Toronto as a city state?…

A place to live, a place to grow, Ontari-ari-ari-Oh!

The people who govern Toronto periodically bemoan the constraints on their authority.  In Canada, cities are the constitutional children of provinces.

There are two approaches to fixing problems in the governance of cities.  The one favoured by provinces is the shrinking of problems through amalgamation and downsizing of municipal governments, as the Province of Ontario has done to the City of Toronto.  Another approach would be to shrink the role of Provinces in the governance of cities, which is an option timidly raised by urban thinkers in the news lately.

In choosing between them, it should be noted that the cities are not literally the children of provinces any more than provinces are the descendants of nations.  Provinces necessarily predated their confederation in 1867, just as city states predated both provinces and nations in the glimmering dawn of old world geopolitics.  All of these structures and relationships are of human design and can be recast to suit the interests of those in power.  Little or nothing of 21stcentury intergovernmental relations was ordained by God.

Every time there is an incursion of the province into the realm of municipal governance, someone suggests that Toronto ought to have greater authority over its own affairs. And then, after a squall of outraged commentary, the intolerable is tolerated, all is forgotten, and those rebel voices fall silent.

And so it was, in July 2018, when Jennifer Keesmaat intemperately declared that Toronto should consider seceding from Ontario to form Canada’s 5thbiggest province.  In what was widely construed as firebrand language, she only suggested thinking about – not acting on – this suggestion, and within a week had retracted the offending tweet.  But she gave utterance to an obvious idea that is only threatening because it’s so long overdue.

Section 92(2) of the Constitution Act was written more than 150 years ago when no one contemplated the size and complexity of a city like Toronto, nor the absurdity of governing it through a legislature in which the majority of rural and small town members have no understanding of its future needs.  In 1867, Toronto was first incorporated as a city of about 45,000 souls.  It was significantly smaller than both the cities of Montreal and Quebec.  Almost everyone in the province of Ontario worked in agriculture, resource extraction or transportation.  City dwellers were the minority.

Since then things haven’t changed by increments, they’ve been completely inverted.  Yet the same 150 year-old constitutional barrel hoops constrain a bursting municipal government that today serves a city that is different in kind not merely in size, from other Ontario cities governed under the authority of Queen’s Park.

We still operate three levels of government under these assumptions, that is absurd.  That a government greater than half of Canadian provinces by population, and greater than all but two in economic power, should suffer under the mismanagement of a provincial legislature is insane.

So, it’s not as if Keesmaat’s too-modest proposal hasn’t been thought or said before.  When the Province of Ontario decided to amalgamate the five municipalities that now comprise the “mega” City of Toronto, over the objections of almost everyone, there were dark mutterings about revolt. But no one knew what that meant. It was little more than a general resentment of misplaced authority among people who knew that their local government ought not be subject to the whims of provincial overlords.

That was many years ago, and there seemed to have been some progress since amalgamation was forced on Toronto.  Apparently there was less progress than imagined or hoped.  With the same high handed authority, the provincial Conservative government elected in June of 2018 had decided by July that it needed to cut the size of Toronto City Council by about 40%, and amidst a municipal election invoked a rare constitutional power (the notwithstanding clause)  to quell resistance.  This was another of those obnoxious incursions that make people like Keesmaat declare them intolerable, ruminate briefly about a remedy, then recant and tolerate it.  By the end of July, she was denying that she really meant it, and by the end of October, she was soundly defeated in her bid to become Toronto’s Mayor by a man many times more accomplished in the art of provincial appeasement than she could ever be.

Since then urban theorist Richard Florida has popped his head up in the municipal powers whack-a-mole game.  At a session of the Urban Land Institute, he reportedly called for Toronto to act more like a city state.

Note how deftly he too avoids a direct call for any specific action with regard to the constitutional limits on Toronto’s autonomy.  He doesn’t declare that Toronto should become a city state because, by his account, it already is one.  It just lacks the authority of a city state, so what he advocates is that it act like one.

This is very clever rhetoric of a kind that critics of Florida like to seize upon.  He’s right that Toronto or the GTA has many of a city state’s characteristics, which validates the positions he and Keesmaat almost had the courage to advocate.  At best they have correctly observed the surface appearance and avoided the substance.  Toronto cannot act like a city state without being granted the powers to do so, and so must remain trapped like a genie in a bottle, satisfying the economic and political wishes of its Provincial master.  So what Florida serves up as a recommendation is little more than restatement of the problem, just as Keesmaat’s talk of secession states an end with no means to achieve it.

Neither of them are wrong insofar as they go.  Toronto is a city unlike any other in the province or the country, for that matter. It’s regional economy and population, which deliver more taxes than are returned in capital projects or services, would outweigh the remainder of Ontario if they were to become separate jurisdictions.  Year after year, senior levels of government withhold autonomy from Toronto while it delivers more than its share of revenue to their treasuries, and less than their share of parliamentarians on a proportional basis.  Both Queen’s Park and Parliament Hill are indebted to Toronto, and sooner or later this imbalance of money and power will seek to correct itself. A reconsideration of the 1867 Constitution Act will inevitably come.

Yet it is not coming any time soon because we scarcely dare to mention it.  So firm is the provincial and federal grip on the City’s governance, and so desperately does the City need some of its economic surplus back for infrastructure renewal and poverty relief, that only people like Keesmaat and Florida have the temerity to point out the emperors’ shortcomings, and even then, only in the most delicate language.

This is curious. Given the addiction of senior governments to Toronto’s electoral power and economic wealth, the prospect a more independent Toronto should be more scary to them than to the City.  To be more like a province than like a city would be good for Toronto, however inconvenient it might be for everyone else. Why then is Toronto so reluctant to utter its needs and desires?

Since no one else is using this language at the moment, let’s imagine Keesmaat’s secession as the means to achieving Florida’s city state.  What would secession look like?

We associate secession with civil unrest and sometimes war.  In the US, in Scotland, Catalonia, Catalan, and closer to home, Quebec, the smaller and the weaker unit of government has tried and failed to break away. However, in Ontario, the struggle is more even, and in truly Canadian fashion, would be more of a negotiation than a conflict.  Armed insurrection is not a contemplated strategy of anyone seeking to augment Toronto’s municipal government powers for the first time since confederation.  It just isn’t.

Pushing all that melodramatic nonsense aside, we’re left with the challenge of provoking such a negotiation.  Of course this must be done in a way that balances the relative power of the two parties so that both have a chance of getting some, if not all, that they want. To achieve this balance, Toronto would have to withhold the two things that its political masters depend on it for – tax dollars and elected officials.  It’s not an issue of borders or language or human rights.  There are no armies to be formed, unless you include the regiments of lawyers and accountants required to assert Toronto’s right to a fair hearing of its bid for a greater degree of self determination.

What happens if City Council passed a resolution to collect and hold in trust voluntarily submitted provincial and federal income tax payments, on behalf of its citizens, until substantive constitutional talks are under way to remedy the current municipal-provincial power imbalance?  The case is strong enough to make federal and provincial resistance seem more provocative than the municipal provocation of this discussion.  It’s not an outrageous request, it’s an outrageous refusal.

Seriously ask yourself what the Province and the federal governments would do?  How would they punish the people of Toronto and their representatives without punishing themselves?  After all, Canada needs Toronto’s economy to perform at its best, even if they’re unwilling to grant the powers and resources to make this possible. Just think about the $6 billion annual productivity loss due to traffic congestion, and the overdue need for investment in Toronto’s aging infrastructure.  Toronto hasn’t got the means to generate the necessary tax revenue on its own, yet isn’t funded adequately from the money it sends to provincial and federal coffers. Arguably a stronger Toronto, in terms of greater self-determination, will yield even greater wealth to the province and the nation.

Maybe some perversion of the “rep by pop” formula would be invoked and Toronto’s parliamentarians would be evicted from Queen’s Park and the House of Commons.  They could join the skeleton City Council remaining after Premier Ford’s summer sackings and be paid from the withheld taxes from which they would have drawn their salaries in any case.  Indeed, all kinds of jointly funded plans could be executed with the withheld funds on behalf of the City, the Province, and the nation, until the point of crisis is reached.  Then the Province and the federal government will be forced to make an outrageous gesture of unjustified power, poisoning the GTA electorate against them for all time, or they will yield to the demand for negotiations and all will return to normal.

When the status quo is intolerable, it’s difficult to understand why all and any alternatives remain unthinkable, or once thought, unspeakable.  On this issue, the unthinkable has been thought and spoken. Now that the idea is finding its way into everyday discourse, we should stop pretending that the genie is still in the bottle and find a way to help the genie become the best version of itself.

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