Toronto as a City State… the idle speculations of big thinkers like Jennifer Keesmaat and Richard Florida seem like faint and distant memories now. As predicted here, the Premier’s hits on the City just keep coming, and no one will intervene in our defense.
Nothing is safe. Education, transit, and public health have all taken cuts that will leave the City with a big and growing deficit. The Province, or at least the Premier, has asserted control over anything and everything it chooses. As warned, cutting City Council in half was just the start.
Now Toronto has no say in the way it’s governed. It can’t decide where its subways will run. If the Premier wants a casino on the waterfront, there will be a casino on the waterfront. Soon the blonde steamroller will have flattened any hint of an uprising.
Then it will be too late to talk about how the GTA drives the provincial economy and fills the coffers at Queens Park. Any leverage with the governing Liberals in Ottawa will have weakened to the point of irrelevance. The City, as a political entity, will have melted down from the vital capital of finance and culture it once was, into a merely administrative jurisdiction, powerless but to obey the directions set by senior levels of government.
I’d be surprised if Premier Ford didn’t have his pals at the OPP working up grounds to threaten Toronto secessionists with arrest. I would if I were him. When you act as belligerently as he does against a political entity with the weapons at Toronto’s disposal, you really ought to be braced for some seditious blowback.
Toronto is unique among Canadian cities in the potency of its hard and soft powers. Neither is formidable on its own, but like nitro and glycerine, they become volatile in combination.
Although the City is clearly the junior level of government, and although antiquated electoral boundaries subordinate it to the collective will of rural and suburban areas, its residents generate such a large proportion of total GDP and tax revenue that even the most resentful and retrograde government leaders in the senior legislatures feel compelled from time to time help it out.
This power can be seen in the periodic interest the governments of Canada and Ontario take in Toronto’s rusting infrastructure. Every couple of years, they team up to fund something of significance, congratulating themselves heartily for the their generous use of Toronto tax money to stop the deterioration of Toronto. It’s not often enough to keep Torontonians moving on transit or housed affordably, but it is nevertheless proof that the senior legislatures are conscious of the city and its needs.
That doesn’t sound like much power, but in a country with rising deficits and debt, it’s good to be laying golden eggs. Even idiots will remember to feed that goose from time to time. So, as long as the goose remembers that it funds the farm, it needn’t suffer the fate of chickens.
If financial scale and impact represent hard power, think of how it might be leveraged through strategic use of Toronto’s unparalleled soft powers. Toronto is Canada’s most prominent international city. Although every part of the country markets itself to tourists as if it is at the epicentre of global culture, offering concentrated doses of modern and heritage architecture, urbanity and wilderness, local and international community, it is Toronto that foreigners know best.
Toronto is Canada’s financial capital and the destination for the most migrants and tourists from around the world. Ottawa, for all its contrived grandeur, may be the ceremonial host for international dignitaries, but Toronto is where they go for fun and to get their business done. A shabby, derelict Toronto reflects badly on the nation as a whole.
It also has the loudest voice of Canadian cities. The industries that generate political and cultural content, that shape debate, are rooted here more than anywhere else in the country. Other parts of the country, like Montreal, St. John’s, and Vancouver for example, punch well above their weight in this regard, but cannot match Toronto’s heft. This might be overlooked when talk of secession is limited to a couple of academics or consultants, but that sprinkling of protest can turn into a 120 psi fire hose once the full outrage at Premier Ford’s abuse is registered by the chattering class.
There is no doubt that Toronto can rise up and organize itself in resistance to tyranny. However the question is whether or not it will, or will do so in time to make a difference. At the rate Ford is dismantling the City, it won’t last until the next election. Historically there has been pattern of procrastination.
Remember the great anti-amalgamation referenda organized just a little too late to prevent the Provincial Conservatives from imposing the mega-city government on an overwhelmingly opposed population. The protest was impressive, however it must be admitted that it came years after all but the spine of the GTA had gone Tory blue.
Now extinct municipalities like Etobicoke and Scarborough embraced the neocons under Mike Harris, happily putting thugs like Doug Ford’s father into power, before realizing that their distinct and independent boroughs would be subsumed through amalgamation into a new Toronto. So, although they voted against the amalgamation in referenda, and protested when Bill 130 was tabled in the legislature, their fate was sealed when they elected the angry and aggressive Harris Tories. Like the frog in the sauce pan, they were comfortable with all the Toronto-hating, union baiting, right wing rhetoric until the Province sucked their municipal governments into the mega-city power vortex.
That was 20 years ago. Twenty five years before that, the good folk in the old City of Toronto managed to stop the Spadina Expressway levelling the loveliest and leafiest old middle class neighbourhoods from the city’s northern boundary all the way south to the lakeshore. However they didn’t manage to halt the bulldozers and pavers until the freeway was built from the 401 down to Eglinton Avenue, a busy commercial strip running across Toronto’s midsection. What resulted was a short, wide, high speed road from Canada’s busiest highway down into networks of narrow and slow commercial and residential streets that have choked up for hours every morning and afternoon ever since completion of what is now called the Allen Expressway. While this is rightly regarded as a huge victory, for which all of us should be grateful to then Mayor David Crombie, and allies like Jane Jacobs, in truth it was only able to halt half the expressway, and spare Toronto half the traffic pouring down from the 401.
Toronto rose up in defense of its virtue when the Premier’s brother, as Mayor, was championing a Provincial casino in the downtown core. Again there were referendums and protests, stern editorials and academic studies warning of economic and health consequences. For a time it seemed to have worked.
However what the now departed Mayor Ford was unable to accomplish, Premier Ford will see enacted. Woodbine Live, once a signature failure of brother Rob, is being built as a gambling and entertainment complex by brother Doug as part of the OLG empire. There will be others, most likely at a waterfront location, to which the Premier has plotted a dedicated subway service called “the Ontario Line.”
What this mixed history suggests is that Toronto hasn’t perfected its use of hard and soft power yet. After stopping the provincial expressway, temporarily halting construction of casinos, and failing utterly on amalgamation, it’s hard to imagine what sort of outrage is required to unite the city’s cultural leaders and captains of industry in support of its municipal government. Anything less won’t stop the marauding Province.
The chopping of City Council in half last summer ought to have been enough, but that stimulated only the meekest of suggestions from the likes of Keesmaat and Florida. The seizure, dissembling, and delay of transit plans might have been the utility pole that broke the camel’s back, but apart from some fiery rhetoric and stirring editorials from Council and the press, that seems to have been tolerated as well. Cuts to education, health, and transit budgets haven’t done it. Will a massive casino on the lakeshore do it?
The reason for speculation about the idea of statehood for Toronto is in part because it has all the attributes of an independent province, and in part because of the disparity between its autonomy under the constitution and the autonomy required to manage the prosperous regional economy and international financial centre that Canada and Ontario need it to be.
To leave Toronto under the management of the Province is a mistake. The business of the City is difficult to conduct when the Province, like a mafia landlord, decides everything important. How much money is retained for investment, how much is available for basic necessities, and how bad do things have to get before providing relief?
What’s most galling about this is the small “c” conservative belief in decentralizing and reducing the size of government. Local taxation and service provision has been the neocon mantra for decades, yet the Ford government, like his daddy’s Conservatives, like being the overlords of a municipality that is different in kind, not merely in size, from every other city and town they govern. It is complex, dynamic, internationally engaged, and constantly growing. A government dominated by members drawn from the 905, 705, and 514 area codes are generally unprepared for operation of the economic and cultural behemoth of the 416. Maybe that’s why Toronto’s MP’s and MPP’s belong to the opposition more often than to the party in power.
The problem with melodramatic secessionist talk is that it sounds extreme, and elicits extreme responses. Will the goose stand on its own two legs and fend off the blade, or will it chicken out and offer up its life with its last golden eggs? It sounds ridiculous because it's harder to imagine a swashbuckling goose, fencing with the halfwit farmer, than it is to imagine golden eggs dropping out of its butt.
A more fitting twist to the tale would be for the goose to hide and hoard its eggs until the farmer agrees to terms assuring the bird's safety, health, and productivity. That's obviously the best thing for both parties, but the goose needs to incentivize negotiations or the farmer won't come to the bargaining table.
Toronto doesn’t want to secede; it merely needs to change it’s relationship to provincial and national governments. Ignore the rash talk of secession and city states, and we can agree that a negotiation of special constitutional status for Toronto is long overdue. It can no longer be left to the goodness of time, nor to the good will of provincial and federal governments.