I have no idea what Ontario Place will look like in 2118, but I feel confident in predicting that Therme Canada’s 65,000 sq.-m human aquarium — or terrarium, as a friend recently put it — won’t be part of the picture, if indeed there’s any picture left to look at.
This preposterous pile of glass and steel and succulents will have long since collapsed or become so insanely expensive to heat and irrigate that whomever owns the thing will have pulled the plug, literally and financially, well before we get to the end of the 95-year lease.
There are, unfortunately, many ways to parse the absurdity of this arrangement, but I want to focus on one in particular, which is the way it reveals — yet again! — the disdain that the Ford government has for municipal decision-making and governance.
Even as Infrastructure Ontario was filing its voluminous re-zoning and development application with the planning department, the Tories were secretly inking a deal that makes a mockery of the Official Plan and the Waterfront Secondary Plan — democratically approved documents that represent the DNA of Toronto’s approach to city-building.
To say the Ford government was going through the motions would be to put it politely; the Tories simply don’t care about niceties like jurisdiction, and are more than happy to trample over any legislation, democratic norms or expressions of public concern that get in their way. Sooner or later, Municipal Affairs and Housing minister Steve Clark would have fired an MZO at the Ontario Place application, and news of the forever lease pretty much confirms his end game.
Doug Ford’s utter contempt for local government in Toronto, of which this episode is merely the latest example, dates back to his late brother’s term in office and has been given free expression during his own stint as premier. The list is long: halving the size of council, extensive meddling in the planning approvals process, gutting the public health budget, eliminating rent controls, and enacting the strong-mayor veto, an utterly insane affront to local democracy.
He has empowered Metrolinx to gut the TTC’s capital planning capacity, despite its abysmal record on the Eglinton Crosstown, which may not open until after Therme’s lease expires. Metrolinx has become the institutional embodiment to Ford’s indifference to public engagement, and it is led by a vastly over-paid yes-man — CEO Phil Verster — who seems to have forgotten that he answers to taxpayers and residents, not the premier’s office. City council and the TTC, meantime, are left to noodle over where to paint lines for bus express routes and send out celestial offerings in the hope that one day, the stars will align long enough to produce funding to build an LRT out to the Port lands.
Beyond the city-states of Germany, few metropolitan regions are truly masters of their own domain. But the near total unravelling of local democracy in the largest city in a G-7 nation is a singularly depressing example of what happens when we allow municipal institutions to whither in the face of unrelenting attacks on their credibility and their fiscal capacity.
Everyone knows the Ford brothers’ shrill refrains about City Hall’s profligacy — how ironic, given the extravagant sums the premier is prepared to sink into Ontario Place. But Doug’s assaults would not have been successful had it not been for his enabler in the mayor’s office. John Tory spent eight years systematically giving away the city’s formal and political clout in the name of some kind of Faustian bargain, the dividends of which can no longer be discerned.
To my eye, the grand question posed by this by-election is which candidate is best suited, temperamentally and politically, to begin the hard work of re-asserting the City of Toronto’s right to govern itself.
Let’s rule out, right away, Ford’s favoured choice, Mark Saunders, who will be manipulated at every turn, and city councillor Brad Bradford, whose strange goal of becoming John Tory, only moreso, seems, well, tone deaf.
I’m not going to speculate yet about which of the other leading centre or centre-left candidates — Olivia Chow, Josh Matlow, Ana Bailao — has the chops to do this particular job. But what I will say is that the next mayor will need to use their outside voice from time to time. They’ll have to be prepared to walk away from a negotiation instead of seeking out a deal at all costs. And they’ll have to make the case for progressive, responsive local government.
In short, the next mayor has to show up, and make it clear to voters and the province that while constructive inter-governmental relationships are important, they’re not the only way to manage the political space between 100 Queen Street West and Queen’s Park Circle.
As of 2023, we live in a municipality that has effectively ceased to self-govern. If the winner of the mayoral race can get only a single argument across, it is this: that Queen’s Park itself always benefits from a municipal counterparty that refuses to roll over and play dead.
After all, we know all too well where going along to get along has gotten us.