling 416-905 political divide in twenty years. And while the occasion also marked the latest sharing of Ontario’s ‘sporadic largesse’ for all transit municipalities, it is quintessentially the stuff of Old Deal thinking; furthering municipal reliance on senior order governments.

The demise of the GTSB (2001) and the replacement of municipal leaders on the Metrolinx Board with non-elected provincial appointees (2009), has cemented the fact that the province is the de facto regional government for the GTHA. Unlike governance regimes past (going back over 60 years) there is now no vehicle whatsoever for municipally elected officials to meet, plan and act regionally. No major urban metropolis in the world has less regional organization than the GTHA – a stunning reality.

Today, mayors and their councils have only their local jurisdictions to be accountable to. Not surprisingly, GTHA municipalities are becoming increasingly parochial. Brampton’s refusal to link the Mississauga LRT to its GO Station and Toronto’s ongoing advancement of the Scarborough subway are two troubling examples. The coalition of 905 Mayors (organized by ex-Mayor Hazel McCallion) in opposition to the Regional Growth Plan reforms is another.

Taken in isolation, Premier Wynne’s replacement of locally levied road toll revenues with increased provincial gas tax dividends appears to be a deft political maneuver. Almost everyone wins, as TVO’s Steve Paikin blogged. But understood in the context of what the leadership of the Kathleen Wynne government know are the necessary conditions for the GTHA and its hub city to prosper – greater fiscal autonomy and regional cohesion – last week was a serious blow. A surprising contrast from a more optimistic ‘new deal’ era that many of the same leaders helped lead just a decade or so ago.

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