In Torontoist vs. Torontoist, two Torontoist staffers face off to debate an issue important to our city—and you’re invited, in the comments section, too.
Illustration by Marc Lostracco/Torontoist.
Earlier this week outspoken Progressive Conservative MPP Bill Murdoch, upset by the lack of subsidized coyote-culling in the hinterlands, went on record as saying that Toronto should say adios to Ontario and become a province in its own right. While PC leader Tim Hudak quickly distanced himself from the remark, Murdoch was echoing an idea that’s been pondered publicly over the years by Torontonians as varied as Jane Jacobs, Mel Lastman, and David Miller. So should Toronto go it alone? Torontoist debates the pros and cons.
Bill Murdoch hit the nail on the head, and not just because province-hood would defuse the eternal urban-rural tension over whether resources are better allocated towards killing coyotes or pit bulls.
Toronto is undeniably unique, and has interests—and costs—not shared by the rest of Ontario. As the largest city in Canada, the GTA is a magnet for people from all over the globe, with almost half of all immigrants to Canada finding their way here. There are numerous benefits to this situation, but there are also costs associated with absorbing tens of thousands of immigrants from a multitude of backgrounds.
Less obviously advantageous is Toronto’s role as beacon for the indigent, who flock to the metropolis in search of work and too frequently find themselves unemployed and underresourced in the costliest city in Canada. With one-fifth of the province’s population, Toronto carries 38% of the welfare caseload (while Ontario has agreed to reassume the portion of welfare costs downloaded under the Harris government, that process won’t be complete until 2018, and even then it could presumably be reversed at the whim of the province).
Size and population density also mean that Toronto requires more transit funding than other municipalities and this places greater demands on its infrastructure. City payrolls are more expensive across the board, in part because the cost of living is higher than other cities in the province.
The point of this “poor me” laundry list is that if this city is to be a sustainable enterprise, the current funding arrangement, whereby the provincials and the feds clean out Toronto’s taxpayers and return such funds as they deem appropriate, is untenable. We currently enjoy a political system devised when Toronto was a muddy backwater inhabited by the detritus of empire, and both city and province had economies largely based on agriculture. While there’s always been a mutual wariness between hayseed and city slicker, those competing interests were much more aligned in Queen Victoria’s Canada than in the twenty-first century, and the central authority was operating in a far less complex environment.
A 2005 report by the Conference Board of Canada [PDF] noted that every year other levels of goverment suck eleven billion dollars more out of the city than they deliver in services (to put that number into perspective, the 2010 operating budget for Toronto is about $9.2 billion [PDF]). With a limited number of “revenue tools” available at the municipal level, the current mayor and council have adopted a multi-pronged strategy to address the constant cash shortfalls created by this process:
- Slash expenses wherever possible (except for unionized labour and council salaries)
- Raise property taxes (a particularly regressive and inequitable way to collect revenue) beyond the rate of inflation
- Apply new levies to an already over-taxed population in the guise of user or other fees
- Turn up at Queen’s Park periodically and beg for a treat like a high school boy on prom night
Whlle these stopgap measures have kept the city from utter ruin (and even permitted a “surplus” this year), it’s time that Toronto took charge of its own fiscal destiny. This simply won’t happen as long as provincial governments need Toronto’s dollars to bribe voters out in the sticks. Sure, we’re happy to help out, but we’re paying far too much to subsidize other parts of the province, a situation which will only change when Toronto is a province with attendant powers of legislation and taxation.
The devil, of course, is in the details—what exactly constitutes “Toronto” anyway? Would we get to keep cottage country? Could we get the necessary approval from seven other provinces, long jealous of our glitz and sophistication? Should we turn Queen’s Park into a nightclub or a Costco?
Still, however challenging the undertaking, “Province of Toronto” sure has a nice ring to it. You’ve been warned, Dalton McGuinty.
People like to make economic arguments about how Toronto should become its own province. Certainly there’s no argument that we’re subsidizing the rest of Ontario; we’re a rich city and lots of parts of Ontario are, well, not rich. If we’re the economic engine, shouldn’t we see more benefits from our economic power rather than having to scrimp municipal operating funds out of property taxes and user fees? The answer to this question is “no.” Not through becoming a province, anyway.
First, there’s the practical argument against Toronto becoming a province, which is that there’s the very distinct possibility that it wouldn’t save us very much money at all. Presumably we would have to inherit a sizable portion of Ontario’s deficit, for starters; after all, a good chunk of that borrowed money did get spent on us, so we’ve got a responsibility to pay it down. On top of that, our existing municipal services wouldn’t translate over directly on a one-to-one basis. Sure, the Toronto police department could probably just be renamed the Toronto Provincial Police, but we’d suddenly have to pay for all that provincial infrastructure we wouldn’t have all of a sudden: our own Ministry of Health, our own provincial revenue service, all of that. The increase in bureaucracy would probably make Rob Ford’s head explode (which, come to think of it, is probably a reason to do it).
And, of course, once we’d established our own spanking new provincial services and still operated at a net surplus (assuming our new debt doesn’t make that impossible), guess what happens next: transfer payments! Yes, by making ourselves into a “have” province by eliminating our responsibility to pay for the rest of Ontario at a provincial level, we’d then have a responsibility to pay money to Ontario at a federal level! (And Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick, and…) It’s entirely within the realm of possibility that Toronto wouldn’t see much economic gain out of provincialization at all, or that we’d even take a hit.
But all of this is just the practical argument, and the practical argument is cold-blooded and doesn’t address the real reason that Toronto shouldn’t secede from Ontario, which is that it’s a whiny-ass-titty-baby thing to suggest. Christ, when did we turn into a cityful of Glenn Becks moaning piteously about how all of non-Torontonian Ontario is just a bunch of dirty freeloaders? We’re supposed to be part of a goddamned society here, not some psuedo-Randian fantasy where we kick away the parasites and leeches holding us back. It’s supposed to be a particularly Canadian ideal that we understand the concept of community, of the more fortunate helping out the less fortunate. Well, guess what: Toronto is, by any reasonable definition, “more fortunate.” We’re big and we’re rich and we’re not fucking Timmins. Certainly we can manage to be generous as well.
Did you read the papers just a couple weeks back about how the sovereignty movement in Quebec was taking a hit after Canada’s Olympic win because of our collective national pride? Remember how you thought that was a good thing? That’s because it was a good thing: we need to band together more, not split apart into smaller regions and emphasize our differences. And sometimes that means the rich parts of the country, like Toronto, have to pony up so smaller rural communities can continue to exist, not least so we can have somewhere to go on summer weekends when we’re all sick to death of the smog. Wouldn’t it be great if that somewhere wasn’t in another goddamned province?
This article originally, mistakenly, twice called MPP Bill Murdoch “Tim.” Torontoist regrets the error.