Toronto needs more political juice to mount a COVID-19 recovery, advocates argue

The COVID-19 pandemic has made long-standing calls to provide Toronto with more decision-making power and better protection from political interference increasingly urgent, say groups advocating for an overhaul of Ontario's political power structure.

7 in 10 residents support the creation of a charter to grant the city new powers, poll finds

Toronto's municipal government must defer to the province on a wide range of files, including the implementation of some restrictions around COVID-19. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The COVID-19 pandemic has made long-standing calls to provide Toronto with more decision-making power and better protection from political interference increasingly urgent, say groups advocating for an overhaul of Ontario's political power structure.

"It's acted like a particle accelerator," said Mary Rowe, president and CEO of the Canadian Urban Institute (CUI).

"All the cracks that existed in urban life before are much wider and much more obvious."

The CUI released a report on Wednesday marking the 300th day since the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic.

The report notes that Canada's largest cities have accounted for a disproportionate number of COVID-19 cases and deaths during that period, which has led the group to describe the pandemic as an "urban crisis."

Rowe said the best path to recovery will require giving cities like Toronto a greater say over local policy decisions, rather than the current arrangement which leaves most of the control in the hands of the federal and provincial governments.

"Local governments have to be empowered to make decisions very particular to the neighbourhoods they're dealing with," said Rowe.

Mary Rowe, president and CEO of the Canadian Urban Institute, says the current power structure is unsuited to take on growing equity issues within cities. (Canadian Urban Institute)

City, province have repeatedly clashed

Toronto politicians and public health officials have diverged from their provincial counterparts at several critical points during the pandemic, chiefly around the implementation of restrictions to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto's chief medical officer of health, has asked Ontario to enact tougher restrictions, and on at least one occasion she noted that her limited powers made it impossible to enforce the restrictions she deemed necessary.

Neighbouring cities, including Brampton, have also lobbied for increased support to take on issues unique to their communities.

In some cases, a lack of action is said to have disproportionately affected low-income and minority communities.

"You have the city wanting to do one thing and the province either not wanting to let the city do it, or the province has a different idea, and so you end up with friction and delays," said Doug Earl, a member of Charter City Toronto.

His group argues that Toronto and other large cities should not have to rely so heavily on funding or decisions from higher levels of government. The group is pushing for the creation of a city charter, which would exempt Toronto from seeking provincial approval on a wide variety of municipal files.

Toronto and the provincial government have clashed on a number of other issues during the past several years, highlighted by the province's move to slash the number of council seats during the 2018 municipal election.

The former Liberal government also nixed Mayor John Tory's proposal to implement tolls on city highways in 2017.

Torontonians support major changes, poll suggests

While the Ford government has never appeared to entertain the notion of giving Toronto additional powers, Charter City Toronto says a strong majority of residents would support such a move.

A poll released by the group on Wednesday, conducted by the research firm EKOS, found that 76 per cent of respondents agreed that cities should have more power, while 69 per cent said they supported the establishment of a Toronto city charter.

(The results are said to have a margin of error of +/- 3 per cent, 19 times out of 20.)

Support for those proposals were higher among Toronto residents than among people in Ontario and Canada more broadly, which could be explained by local dissatisfaction with the Ford government, the group said.

"What [a charter] would mean is that the province and the city would have a very clear, defined relationship and that the province could not unilaterally interfere with the city," said John Sewell, a former Toronto mayor who is among those backing the city charter proposal.

A constitutional amendment would likely be needed to create a city charter, since municipalities are considered "creatures" of the provinces under existing laws.

The Ford government has previously pointed to the City of Toronto Act, which was created in 2006, and affords Toronto some powers over bylaws and taxation that are unique in Ontario.

However, a number of large Canadian cities — including Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Vancouver —  have more substantial charters.


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