The mind boggles at how far back the agenda for a new deal for Canadian cities has suffered under the first few months of a new provincial government in Ontario, and it has nothing to do with ideology or partisan party politics.
A generation ago there was near universal consensus that as major urban metropolitan regions are the foundation of provincial and national economic growth, social well-being, and environmental stewardship, greater powers and own-source revenues need to flow to the constituent municipalities of these regions. They also required stronger governance structures to coordinate at both the micro and macro levels.
Hampered by the historic constitutional reality that Canadian municipalities are creatures of their provinces, efforts to empower cities like Toronto and Vancouver have had to find legislative work-arounds, like the City of Toronto Act and the Vancouver Charter. We’ve grown to rely on provincial governments treating cities like an order of government, even if they are not actually constitutionally so.
It is ironic, therefore, that another more modern constitutional reform, the Notwithstanding Clause, has been invoked in a manner to fully reverse the modern convention that a province should treat Canada’s largest city with “mutual respect, consultation and co-operation.” While Toronto may be suffering constitutional whiplash, resulting in the forced slashing of its council size, this transgression is far from the only act of anachronistic paternalism of recent years. Just over a year ago, for example, the previous government denied Toronto the ability to toll its own roadways. The Vancouver region was also subjected to a doomed provincial referendum thwarting its attempt to raise revenues for regional transit.
Compounding the pernicious tendency of provinces to meddle in what should be the exclusive interests of their large metropolitan cities is the structural handcuffing of regions to properly govern themselves. No large urban metro in the world has less municipal authority over regional matters than the Toronto Region, including such areas of jurisdiction over planning, transportation, economic development, policing, infrastructure, and the environment.
It’s been over 20 years since Dr. Anne Golden’s landmark Report of the GTA Task Force urged regional governance reforms to accommodate the reality that Metro Toronto’s population had spilled over its municipal boundaries. Today, Toronto proper is just 40 per cent of the GTHA (including Hamilton), and yet there are no municipal structures to coordinate this massive urban geography. 15 years of provincial Liberal government did nothing to address this deficiency, and the recent meddling in Toronto’s governance to the exclusion of the rest of the region seems to cement the fact that Ontario doesn’t understand or respect the basic needs of its big urban region.
In fairness to the governments of both political stripes, municipal leadership across the region has also been absent. With rare exception, there has been virtually no call for regional reform over the past 20 years. Mayors and councils seem content to govern within their political boundaries, even if their constituents live, work and play across them. Several businesses, social and civil society groups have filled some of the regional leadership vacuum, and an embryonic regional body, Toronto Global, was recently created to promote the region internationally. None, however, offered much by way of a protest to the aggressive or neglectful provincial interventions that have threatened the vitality of this region.
It’s a frustrating fact that in 2018 the 20-some year struggle to empower Canada’s big cities is further behind for the effort. Every step forward seems to be met by two steps backwards.
Renewed energy across the leadership of all levels of government and non-governmental entities is urgently needed to once again take stock of the needs of our big urban cities and regions. Doing so lends itself to no discernable political orientation or ideology.
A new, smarter deal for cities is neither a left, right or centrist idea. A new, smarter idea for cities is, however, an essential idea if Canada is to position itself for growth and competitiveness in the decades ahead.