In Ontario, provincial-municipal relations are a bit of an on-again, off-again thing. It’s like a family relationship that goes through times of peace and times of war – but no matter what, you know you’ll still see the other person at the next family gathering.
Today marks the beginning of another dark era for provincial-municipal relations in Ontario.
Three months into a municipal election, and just five hours before the end of the nomination period, Premier Doug Ford announced plans to cut Toronto City Council in half and cancel the election of regional chairs, saying it was time to “reduce the size and cost of government.”
Wait. Haven’t we seen this movie before?
In the late 1990s, Mike Harris’ “Common Sense Revolution” promised to “reduce the size and cost of government.” Yes, that’s a quote. The exact. Same. Words.
What followed was without question the darkest period of provincial-municipal relations in Ontario’s history. Within the span of just a few years, the number of municipalities in Ontario was chopped in half, from 885 to 445, with more than 160 forced amalgamations and annexations – starting with the City of Toronto. The local opposition was fierce, including some referendums. The provincial government didn’t care. They did it anyways, causing an irreparable erosion of community identity and local decision-making.
But, did it save money, as promised?
It did not – quite the opposite in fact. The restructurings were followed by downloading of social services, and the creation of fewer, larger municipalities involved significant costs. Look up the number and cost of municipal employees in Ontario, and you’ll see that Harris’ “Common Sense Revolution” actually led to explosive growth in the size and cost of municipal government in Ontario.
Most importantly, this saga was a major step backwards for local democracy. It furthered a paternal pattern of provincial-municipal relations where people at Queen’s Park thought they knew best about how communities should be run. And it turned out, they didn't.
The funny thing is, Doug Ford knows this story well. His dad was an MPP during the Harris years.
Significant progress has been made towards stronger provincial-municipal relations over the past 15 years through changes to the Municipal Act, the creation of the City of Toronto Act, the reversal of some of Harris-era decisions including uploading social service costs, and unprecedented investments in municipal infrastructure.
Today marks a big step back.
It is often said that municipalities are “creatures of the province.” In 1867, Canada’s Constitution made provinces responsible for “municipal institutions” and all “matters of merely local” concern. But a lot has changed in the 151 years since then. At the time, these “municipal institutions” were small corporations established by the British Crown to allow citizens to make a few limited decisions about their own community. Today, these “municipal corporations” have grown into robust, capable, democratic governments – particularly in Canada’s largest cities.
No where is this more true than in the City of Toronto, Canada’s largest city and the sixth largest government in Canada.The preamble of the City of Toronto Act recognizes “the City is a government that is capable of exercising its powers in a responsible and accountable fashion.”
It’s not a “creature.” It’s a government.
Most reasonable people want to see their governments work together. Cheap shots, political power plays and needless bickering don’t help anyone.
Premier Ford, let’s keep the long game in mind. Ontario isn’t going anywhere, and neither is the City of Toronto. Another family gathering is always just around the corner, and if all we can think about is secession, it’s going to make things pretty awkward.
We don’t need a provincial government that threatens local governments, or undermines democracy. We need a provincial government that supports, empowers, and enables strong cities.