Last Friday night, Canadians gathered around televisions across the country to cheer on the Toronto Raptors in what would be the final game of the NBA Eastern Conference finals. Even people who don’t usually follow basketball had become enthusiastic fans. It was the first time in history a Canadian team made the NBA finals, and you could feel the support of the nation behind them. Social media flooded with expressions of encouragement tagged #WeTheNorth, a wildly successful 2015 Raptors marketing campaign which had quickly become synonymous with Canadian pride. #WeTheNorth was bigger than basketball, often used or adapted to cheer on Canadian olympians and during other major sporting events. When a CBS poll referred to the Toronto Raptors as “other”, a brilliant letter from the Mayor of Toronto to CBS went viral and #WeTheOther entered the Canadian lexicon.
The point of this story is that Toronto is vitally important to Canada, whether we like to admit it or not. Toronto is Canada’s largest city and the capital of our largest province. It is our nation’s most significant economic engine, generating more than $250 billion of Canada’s GDP, and fuels one of the largest economic regions in North America. Toronto is celebrated for its diversity and regarded as one of the most livable cities in the world. In many ways, Toronto is an emblem of Canadian culture. From sea to sea to sea, Canadians like to claim a shared heritage with the likes of Frank Gehry, Christopher Plummer, Keanu Reaves, Jim Carrey, Margaret Atwood, Drake, Lorne Michaels — and the list goes on. Well, those people are all from Toronto.
In a 2000 essay, Jane Jacobs and Mary Rowe put it this way:
“Toronto has become a region of global significance. […] The Toronto region generates wealth, incubates culture, fosters innovation, harbour capital, educates and trains people, welcomes thousands, employs hundreds of thousands, and transports millions every year. Toronto matters – and not just to those who live or work in it. It matters to everyone concerned with the economic and cultural vitality of Canada and North America.”
The bottom line: Toronto matters. And so does its leadership.
No discussion about Toronto politics is complete without mention of two key events in the city’s recent history: first, the 1998 amalgamation which merged the regional Metro Toronto and six lower tier municipalities into a single municipality, often called the “megacity”; and second, the passing of the City of Toronto Act (COTA) in 2006, making Toronto the first and only municipality in Ontario to have its own legislation and providing some new powers to the municipality.
Both of these events marked significant points of change in the governance of Toronto. They created focal points for decades-old discussions about what municipal governance could and should look like; what powers mayors and councils could and should have; and most significantly, what powers cities could and should have.
Yes, these discussions were about Toronto. But they were also about local government in Canada. True to its important position in our country, Toronto has been something of an urban laboratory for key questions about cities and local leadership in Canada for most of its history.
Today Toronto is governed by a 45-member council, which includes a mayor and one councillor representing each of the city’s 44 wards (with about 55,000 residents in each). Council oversees an annual operating budget exceeding $11 billion. Each member of council sits on a variety of standing committees, as well as one of four geographically based community councils which have delegated authority to make decisions about local issues such as some planning and transportation matters. In the words of one interviewee, “this has the effect of clearing the deck of the council agenda from local issues […] taking care of about 1,900 agenda items a year.”
Under the COTA, Toronto’s mayor holds the same powers as every other mayor in Ontario: the mayor is the “chief executive officer of the municipality” with broad duties to uphold the purposes of the municipality, promote public engagement, and represent the city and advance its interests. However the role of the mayor is unique in other ways. Toronto mayors can rightly claim to have been directly elected by more people than any other politician in Canada. Toronto’s mayor is supported by a larger office and more resources for his office than any other mayor in the province.
Interestingly, even some of my most experienced Toronto interviewees were under the impression that the COTA provided the mayor of Toronto with more power. I had to seek expert clarification on this, as I couldn’t see any difference between Toronto’s legislation and that of other Ontario municipalities. Indeed, it was confirmed that the COTA did not provide any additional powers to the mayor of Toronto; however, a report from a special advisory panel around the same time recommended Toronto council broaden the mayor’s scope of responsibility. Many of these recommendations were implemented, including providing the mayor with the ability to appoint deputy mayors (of which there are four) and committee chairs.
My study is about the role of the mayor; it is not the people in the job. But, as would be expected, I heard an earful about specific mayors during my Toronto interviews – and in particular, the polarizing leadership of Mayor Rob Ford. Since being elected mayor in 2010, Ford was embroiled in scandal. It started with a conflict of interest lawsuit resulting in temporary removal from office, and climaxed with an internationally reported substance abuse scandal. Calls on the province to remove the mayor from office or take away his powers were met with hesitation to get involved. And so in November 2013, Toronto council voted to strip the mayor of most of his authority. Perhaps in title alone, Ford continued on as mayor until the next municipal election in 2014.
The Ford saga is important to this study is because it generated intense conversation about the role of the mayor. Was Ford’s notoriety hurting Toronto, or helping it? How does who the mayor is impact a city? Who has (and should have) the authority to grant or limit the power of mayors? Who sets the parameters of what the role of the mayor looks like? What is the role of the mayor, anyway?
These are not just Toronto questions; they are Canadian local government questions. I heard many interesting, sometimes competing, and always well considered perspectives on these bigger picture issues during my Toronto interviews, all of which will go a long way towards shaping the final product of this study.
I’ve now interviewed dozens of people in six provinces. Clear patterns are emerging. And while every interview offers new insights, I can usually tell within a few minutes when I’m speaking with someone who has clearly given the role of the mayor a lot of thought and has unusually insightful reflctions to share. Here’s one example from a Toronto interviewee:
“A mayor represents the collective psyche of a city at a particular moment in time. Sometimes it’s during the election. Sometimes it’s a longer period. That’s a really significant obligation, to be the owner of that spirit and the representation of collective will. […] It’s different than being “the face of the city.” The mayor is the embodiment of hopes, of dreams, sometimes anger. Being a mayor is about honouring that spirit.”
This individual went on to describe what this means in practice – the challenges it creates, the tensions it establishes, the pressures it puts on the person in the job – offering several specific examples. Now, not everyone sees the role this way. But, it struck me that the mayor of Toronto may be in an usual position of needing to honour the city’s spirit, and have some role in honouring the spirit of Canada. Whether that means writing a letter to CBS or calling on federal leaders to welcome more refugees, the mayor of Toronto has a one-of-a-kind bully pulpit which can be used for good and bad. Toronto matters to Canada, and so does its mayor. We don’t usually think of mayors as having national importance, but to me, Toronto is the most extreme example (among many) of how we have seriously underestimated the role of mayors in the leadership of our country.
My #WeTheNorth t-shirt arrived in the mail today. I just couldn’t help myself. I don’t own a single basketball jersey or other piece of sports paraphernalia, but this one I’ll wear with pride. Like many, I’m a fair weather sports fan who cheers loudest when it’s less about the sport and more about the what and who the team represents.
And, I now have something to wear when the Toronto Raptors bring home the NBA championship next year.
Toronto City Hall.
Toronto, from the sky.
A couple worthwhile reads about Toronto politics. There’s one more not pictured here that should be: Some Great Idea by Edward Keenan. It’s my favorite little book about Toronto politics. The keeners among you should check it out.
Every blog post seems to need a food shot. So here’s my Toronto recommendation: get the salted caramels and a good red wine from Nota Bene. I promise you will thank me.
As I said, I’m an enthusiastic fair weather fan.
#WeTheNorth! Oh – wrong sport. #OurMoment!!!