Give credit to the mayor of Canada’s biggest city last week. He was invited on numerous occasions by an enabling media, hoping for a juicy quote, to dump all over Premier Kathleen Wynne for her putting the kibosh on his plan to toll the two major highways for which the city of Toronto is responsible.
And for the most part, he didn’t indulge in the overheated rhetoric that has too often become a staple of politics these days.
But there was one unforgettable quote that the mayor let slip: “It is time we stopped being treated, and I stop being treated, as a little boy going up to Queen’s Park in short pants to say, ‘Please could you help me out with something that I thought was in the City of Toronto Act that I could do?’”
Tory’s ire was completely understandable, given that Wynne had apparently already privately given him assurances that she’d green-light his tolling plan. But when Wynne’s entire 905 caucus — and some 416ers as well — threatened a mutiny, she changed her mind.
The premier’s volte-face raises many important questions, not the least of which is: When will it finally be time for the province to cut its apron strings to its larger municipalities, and let them make decisions like the mature, competent levels of government they are?
While under the Canadian constitution Ontario’s 444 municipalities are “creatures of the province,” and therefore require provincial oversight, permission, and regulation to do a host of things, it’s also fair to say that some cities are bigger than most Canadian provinces and would love the chance to run their own affairs with much less provincial interference.
I mean, why not start with political legitimacy? Kathleen Wynne got elected in June 2014 in her Don Valley West riding with 26,215 votes — a solid 57 per cent of the total votes cast.
But John Tory won the Toronto mayoralty four months later with 394,775 votes, good for 40 per cent of the votes cast in the 416.
Tory is a former chief of staff to Ontario’s second-longest serving premier, Bill Davis, a former senior adviser to one of Canada’s most transformational prime ministers, Brian Mulroney, and a former leader of the Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition at Queen’s Park. Seems like adequate experience to be the mayor.
Tory’s city manager is Peter Wallace, who didn’t exactly fall off the back of a turnip truck either. He spent three decades in the Ontario public service, eventually becoming secretary to the cabinet (essentially, the premier’s deputy minister, if you like).
Toronto’s chief planner is Jennifer Keesmaat, whose exceptional communications skills and frequent use of social media have opened up the city’s planning process to a great many residents who probably previously found the whole thing too arcane for words.
How exactly are these folks not ready for prime time? Why should they so often have to genuflect to the province to move forward on ideas that their council has considered and passed?
Clearly, Wynne’s predecessor, Dalton McGuinty, thought the capital city was mature enough to handle more powers. It was on McGuinty’s watch that the province passed the City of Toronto Act, giving the city additional legislative authority in a number of areas, including to raise taxes beyond property taxes. But that act is now a decade old and many municipal politicians I’ve spoken to say the city certainly feels the act needs updating.
And it’s not just Toronto. What about Ottawa, the province’s second largest city, where one of Wynne’s former provincial cabinet colleagues, Jim Watson, has been a popular mayor for six years? Or Mississauga, the sixth biggest city in the country, where former Liberal MP Bonnie Crombie is putting her own stamp on the city after succeeding the long-serving Hazel McCallion. “They should allow us to control our own destinies,” Crombie tells me in an email.
An increasing number of local politicians think the days of Queen’s Park treating municipalities like children need to come to an end. And no doubt, the mayor of Toronto told the premier of Ontario just that at their monthly meeting this morning. Tory later said to the media that he took “some encouragement” from his talk with Wynne since she once again acknowledged the province’s role in funding transit and housing, but added he remains frustrated that a plan endorsed by Toronto’s duly elected council was overridden.
What will happen to the Wynne-Tory relationship is another political question that needs answering. The two have managed to have not only enjoyed an excellent professional rapport (in spite of Wynne defeating Tory in the 2007 general election, when both contested the riding of Don Valley West) but also a burgeoning friendship, as the two seemed to be on the same page most of the time in dealing with issues related to their home town. Still, in the 35 years I’ve known Tory, I can’t remember the last time I saw him look so kneecapped by someone he thought was a political ally. The hurt and bewilderment were etched all over his face at last Friday morning’s news conference.
One wonders whether giving municipalities more autonomy could be a vote-winner for PC leader Patrick Brown, whose party has been unable to win a single seat in the 416 for four consecutive general elections. Treating the capital city with more respect could be a way to gain support in a part of the province that has been a wasteland for the Tories for 14 straight years now. Of course, Brown’s opposition to Tory’s tolling plan might complicate that.
Clearly, the events of the past few days have served as the starkest reminder yet that the practice of trips to the premier’s office “in short pants” really need to come to an end. And not just because it’s winter.
Photo courtesy of Steve Harris and licensed for commercial use under a Creative Commons licence. (See the uncropped version)
Get Current Affairs & Documentaries email updates in your inbox every morning.