Canadian Commentary: Constitution and Politics

What to do: Toronto

May 1998

Ontario will face an election within the next year. In the past four years, the Conservative government has thrown Ontario into chaos with a series of poorly thought-out policies which eviscerated the province's institutions without replacing them with effective alternatives. Unfortunately, Ontario's opposition parties have been reluctant to offer serious alternative policies for fear of alienating voters. So I have started a series of columns outlining how I think Ontario's problems should be solved. Here is the first.

Apologies to those who live outside Toronto for such a parochial arcticle; but I think that anyone living in a large city might find the issues interesting. Even rural areas of Ontario are getting amalgamated, and this model might be useful in constructing a better governance system for such areas as well.


The amalgamation of the six cities of Toronto was widely opposed by the citizens of the cities (both those living downtown and in the suburbs) and by those knowledgeable about urban issues. They pointed out that experience had shown that municipal jurisdictions of over a million inhabitants had proved difficult to manage, bureaucratic and unresponsive to their inhabitants. All of these fears have been realized. The huge council (57 councillors) has been cumbersome and unproductive; the small local issues which are the bread and butter of municipal government take for ever to resolve; and the council only balanced its budget through a possibly illegal loan from the province. Meanwhile, the local "community councils", which are supposed to take care of local issues, can't do anything because they have been given no legal powers and no budgets. The whole process is a disaster.

The justification for the amalgamation was that there were "too many levels of government" in Toronto. In fact, however, the previous division of powers made a great deal of sense. Local city councils took care of local issues of immediate concern to citizens: parks, libraries, and especially zoning and urban development. A Metropolitan council took care of broader issues: social services, police, transportation. The problem lay, not in the division of powers, but in the fact that there were too many politicians. Before 1988, the Metro council was made up of representatives from the local councils (and possibly some appointed members). This system worked fairly well for three decades, and meant that there was no incentive for the two jurisdictions to fight each other (since they were controlled by the same people). In 1988, however, the Metropolitan council got its own council elected separately. Of course, since they dealt with issues removed from daily life, no-one paid much attention to them; at the same time, since the councillors were now devoted soley to the metropolitan governemnt, they wanted to increase its role (read: budget, power and bureacracy). This process led inevitably to the amalgamation.

The solution, then, is not to simply return to the pre-almagamation system. The solution is to return to a system where local councils take care of local issues, and a metro council takes care of metro issues, but they are overseen by the same group of municipal councillors. Here's how it could be done:

1) Jurisdictions

2) Elections 3) Organization

Of course there would be many details to work out, but this proposal would basically keep the best aspects of the old system, while addressing some of its drawbacks.

May 28, 1998

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