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Ontario to Toronto: Grow Up

We've long complained we don't have control over our own affairs. Now the province is handing us responsibility for a major decision on a silver platter, and Rob Ford's handing it right back.

Rob Ford during city council's transit debate this month.

This morning Bob Chiarelli, Ontario’s transportation minister, addressed a full house at the Toronto Board of Trade. He was there to talk infrastructure, and specifically transit infrastructure, our city’s favourite topic of conversation these days. Not much new came out of it: predictably, he blamed the Tories under Harris for stalling development with their fill-in-the-Eglinton-hole decision; predictably, he repeated earlier assurances that the $8.4 billion the province has promised to Toronto for transit projects is still safe.

Slightly less predictably, he called our mayor a failure.

Speaking to media once his official remarks were done, Chiarelli said:

In Ontario, council is supreme. Council makes the decisions. The mayor’s role is to demonstrate leadership, demonstrate consensus-building, be able to move with public consensus. The best mayors are ones who can be facilitative in nature, because they do not have the power to do things on their own… That’s the reality. That’s the difficulty and the challenge of being a mayor in Ontario—that you’ve got to build consensus. You’ve got to be able to get the votes at council. That’s your job: to lead by building that consensus and moving forward.

There have been many, many mayors who have been able to change city council. There have been many mayors who’ve had support of city council and lost it. The art of being a mayor in Ontario is the art of building consensus and moving forward with the votes on council.

Of course, immediately after one journalist asked if Chiarelli was saying Rob Ford is a failure, and he gave a standard politician’s reply: “I’m not going to comment on the mayor’s performance.” But he just had, and everyone in the room knew it.

That Ford has entirely bungled the transit file is hardly news, though higher orders of government aren’t often so blunt about making that assessment. What is more interesting is that, at least so far, the province isn’t doing what higher orders of government often do, and using that as an excuse to seize as much power as it can. Also this morning, Chiarelli said:

City council’s going to have to self-impose its own deadline. City council is elected by the people of Toronto, they are accountable to the people of Toronto, and it is their decision to make. It would be fair to say that it’s an admission of failure on the part of this city council, the whole administration, if they say “we can’t do our job, bail us out.”

Municipalities in Canada, Toronto foremost among them, are wont to complain, loudly and often, that they are the orphan stepchild of governance—”creatures of the province,” lacking robust taxation powers, in our case forced to deal with a strange beast called the OMB when it comes to simple development appeals. There is a great deal of truth here: Canada is now anchored by major urban centres and hasn’t adapted its governments to suit that relatively new reality. But here, at least, is a case of a provincial government handing us—the City of Toronto—leadership of an important issue on a silver platter. Ford’s response thus far: demur, deflect responsibility, diminish our own role by saying we can just provide advice but the province actually calls the shots.

As it turns out, Queen’s Park doesn’t want to call the shots. This isn’t, mind you, a sign of charity or altruism or some high-minded sense of duty to let Toronto chart its own course. The transit debate is a decades-old quagmire, and they’d like to keep as clear of the mud as they possibly can. It’s very hard to wade into Toronto transit planning and come out looking good; from the province’s point of view, they aren’t so much ceding power as passing the buck on a problem nobody’s been able to solve. They bungled, badly, when they let Ford rewrite the terms of their agreement and jettison a light rail network in favour of a buried Eglinton line, and they bungled again when they let a year go by before noticing that city council hadn’t ratified that decision. So they are washing their hands of things, and leaving us to our own devices.

Ford should take them up on it anyway. Transit planning is an utter mess, with a long and toxic history, and he has only made it worse. But there are compromises that could be struck: if council’s self-proclaimed fiscal conservatives are calling for a sales tax to pay for transit, and council’s centrists were willing to trade an at-grade LRT on Eglinton for Ford’s subway on Sheppard (as they were a few weeks ago, before the special council meeting on transit), there’s clearly room movement on both sides, if only Ford showed some willingness to embrace negotiation.

More importantly, there are precedents to be set. If Toronto, somehow, can get it together long enough to agree on a transit plan and make it stick, that’s the best possible case we can make that we are, in fact, a mature order of government that ought to have greater latitude to control our own affairs than we currently do. A majority of councillors have shown, and continue to show, that they are capable of this. They built a consensus around the waterfront. They built one around changes to Ford’s budget, around the light rail plan, and most recently around a more measured approach to the sell-off of TCHC property. Ford needs to stop throwing temper tantrums and realize that, though they may have their own cynical reasons for wanting to stay out of it, the province has given him the greatest gift a politician could ask for: the opportunity to rescue an important policy, and the ability to claim ownership of that victory.

If our mayor doesn’t want that chance, he should get out of the way of his colleagues on council who do.


  • Matthew Harper

    It seems like the strategy of Rob Ford, Bob Chiarelli and Dalton McGuinty is to make excuses for inaction that totally ignore reality to justify delaying transit construction in Toronto for as long as possible.

    • DemocritusII

      Huh? That hardly makes sense…

      • Anonymous

        That which doesn’t make sense makes sense when the mayor does it. The logic here is probably that if he can’t get his plan, no one else gets their either.

  • Anonymous

    Ford will never change. He lacks the education, he lacks the temperment, he lacks the intellect, he lacks the interest and he lacks the experience. Why change now?

    The fault simply lies with the electorate for electing him in the first place – and I’m blaming my own shortsighted family relatives here as examples of those who simply didn’t pay attention to the campaign or what they were truly voting for.

    Now that the wool is off the eyes, the best course is to use council to contain Ford and render him as powerless as possible so that a real mayor can take over with as much of a functioning city as remains after 4 years of being a vegetative state.

    • Paul Kishimoto

      Some of Torontoist’s old comments are missing, but I remember saying something very similar the night Ford was elected. I think the words were, “Any progress now will only come at the expense of eroding and circumventing the power of the mayor.”

      This is something that will have to be undone once the next, progressive mayor takes office, if (s)he is to accomplish anything. This impact of the gravy trainwreck will last far beyond Ford’s term. But I think you’re right that it’s the least bad option.

    • Testu

      Who would have thought that an ineffectual councillor that spent his 10 years on city council fighting with everyone would end up being a terrible mayor that is unable to build consensus or accomplish anything? Really, there’s no way the voting tax payers of this city could have seen that coming.

      It’s a race to the bottom and we’re in it to win it. The people of the city spoke, they wanted a bold leader who would gut the city and sell the corpse. They got him.

    • Waltman3

      Very well put. I agree with all your comments except l DID NOT VOTE FOR FORD.

  • Anonymous

    How embarrassing.

    Thanks again, Ford Nation.

    • Anonymous

      The photo of Ford (top): dead man walking.

  • bob

    Well written post. It shows you understand municipal government, reinforcing the point that Canada has a “weak” mayor system. That is, as you said, “Council is supreme”. Ford is merely another councillor, writ large for symbolic value, chairing meetings, building council consensus.

    The focus on Ford is properly shifted to the whole membership of council itself. They have in their collective power to do what they want, being supreme. That Ford may be failing as a mayor is only half the story; council may be failing an elected body, giving the mayor far too much rope.

    I shudder to think of what it’s like in the administration, the staffers. Doubtless, there’s a wealth of talent, expertise and hard-working managers, including the CAO. It’s probably a living hell working for the city, given the poison of its politics.


  • D Lorac

    Although I believe in not spending more than one can afford. I find it disturbing, though, that the downtown city counselors led by Stintz are thumbing their noses at the suburbs and, as they ride their fast already completed subways, effectively tell the rest of the city to “Eat Cake”. If we don’t have the money now then only build part of it until the money can be found to do the rest, but don’t do as Stintz is trying to do, spend good money to force cheap LRT’s on a population that doesn’t want them!!!!!

    • spicygarage

      Contrary to popular opinion (“popular” being the operative word), subways are not shiny gold stars awarded on neighbourhoods to make their citizens feel better about themselves. Subways are heavy transit that must meet specific density, ridership, connectivity, and planning criteria.

      Emotional arguments like “we deserve subways” and its twin, “we’d rather have nothing than LRTs”, have unfortunately superseded the advice of experts in urban and transit planning. The result: bucketloads of gravy spent on a vote-getting, vanity project for our mayor and some spineless councillors.

      I believe that transit is the single most important issue facing our city. There’s no way our streets can transport 50% more people in 25 years via single-driver automobiles. As a downtowner, I will gladly pay higher taxes to support our suburbs — you read that right, “downtowner”, “support” and “suburbs” in the same sentence — as long as we all pay for appropriate transit at the appropriate place. Just like a childless couple has little to back up claims that they “deserve” to be given an 8-seat SUV, our suburbs don’t have the density to warrant expensive subways.

      What our suburbs do have, right now, are masses of people waiting by the curb as yet another overpacked bus passes them by. (Hello, Finch West) Every dollar overspent on giving Scarborough a gold-plated upgrade from the appropriate LRT is a dollar that could’ve brought higher-level transit to many more people all over the city. This is not telling Scarborough to “eat cake” — it’s telling Scarborough that people in Etobicoke, North York, etc. are equally desperate for higher-level transit.

      The “build subways a bit at a time, as money allows” argument works both ways: even if we followed that strategy, we could build twice as much LRTs for the same amount of incremental money, serving twice as many people. So your argument doesn’t give the “subways everywhere” crowd any more credibility.

      As for the population rejecting LRTs: How can they reasonably object when no LRT exists in Toronto right now? People think Spadina — a streetcar ROW in gridlocked Chinatown, packed with people determinedly dragging their little grocery cart aboard the crowded vehicle. People think St. Clair — a streetcar ROW whose positive net effects have been concretely proven, but remains a “disaster” in the minds of those receptive to the constant lies from the Sun and the Fords. People think they’ll lose a car lane, when none of the Scarborough LRT and little of the Eglinton LRT would take away car space.

      Until the Eglinton Crosstown is actually in operation, Torontonians have no local, concrete example of its utility in the space between buses and subways. There are tons of reports and studies and testimonials from abroad, but such evidence is currently dismissed (those elitist, effete Europeans!) by the subways-everywhere crowd.

      And even if some road space was shifted from low-density, unscalable car usage to higher-level surface transit — would that automatically be bad? Not for the city: our limited road space would carry many more people. Not for the economy: billions lost annually to wasted time and business opportunities would decrease.

      Ahh, but car drivers would be inconvenienced. And that’s where I believe the heart of the subways-everywhere lies: it’s not about caring for your fellow citizens, wanting them to get faster underground travel. It’s not about being genuinely concerned about development over future decades. It’s about keeping “those damn streetcars” out of the way of “me me me”, the lone car driver. I believe drivers don’t care if our city goes bankrupt in the process, or if masses of people still wait for 3 buses to get on board. They just. Don’t. Care. Spend a billion more money, 3 billions, 10 billions, just bury the damn things so that “I” get more road space for myself.