Should cities remain creatures of the province? Yes

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Appeared in the Toronto Star, November 13, 2021
Should cities remain creatures of the province? Yes

Here we go again. The City of Toronto losses a battle with the province and the intelligentsia want to change the rules for everyone. Recently, in Toronto (City) v Ontario, the majority on Canada’s Supreme Court made it clear that municipalities have no independent constitutional status and that they’re completely under the jurisdiction of the provincial government. In fact, only a constitutional amendment would give Toronto that power. And that would open a Pandora’s box of problems with other municipal governments across the country.

Leaving aside for a moment that there’s no appetite for constitutional amendments (indeed, there are far more pressing matters for policymakers), it’s worth remembering what powers cities— including the City of Toronto—have in our system of government.

When the founders of Canada contemplated municipal government, they actually gave it little thought. At the time, provinces were barely given consideration and cities were irrelevant. The population was mostly rural and government played a substantially smaller role than it does today. Over ensuing decades, cities became the engines of the economy and as government expanded so did the need for cities to play a much more central role in delivering services to the public.

Toronto is unique both in terms of population and economic output. According to the most recent Statistics Canada data, Toronto accounts for 20 per cent of Canada’s GDP and 53 per cent of Ontario’s. No province surpasses the economic dominance of Toronto. Simply put, metropolitan Toronto contributes more to the country’s economy than any of the provinces, including the rest of Ontario itself.

Moreover, only two other cities in the country comprise the lion’s share of GDP for their respective provinces—Montreal (55 per cent of Quebec’s GDP) and Vancouver (56 per cent of British Columbia’s GDP).

But does this economic argument mean we should change Canada’s Constitution to give more power to Toronto, or even to the top three cities in the country? No. In fact, there are far easier mechanisms to give cities the tools they need to ensure good governance.

For example, existing provincial legislation. In light of the unique contribution of cities to Ontario’s economic vitality, the province reformed municipal governance with the Municipal Act 2001 and, most salient to this discussion, the City of Toronto Act 2006. These acts ushered in substantive changes giving municipalities far more clout and obligation than what would have been imagined in 1867. The City of Toronto Act gives the city far-reaching powers to provide “good government” that is “democratically elected… which is responsible and accountable.” The fundamental premise of the legislation is that “the Province and the City work together in a relationship based on mutual respect, consultation and cooperation.”

It’s true, back in 2018 when the Ford government cut Toronto City Council by nearly half, it violated the spirit of this Act by enacting legislation without mutual respect, consultation and cooperation. But crucially, it did not violate a key tenet of the Act, which allows the province to determine the “composition of city council and the division of the City into wards.”

Nevertheless, opponents to the move claimed the province had overreached, diluting the democratic process and the city’s power. But in reality, city council is far from impotent. According to the Act, the city can enter into agreements with the federal government and exercise broad permissive powers to pass bylaws on local boards, manage city finances and so on. While city council can’t increase income taxes or sales taxes (and we should be thankful for that), it can raise other taxes (e.g. property taxes).

An important lesson of good governance is to learn how to work with the rules you are given. It’s highly unlikely that there’s an appetite among the general public to open the Constitution and give the City of Toronto constitutional status. But there are other less-dramatic options. The provincial government should either consult more fulsomely with Toronto City Council or change the City of Toronto Act and allow the city to determine the composition of city council. No need to get the rest of us involved.