It’s Unanimous: Toronto’s Megacity is a Flop

Commentary, Frontier Centre, Local Government, Role of Government, Worth A Look

The Ontario government’s forced merger of Toronto on Jan. 1, 1998, inspired the Quebec government’s forced merger of Montreal four years later. Mega-Toronto served as a model, a prototype, a muse. So, as it marks its 10th anniversary, it’s useful to see how the trailblazer is faring.

Here, as quoted in Toronto newspapers in recent days, is what prominent city officials say about the amalgamation of the city of Toronto with five suburbs – York, North York, East York, Etobicoke and Scarborough. Shirley Hoy, Toronto’s top civil servant today: “I know that citizens feel disconnected from their government. I think there is a sense that easy access to city government, as well as meaningful engagement of citizens in issues like planning, (is lacking).” Mel Lastman, mega-Toronto’s first mayor: “(Amalgamation) could have been a great success, but greed and pilferage stepped in. By robbing the city they (Ontario’s Harris government) made a mess and put themselves down in history as a very stupid government.”

Lastman is alluding to how Ontario downloaded certain costly provincial social services onto the city. This has “robbed” the city of hundreds of millions of dollars every year and helps explain Toronto’s annual deficit of more than $500 million. Michael Prue, East York’s mayor at the time of amalgamation and now an NDP member of the Ontario legislature: “It’s a disaster.” What went wrong? “Everything. (The province said amalgamation would) save money; debt is up. Opportunity for more staff? We have more staff.”

More: “You are starting to see the citizens get very angry… There’s no oversight.” He adds: “The way we used to debate over a $10,000 expenditure, you don’t see that anymore.” Doug Holyday, Etobicoke’s former mayor and now a Toronto councillor: “It’s certainly been a failure.” The megacity “never took advantage of the ‘golden opportunity’ to do things in new ways. What I thought (would happen) never ever happened.” Paul Sutherland, key member of the transition team that oversaw the merger process: The handling of unions “was a critical, critical mistake. Wages have been harmonized to the highest level. … The city is still suffering from it 10 years later.” Frances Nunziata, former mayor of York and now a Toronto councillor: “We were very misled.

Financially, it’s been a huge nightmare. We are getting deeper and deeper in debt.” Kathleen Wynne, an anti-merger activist and now Ontario’s Liberal education minister: “I’ve knocked on tens of thousands of doors since I got into provincial politics (in 2003), 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.”

It’s revealing, too, to look at what pundits now say. A decade ago, commentators at all four of the city’s daily newspapers were pro-merger (as was also the case at three of Montreal’s four dailies, the only dissenting paper in either city being The Gazette).

Royson James, the Toronto Star’s urban-affairs columnist and early merger backer, says the poorest of the six melded municipalities, York, has benefited fiscally from wealthier areas. But he sees the merger as setting the city as a whole “on a path of fiscal failure.” Too, the “merger has been a huge failure” as an experiment in local democracy.

Indeed, Chris Hume, another columnist at The Star, rues an erosion in services and a descent of municipal politics to an “embarrassing shambles.” City council’s expansion to 44 councillors, he writes, has made this body “too large to be effective.” (Note that Montreal’s council now has 64 members.)

Hume concludes: “With few exceptions, no one on council has started to think of Toronto as a whole. The system discourages that. …The result has been a sharp drop in civic self-confidence, a growing sense that Toronto has entered a downward spiral.”

The National Post and Toronto Sun also ran critical assessments. The Globe and Mail has remained silent.

Doesn’t have anything nice to say? Aside from more money for York, positives are hard to find. Mayor David Miller credits the merger with giving him a bigger “voice on the national stage.” Yet his high profile might be due as much as anything to a strong personality.

Mega-Toronto’s decade is of more than just anecdotal interest to Montreal. Downloaded services excepted, each Toronto problem has its match in Montreal. The parallels are uncanny.

Indeed, each of these woes was predicted for Montreal’s merger by experts on cities (among them University of Western Ontario’s Andrew Sancton, the C.D. Howe Institute’s Robert Bish and Harvard University’s Howard Husock). This took no great crystal ball: Anyone who looked at precedents could instantly see the problems inherent in fattening local government.

Montreal and its ruler, Quebec, now have a choice. They can correct a mistake by restructuring. Or, they can whine that this would be too hard (“You can’t unscramble an omelet”) and resignedly follow Toronto’s trail farther into the swamp.