For some time, I’ve harboured a growing impatience with the occasional campaigns urging greater institutionalized independence for the City of Toronto, the latest of which — Charter City Toronto — surfaced last week and insinuated itself on city council’s radar. I fear my crankiness on this file may force me to relinquish my Toronto urbanism membership card. But I remain of the view that these asks serve to distract the public’s attention from much larger, and more intractable, problems.
The proponents, of course, would argue that a charter or some other type of formalized self-determination mechanism would allow Toronto’s residents and political leaders to do a better job of tackling the big issues — from climate change to financial sustainability — while fending off abuses of power, such as the Ford government’s assault on the 2018 municipal election.
They do have some specific evidence on their side: the City of Vancouver, for example, has used its charter status to exempt itself from the British Columbia building code and instead assert a more ambitious version that has, in the past two years, triggered a mini-boom in net zero and passive house development.
To its credit, the Charter City Toronto group, led by former mayor John Sewell, has sought to address the jurisdictional black hole at the core of the charter movement, which is, essentially, that what the province giveth, the province can also taketh away. If municipal independence is contingent on a provincial law conferring charter status, as is the case with Edmonton and Calgary, that guarantee of self-determination can only ever be as robust as the political will in the legislature.
To counter this paradox, the Charter City group has argued for an amendment under Section 43 of the Constitution Acts, and cites examples wherein individual provinces and the federal government cut bilateral deals to amend the country’s highest law. Finally, in a nod to the reality that Toronto’s urban exceptionalism is a myth, the Charter City proponents seem to be arguing not just for the City of Toronto, but rather a deal that encompasses all GTHA municipalities, or at least one that gives them the ammunition to negotiate their own freedom.
“No rules are fireproof,” the group states, “but the ones we propose would afford solid protection for the city.”
What’s not to love?
Against this seemingly persuasive brief, my question has to do with political culture, and the role it plays, or not, in the way a city asserts its right to govern.
I gladly concede that there’s a chicken-and-egg dilemma at play here. The Charter City advocates will say that the oft-cited arrested adolescence of Toronto’s political culture follows directly from the reality that the other orders refuse to treat us like a grown-up level of government.
I’m not persuaded, however, and we can look to the 13-year history of the City of Toronto Act for evidence that expanded powers didn’t produce more robust and purposeful decision-making. With the abuses of the Doug Ford era dominating our mental radars, it’s easy to forget that CoTA was on the books through the tenures of three mayors and two premiers before the current crowd at Queen’s Park decided to drive a truck through — or perhaps more accurately, over — the legislation.
Yes, CoTA was an act of the provincial legislature. But in the pre-Doug era, when council had a mostly cooperative dance partner in the Pink Palace, did CoTA yield dramatic changes? Its best-known application is, of course, the Municipal Land Transfer Tax, which has produced an ambiguous legacy – on the one hand, keeping the City out of the red as the annual LTT revenues piled up, but also deepening our addiction to the dubious windfall of rampant residential real estate speculation.
Despite a monumental amount of evidence about the structural instability in the City’s finances, council has never availed itself of any of the other taxing powers in CoTA, which are not trivial. And while mayor after mayor has balked at anything beyond the most marginal property tax hike come budget time, we continue to pour money into unsustainable capital schemes – e.g., the Gardiner East rehab — while letting manifestly necessary ones such as waterfront transit, to name but one, languish.
Same story with housing: year after year, term after term, Toronto council has tolerated a land use regulatory regime that demonstrably delivers vast benefits to the affluent while depriving everyone else of affordable housing. Just consider that the City of Mississauga’s definition of affordable housing is way more progressive than Toronto’s is (Mississauga’s benchmark is based on average incomes whereas Toronto uses an average market value test). Why?
The point is that for many years, Toronto enjoyed a mostly uncontested latitude to act in certain domains, but didn’t. We believe Vision Zero means more public awareness campaigns instead of infrastructure. We refuse to grow our tax base even as the 905 municipalities do just that. We subsidize wealthy and outspoken homeowners and throw scraps at everyone else. We waste staggering sums of money on capital projects that should have been deep-sixed years ago.
To me, the core problem is that Toronto’s political culture is built on a self-perpetuating foundation of complaint, incrementalism and compromised fiscal judgment. Perhaps more entrenched powers would change that stubborn equation, but I’m not convinced. What’s more, I certainly don’t rule out the possibility of another hard-right mayor, in the mode of the late Rob Ford, gaining power. Do we want such a person in charge, for example, of K-12 education, as the Charter City Toronto group proposes? I certainly hope not.
How we repair or at least reorient the city’s political culture is not unrelated to the debate about autonomy, but it’s not the same conversation. That question is about fostering a climate of resilient, inclusive and forward-looking governance, leadership and vision – all qualities that can deliver lasting change, but don’t, in my view, necessarily flow from the structural fixes proposed by the charter advocates.
Put another way, I can go out and spend $800 on a pair of top-of-the-line skates and a custom graphite hockey stick. But will that make me a better player, or merely a mediocre player with excellent gear?