Monday, 11 August 2014

Election 2014: A Lost Opportunity To Push For A Real Deal For Cities

By Joe Fantauzzi

The Toronto municipal election has been dominated by coverage of issues such as transit, taxes and housing. Each of these issues unto themselves are important and crucial to a healthy, viable city.

However, this election is turning out to be a lost opportunity for Toronto's candidates to call on Queen's Park to loosen the political strings and establish a Real Deal For Cities that locates our metropolis as a viable, respected entity ─ instead of a so-called "creature of the province."

This analysis doesn't call for an amendment to recognize Toronto and other cities as third levels of government in the Constitution Act, 1982, but merely a push ─ a needling ─ of Queen's Park, and by extension Ottawa, to devolve new spending authorities and building mechanisms to Toronto within the framework of Section 92.8 of the Constitution, which as the sidebar to this blog notes, grants municipalities wholly to the provinces as if they were some sort of colony.

Rejecting the conservative and paternal framework of the current province/city arrangement isn't revolutionary. In fact, as Warren Magnusson tells us in "Are Municipalities Creatures of the Provinces?" while municipalities are generally seen to be at the bottom of the constitutional heap, many cities predate the provinces to which they are seen to be subservient.¹ Toronto is one of those cities: "a relatively late creation...(it) had been around in one guise or another for 74 years at the time of Confederation."² In other words, the historical record simply doesn't back up the creatures of the provinces mantra.

The neoliberalism (read: public private partnerships or outright privatization) of the modern age may also, perhaps ironically, back the argument for more official authority at the city level and a divesting of responsibility from the provincial and federal levels. That the federal and provincial governments are seen to have consumed all available sovereignty ignores the idea that many services are now "provided by agencies at one remove from government: private firms operating under service contracts, non-profit organizations with multiple funding sources and missions of their own, public authorities with their own boards of directors, regulatory boards, advisory agencies, joint ventures and all manner of other bodies"³. The provinces do not have "command" over what happens in the day-to-day operations of these agencies other than perhaps funding and defunding decisions, which some agencies may be able to get around depending on their revenue stream(s). The point here of course is that today, there aren't merely two levels of governance at play vis-à-vis services provided to Canadians ─ despite what the Constitution Act says about which level of government is "responsible" for the delivery of service. There are already more players than the province and Ottawa; why can't Ontario grant more power to the local council closest to those agencies making on-the-ground decisions such as the power to fund and defund? Or even the power to abolish and or assume control of?

In fairness, it has been tried before. The much-discussed New Deal For Cities was a hot topic in the early 2000s, culminating locally in the new City of Toronto Act, 2005. The truth, of course, is that the 2005 Act was merely an update to the very Act that precipitated the amalgamation of Toronto in 1998.⁴ The irony of using a tool that led to five municipalities (North York, Scarborough, East York, York and Etobicoke) disappearing overnight to somehow empower the city through new spending measures is rich. 

While the city now has powers of taxation such as the vehicle registration tax and the land transfer tax, substantive taxation powers, such as income tax and sales tax, remain controlled by senior levels of government. These are powers best managed by the city. People work in the city and buy things in the city. It is in the city and to the city that they should pay their taxes.

There is still time for the leading mayoral contenders to take up Toronto's cause. But it is looking less and less likely that such a task, one so clearly connected to the essence of what Toronto is to its residents, will be even discussed, let alone made an item of debate during this election campaign.


[1] Warren Magnusson, "Are Municipalities Creatures of the Provinces?" Journal of Canadian Studies, 39 no. 2 (Spring 2005): 7.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ron Levi & Mariana Valverde, "Freedom of the City: Canadian Cities And The Quest For Governmental Status," Osgoode Hall Law Journal, 44 no 3 (2006): 456

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