Could Toronto go it alone?

Some of Canada’s smartest urbanists figure Toronto’s financial problems would be over if it became the country’s 11th province, but voters don’t seem to care

This story first appeared in The Globe and Mail on March 5, 2005 and despite the amalgamated city’s continued slide into dysfunction and left-right whipsaw politics, nobody appears to have seriously discussed 416 secession since. Among the bits trimmed to fit the print section was a comment from Jane Jacobs (1916-2006), that Toronto did indeed have a wasteful and extraneous level of government before amalgamation was imposed, but it was Queen’s Park, not the lower-tier municipalities that made up Metropolitan Toronto. 

By STEPHEN WICKENS

David Vallance wishes Mayor David Miller all the best in his battles to wrest more funding and power from Queen’s Park and Ottawa. But now more than ever he thinks anything less than making Toronto Canada’s 11th province is a waste of time.

The idea isn’t new, nor was it when former mayor Mel Lastman threatened to pull the city out of Ontario during a spat with Queen’s Park in late 1999. The difference now — in the wake of a new budget that will see the city sell off land and lampposts to cover a shortfall in its operating costs — is that well-respected opinion-makers such as Jane Jacobs and Alan Broadbent feel Torontonians may be ready for a serious discussion of secession.

That encourages Mr. Vallance, 67, “a retired insurance salesman and a flea on the dog’s back” of municipal politics who has toiled for 10 years in obscurity for an idea most still consider loopy.

“Many people will take separation seriously when you present the truth about the fiscal flows,” says Mr. Broadbent, former head of the Canadian Urban Institute.

Mr. Broadbent, who’s now CEO of Avana Capital Corp., figures if the city could keep just 5 per cent of the estimated $11-billion that Queen’s Park and Ottawa siphon out of Toronto each year, it could balance the budget and invest seriously in crumbling infrastructure.

Ms. Jacobs, who has been convinced Toronto needs provincial status since Mike Harris and Ernie Eves ran Ontario, thinks we’re facing “a financial and power [governance] crisis” that is being played out in cities across North America.

“If Toronto were a province, the municipalities within it could be quite separate and autonomous, as they were before amalgamation,” the author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities said in an interview last week.

Separation might solve it, she says, adding that transit, taxation and planning decisions suffer when provinces and states impose “a one-size-fits-all” approach to cities, suburbs and rural communities.

Eighty per cent of Canadians live in urban areas (including suburban sprawl zones), but cities have no constitutional standing in Canada. City officials can’t even adjust a speed limit without the province’s okay. But any serious talk of separation is more likely to be triggered by the fact cities must rely on property taxes, user fees and senior governments’ largesse to help cover costs.

Premier Dalton McGuinty, acknowledging the city lives in “a fiscal and legislative straitjacket that would baffle Houdini,” agreed in September to talks on a new City of Toronto Act, and Phillip Abrahams, the city’s intergovernmental-affairs manager says they’re going well.

But considering Ms. Jacobs has been described as a muse to the Mayor, Mr. Miller may have interesting views on what to do if the talks bog down.

Is provincial status a fallback position? Have we fully studied the ramifications of secession? What are our legal options?

Repeated requests for a brief interview with Mr. Miller were denied. Spokeswoman Andrea Addario sent a terse e-mail stating only that “his views are that the city should have the powers of a province, not that the city should be a province.”

“I guess it’s a touchy subject right now,” says Mr. Vallance, who expects the City of Toronto talks to stall over money. “We may have to go further into crisis before we get a leader with the guts to take the necessary action.”

Ward 22 city councillor Michael Walker says the crisis is here and that we should put a referendum question on the ballot for next year’s city elections.

“The fact that we’re selling assets to finance operating costs makes it clear we’re headed for total bankruptcy unless we do something drastic,” says Mr. Walker, who also proposed a referendum five years ago, to no avail.

A referendum also appeals to Paul Lewin, a criminal lawyer who for six months in 2003 gave up most of his caseload to run for mayor. (Mr. Vallance organized the campaign, which tied for 37th place in the 44-candidate field.)

Mr. Broadbent, meanwhile, thinks a referendum could do more harm than good if we don’t have that serious public discussion first. “If you rush ahead and get defeated by about 90 per cent to 10, you’ve dismissed the argument for a decade.”

Mr. Broadbent, who isn’t convinced full separation is the only path to study, says talks must include “a strategy to win the day.”

University of Toronto political scientist Nelson Wiseman laughed aloud when asked if the day can ever be won, even though he says, “From a technical point of view, Toronto would be better off in almost any respect you can think of if it had the powers of a province.”

Others who have laughed off separation argue that a constitutional amendment is needed, and that would require the unlikely approval of Ottawa and seven of the 10 provinces with at least 50 per cent of the national population.

Mr. Vallance and Mr. Lewin say that’s nonsense, arguing that the Constitution Act of 1871 allows Parliament to “increase, diminish, or otherwise alter the limits of a province with the consent of only that province.” They also say the Clarity Act, based on a 1998 Supreme Court ruling that Ottawa must negotiate with Quebec if a clear majority were to pursue secession, must also apply to Toronto.

“Provinces have been created before and they will be again,” Mr. Vallance says, adding that “the craziest idea” about new provinces came from Prime Minister Paul Martin last year, when he mused on provincial status for Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. “The three combined have barely 100,000 people.”

There are divisions among those giving serious consideration to secession on what a new province’s boundaries should be.

Richard Gilbert, an urban affairs consultant and former city councillor and university professor, thinks some variation on the Greater Toronto Area would be best, pointing out that “more Torontonians now commute to jobs in Mississauga than vice versa.”

Mr. Vallance, who originally preferred the old, pre-amalgamation city of Toronto, thinks any new province should be based on the 416 area code. “If it becomes the GTA, we just continue funding an exodus of jobs,” he says, blaming provincial policies for making business property taxes much higher in Toronto than in 905. “Queen’s Park talks about a greenbelt, but forces us to subsidize sprawl.”

George Teichman, a civil engineer and commercial landlord who was a pioneer supporter of the cause, now has a different idea about where the boundary should be drawn. If any jurisdiction separates, it should be Ontario, he says.

“The problem started with Paul Martin downloading on Queen’s Park, which then downloaded on Toronto,” says Mr. Teichman, a leader in the North York campaign against amalgamation in 1997.

“Senior levels of government make it look as though we’re asking them for money, but it’s a case of them taking too much from us,” he says. “I own property in other cities, so I know it’s bad elsewhere. But Toronto is Canada’s economic engine and it’s getting hammered.

“Then Ontario has a $5-billion deficit and it has to send $23-billion a year to Ottawa to subsidize other provinces. If it loses the city, it’s in real trouble.”

But Mr. Vallance and Mr. Lewin feel Toronto has to be Torontonians’ priority. They expect to meet this month to start work on another mayoral campaign.

“I’d gladly step aside if we can get a big-name candidate,” Mr. Lewin says. “But if nobody comes forward, I will run again to carry the banner.

“I’m never discouraged,” he says. “I might say the song High Hopes is my inspiration.”

POST SCRIPT: David Vallance ran on the Province of Toronto platform in 2006 and got 486 votes, 36th place among 38 candidates. He ran again in 2010 and got 444 votes, 34th best in the 40-candidate race won by Rob Ford. The province passed the City of Toronto Act, allowing for a slightly reformed political structure and more opportunities to raise revenue. In 2010, MPP Bob Murdoch from the Owen Sound area called for Toronto to be hived off as a separate province.

 

 

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