The Province of Toronto. It’s a notion that has been considered before by prominent urban scholars like Jane Jacobs and slightly eccentric members of provincial parliament. But with Toronto’s mounting socio-economic issues and the provincial government’s recent announcement that it will be reviewing the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), the idea seems more probable today than ever before.
This year, Toronto became the Child Poverty Capital of Canada, with one in four children living in poverty. Additionally, economic polarization continues to be on the rise with the top one-percent of income earners sharing 17.5% of all income. Toronto is desperate for new revenue tools and serious plans to fight inequalities within the city. The province can no longer stand in the way.
Essential to understanding municipal politics in Canada is the conception that cities are only “creatures of the province.” That is to say that because cities have no constitutional establishment themselves, they rule at the will of the provinces. For Toronto, this has led to numerous decisions by the provincial government that have often contradicted the opinions of local activists and political representatives.
Most recently, this occurred in 1998 when the provincial government led by Progressive Conservative Mike Harris exercised its authority over the city. It amalgamated Toronto’s six regional municipalities into one city and pushed responsibility for numerous social services like public housing to the municipal government.
On a day-to-day basis, the province exercises its authority over Toronto through the Ontario Municipal Board. After the Wynne government announced that it would begin a review of how the OMB operates, Mike Layton, Joe Cressy, and Cheri DiNovo put forward a private members bill to completely disband the board.
The case against the OMB has been a long time coming. A 2009 study showed that the “impartial board” ruled in favour of developers in 64 per cent of cases against the city. As Councillors Josh Matlow and Kristyn Wong-Tam note, this means that in a time when Toronto needs more neighbourhoods with access to transit, vibrant business areas, green space and social supports, the OMB is increasingly averting the city’s planning division from creating such communities.
Most recently, the board superseded the authority of the city’s Committee of Adjustment and allowed the development of a 25-story condo in High Park, putting a strain on the city’s infrastructure and altering the historical landscape of the area. The board has also encouraged the intensification of the Young and Eglinton area, ignoring the surrounding neighbourhoods’narrow streets and overwhelmed public schools. They ultimately approved the construction of hundreds of large houses in residential neighbourhoods in the area.
The OMB is only the tip of the iceberg, however. The province has long restrained the city’s ability to take serious steps to fighting inequality and creating a world class city. For example, the province announced in 2008 that it would no longer fund Toronto’s Transit City Plan, leaving 45,000 low income residents without connectivity. In order to build a better city, Toronto needs autonomy in pursuing serious revenue tools like road tolls and a local sales tax to fund both transit initiatives and social services. It was truly unfortunate earlier this month when Mayor John Tory boldly proposal that the city should implement road tolls on major highways and numerous provincial ministers simply reminded him that this major decision was up to the province.
The Harris government’s decision to amalgamate the six metro Toronto cities took a reasonably functional governance structure that focused on a sense of local autonomy and efficiency, and replaced it with the highly polarized model seen in the city today. The province’s supervision of the city was proven even more pointless when the premier failed to strip Rob Ford’s powers in 2013.
Toronto is mature enough to manage its own destiny. The city has its own forty-four person council, ombudsman, and 34,000-person bureaucracy. The mayor of Toronto is elected by more single votes in each municipal election than any other public official in Canada. Toronto has unique infrastructure, economic importance and size, giving it enough reason to not be treated the same way as small Ontario municipalities.
With the next provincial election just over a year away, now is the time for Toronto to deliver a government to Queen’s Park on a mandate to not only disband the OMB, but to begin investigating the possibility of increasing Toronto’s autonomy within Ontario.
Image courtesy of BoldFace