While the Crack Pipe's Hot, De-Amalgamate Toronto

Ten reasons for Torontonians against Ford Nation to unite now and take back their city.

By Mitchell Anderson 11 Nov 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer based in Vancouver and a frequent contributor to The Tyee. Find his previous Tyee stories here.

As the Rob Ford train wreck careens off the tracks, many Torontonians are asking how their beloved city can find a way out of this mess. Last May I wrote an op-ed on why the problem with governance in Canada's largest city goes far beyond the Ford brothers and how this debacle (comparatively mild back in May) could act as a catalyst to revisit the gerrymandering of the city by Mike Harris back in 1998.

Things have obviously got a lot worse since then. There may be no better time to undo the damage done by Harris when he forced a shotgun wedding on five separate municipalities, four of whom went to court to try and block it.

Here is a list of 10 reasons why un-amalgamating Toronto is doable and why it should be done.

1. It's entirely up to the province. Just like back in 1998, the electoral boundaries of the city are the sole responsibility of the government of Ontario. City Hall has their hands full and they are certainly not going to take the lead on any civic surgery, even if they could. When Mike Harris rammed through this legislation fifteen years ago it was likely the most contentious bill in Ontario history. Two wrongs don't make a right but the power to revisit amalgamation is certainly there if the province wants to use it.

2. There are good faith ways to engage the public. Back in 1998, a metro-wide referendum found that 76 per cent of citizens opposed the merger. Mike Harris vowed to ignore the results and he did just that. In order to reopen the question, there is nothing stopping the government of Kathleen Wynne from striking an expert committee to study restructuring options, then holding another referendum and actually honouring the results this time.

3. There are political advantages for Kathleen Wynne. The provincial Liberals have been mopping up messes left by Dalton McGuinty for the past eight months. Wynne has been struggling to find issues to make her own while balancing a precarious minority government. The Ford fiasco is front-page news worldwide and she could take a decisive role in resolving this mess -- not just in ousting a crack smoking mayor, but fixing the structural and cultural contradictions that created this disaster in the first place.

4. There are political advantages for the provincial NDP. New Democrats have reason to support de-amalgamation since one of their stars, Olivia Chow, would easily become mayor of a rejigged Toronto. Without revisiting amalgamation many pundits believe that Ford stands a good chance at re-election. The last NDP-connected mayor of the city was Barbara Hall, whose job disappeared in 1998 when the megacity was created. The Liberals and the NDP should also work on playing better together in advance of the 2015 federal election. I have a hunch they can find some common ground in hobbling the thuggish power of the Ford bothers.

5. This is something that Kathleen Wynne cares about. Back in the day, she was the right-hand advisor to John Sewell, who was leading the anti-amalgamation campaign. Premier Wynne is on record as saying "I've knocked on tens of thousands of doors since I got into provincial politics, both in 2002-2003 and 2006-2007, and I have yet to meet anyone who says they think the amalgamation of the city of Toronto was a good idea... maybe that's a lie. Maybe I've met two people."

6. People are demanding this already. A petition to Premier Wynne has been circulating online and has already garnered more than 5,000 signatures. Petition organizer Robert Brodey implores the premier "It's time to correct the wrongs of the past so that each municipality can best determine how to serve its unique needs -- socially, politically and economically." Well said. You can show your support by signing here.

7. Anyone who thinks the status quo is working is on crack. The megacity was supposed to save $300 million annually. The city's operating budget has instead ballooned from $5.6 billion in 1998 to $10.8 billion in 2013 -- an increase of 93 per cent. Worse yet is the divisive culture war between the city and the suburbs. The enduring (and increasing) popularity of Rob Ford is perhaps the most compelling proof possible that downtown and the surrounding suburbs are different places that want different things. As they say, good fences make good neighbours.

8. Un-amalgamation is possible and has been done in many other places. Montreal and its suburbs were forced into their own loveless marriage in 2002. It was also a disaster so they got a divorce four years later. Four communities in Queensland, Australia recently voted to un-amalgamate after struggling with competing priorities from urban and suburban interests. They even created a helpful how-to document that is available here. Before Toronto's merger, 73 per cent of regional expenses were provided regionally by the now-defunct Metro Toronto, and could be so again.

9. It could make the city work better than ever. Back in 1998, Mike Harris unloaded hundreds of millions in services on the new megacity while providing virtually no way to pay for it. More even than Ford's crack problems, the delivery and sustainable financing of these services need to be fixed. The city needs surgery. Let's stop taking aspirin and hoping it will get better.

10. It would hurt Harper. Our increasingly scary prime minister benefits from an unholy alliance with the crack-smoking leader of Ford Nation and admitted as much when he quietly appeared at Ford's annual barbecue in 2011. A video of Harper's speech was allegedly suppressed by the PMO but you can watch it here.

There were sound diabolical reasons for Harris to gerrymander a jurisdiction with an economy larger than six of Canada's provinces. If Ford lasts out his term Toronto will have been governed by suburban right-wing mayors for ten out of 17 years.

Toronto's quandary is not unique, just unfortunate. Vancouver would never have a popular and progressive mayor like Gregor Robertson if it were amalgamated with the larger outlying suburbs. As it stands, Surrey and Langley have their own popular and not-so-progressive mayors, which is also fine. Different strokes for different folks.

Torontonians need to realize that regardless of Rob Ford, unless they revisit amalgamation they will likely be governed by suburban populists for the foreseeable future. The timing to undo this debacle will never be better. It's best to act while the crackpipe is hot...  [Tyee]

Read more: Municipal Politics

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