Toronto's Struggle Against Amalgamation

It is an unwritten code of conduct for big-city life: avoid speaking to strangers on the public transit system - and if talking to a friend, keep it down, please. So ingrained is that protocol that when a group of TORONTO teenagers started talking loudly on the Gerrard streetcar one late-February afternoon, the discomfort among other passengers was almost palpable. It was only heightened when one of the kids, a long-haired girl in a green bomber jacket, actually addressed an older stranger. "How are you going to vote on megacity? You gotta vote No, man," she remarked, unbidden. Before he could respond, another teen piped in: "I dunno. It's gonna happen anyway - Scarborough's going to get sucked up by Toronto. Scarborough's so small." The stranger, getting a word in edgewise, pointed out that Scarborough and Toronto are, in fact, about the same size. "Really?" said the second teen, her nose-ring twitching with curiosity. "I dunno, around my subway station, Kennedy - " "That station sucks," interjected Teen No. 1. "Yeah," continued Teen No. 2. "Anyway, around there, it's pretty small."

For once, strangers are talking to one another in Toronto. And what's got them talking - even the teenagers - is municipal politics, something Torontonians usually find so unenthralling that only about a third of them vote in civic elections. But in Toronto - that somewhat arrogant metropolis the rest of the country loves to hate - these are unusual times. The city is in the grip of Mega-Madness, and a rivetting drama is being played out on the civic stage. To the provincial Conservatives and their supporters, it is a tale of solid municipal policy and sound fiscal management. But to many Torontonians, who fear that the province's reforms will destroy their city, it has taken on the proportions of a horror movie - Megacity: The Tory Monster that Ate Toronto.

The plot goes something like this. Last December, the provincial government introduced Bill 103, which as of next year will unify the area's six municipalities, along with the regional government of Metropolitan Toronto, into a single city of about 2.3 million people - Toronto the Good becomes Toronto the Huge. It might seem a relatively innocuous bit of legislative tinkering, but with the proposed amalgamation, the provincial government stepped boldly - some say blindly - into a political minefield.

Opposition to the bill, scheduled for final reading in the provincial legislature next month, was immediate. And the cries of outrage - remarkably loud for such a politically staid city - have come from rich and poor, left and right. The protests could be heard at any of the 20 or so community meetings at which amalgamation has been discussed every week for the past three months, or seen on the myriad "Vote No to megacity" signs outside homes and businesses. Last week, in referendums sponsored by the six municipalities - all of whose mayors oppose the megacity - the opposition culminated in a rejection of amalgamation by Toronto residents. Three-quarters of participating voters (turnout was, again, about one-third) said No to the megacity. Provincial officials, who charged that the referendum questions were biased and that the voters' lists were unreliable, had repeatedly vowed to ignore the results. But last week's No vote still sent them scrambling for damage control, even as they vowed that amalgamation will continue.

The provincial plan for Toronto is, in fact, a radical piece of legislation, and its effects will transcend the borders of the new city. The unified Toronto will be a virtual city-state, outpacing the populations of six provinces and rivalling that of Alberta (population 2.7 million). The new Toronto will be bigger than any American city except New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Ostensibly, the new city will also be leaner and more efficient than the old one: the government projects cost savings of $865 million by the year 2000, thanks to less waste, fewer politicians - and the elimination of as many as 4,500 civil service jobs. An amalgamated Toronto will "have a strong, unified voice to sell itself internationally" in the global marketplace, boasts Municipal Affairs Minister Al Leach. "We have the potential to take a great city and make it even greater."

Many Torontonians, however, clearly do not buy Leach's argument. They fear that amalgamation, by reducing the number of councillors to 44 from the current 106, will dilute their political voices and make local government less responsive. Others are concerned that property taxes will rise - not only because of amalgamation, but also because of separate provincial plans to reform the tax system and to off-load the cost of social services onto the municipalities. Still others simply do not like the way the Tories have gone about implementing change - and use loaded words like "tyranny" and "dictatorship" to prove their point.

But the real trouble for the Tories is that few Torontonians think about the city in terms of the "global marketplace." Sure, they are smugly satisfied when, as Forbes magazine did last November, Toronto is rated as the best place in the world to balance work and family. But they remain tied not so much to the idea of city as to the idea of neighborhood: communities like Cabbagetown or Baby Point or the Beaches; street designations like the Kingsway or the Danforth; even - as with the teenager from Scarborough - the subway stop near their homes. To them, amalgamation seems a threat to their sense of community, to the places they call home. "If it wasn't so destructive, it would be funny," says City of Toronto Mayor Barbara Hall. "It makes no sense, they've not thought it through, and yet it has the potential to seriously damage a community that is the envy of the world."

That worry is echoed by North York Mayor Mel Lastman, a passionate civic booster who gets visibly upset when he talks about the megacity. At a recent anti-amalgamation rally - one of many at which he and the other mayors have spoken out - he waved around the province's map of the new municipal boundaries. "You won't find North York anywhere on the map! North York is gone!" Lastman half-yelled, his face turning red. "They're carving us up like a turkey and it isn't even Thanksgiving!"

Still, few who have seriously studied the problems facing Toronto say that the status quo is acceptable. In the current division of powers, the Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto provides about 70 per cent of services, including police, ambulances, sewage, water and public transit, across the entire area. But the rest of the municipal structure is a complex network of individual city bylaws governing roads, health, garbage collection and planning. And there is redundancy: the Toronto area has six different fire departments, each with its own fire chief and training facilities. Further confusion results from the fact that some services are provided both by the Metro government and by the individual cities. Some roads are owned by Metro, others by the local municipality. "People don't know what's going on, people get confused and angry and afraid, because it's complicated," says Patricia Petersen, director of the urban studies program at the University of Toronto and a supporter of amalgamation. "The current system is not conducive to developing any reasonable discussion on issues that really matter to us."

Unfortunately, there is no consensus on the best way to address those problems. Last winter, a provincial task force, led by local United Way president Anne Golden, suggested that the Metro level of government be dissolved and that the other municipalities, reduced in number to four, become part of a wider government - the Greater Toronto Area, or GTA, encompassing Toronto and its outlying areas. Then, the Who Does What Advisory Panel, chaired by former Toronto mayor and federal Tory cabinet minister David Crombie, endorsed a strong urban core for the GTA and some degree of consolidation in the metropolitan area - but not specifically amalgamation. Another scheme, developed last year by Toronto-area mayors, opted for the abolition of regional governments, including Metro, with municipalities co-ordinating services among themselves.

The Conservatives had, as part of their cost-cutting platform, promised in the last election to get rid of at least one level of Toronto government. And according to Municipal Affairs Minister Leach, they at first considered dissolving Metro - but decided last fall that it would be too complicated. "How do you dissolve down the services that are provided by Metro?" he asks. "The longer we looked at it, the more obvious it was that with the majority of major services already at the upper tier, the right option was a single city."

And then the trouble really started for the Tories in Toronto.

One miscalculation was the process. These days, amalgamation is all the rage in Ontario, where about 350 municipalities are now negotiating mergers. In Kingston, for instance, city and county municipalities have been working towards amalgamation for the past two years. And in Hamilton, a constituent assembly has developed an amalgamation plan that would replace existing municipalities with one Hamilton-Wentworth authority. Although those schemes have not been uniformly popular (Hamilton-area residents voted against amalgamation in a February referendum), they at least involved extensive local input.

But not in Toronto. The Tories sent Bill 103 straight to first reading - without releasing a position paper, as would have been usual for such a major reform. And in the legislation itself, the government gave much of the control over existing municipalities to an appointed interim board of trustees, whose decisions would be final. Those trustees would be followed by another appointed body - a transition team to assist in the implementation of the megacity - with many of the same powers.

It was a hardball tactic that, to many critics, seemed both dictatorial and undemocratic. And it is what particularly sticks in the craw of John Sewell, the former Toronto mayor and local newspaper columnist who has galvanized anti-amalgamation forces as a leader of Citizens for Local Democracy. "I live in a democracy, and I want control over people who make decisions for me," said Sewell, whose group's weekly meetings have regularly attracted more than 1,000 concerned Torontonians for the past three months. "The Tories are saying, 'You can't have it any more, we've got a better idea' - which is putting autocrats in charge." (The trustees question created a political embarrassment for the government last month when an Ontario Court judge ruled that their appointment by executive order, before Bill 103 had passed, had no standing in law.)

During provincial hearings on the megacity bill that culminated last week, speaker after speaker voiced their concern over the Tory reforms. Among the most articulate was Jane Jacobs, the American-born architect and author of the influential The Death and Life of Great American Cities. "Anyone who supposes harmony will prevail and efficiency reign after whole-hog amalgamation," said Jacobs, a Toronto resident for the past 30 years, "has taken leave of common sense."

Other critics, like federal NDP Leader Alexa McDonough, questioned the government's claim that amalgamation will save money. McDonough pointed out that in her home town of Halifax, which joined in 1996 with Dartmouth and two other municipalities, transition costs have soared to $22 million - more than double what the Nova Scotia government projected. Still others claimed that amalgamation in Toronto will also drive up long-term costs. A megacity, they argued, would eliminate competition among municipalities, add the expense of providing equal services to a wider area, and result in higher labor costs thanks to larger, more powerful unions.

The Conservatives' timing, meanwhile, also fuelled public opposition. A month after introducing Bill 103, the province announced a sweeping package of other municipal reforms over a seven-day period dubbed Mega-Week. Those included adopting a new property tax formula, called actual value assessment. Tax reform has long been a contentious issue in Toronto, and some downtown homeowners will probably see their property taxes rise substantially under the new scheme. At the same time, the province unveiled plans to remove $5.4 billion in education bills from municipal property taxes - but then download $6.4 billion in service costs to the municipalities, with the difference made up by a $1-billion reserve fund. The most controversial change was that municipalities would share the costs of welfare equally with the province, where before they paid only 20 per cent. The City of Toronto estimated that, together with other social-service costs, the welfare shift would cost property taxpayers $202 million annually. Even the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Toronto and Crombie, a Conservative, found the downloading hard to swallow. "It is an egregious error," said Crombie, who supports amalgamation. "It's just as though they went to a baseball game and tried to score a hockey goal."

In the minds of many Torontonians, amalgamation, property tax reform and downloading all added up to nothing less than a Conservative conspiracy to ruin the city. "They're driven by two people who resent the big city - [Finance Minister] Ernie Eves and Mike Harris," declared Sewell. "They're both small-town guys, they're out of their depth in the city, they resent it, and they're going to go out and get it." Leach, a lifelong Torontonian, acknowledges that had the government not been under a self-imposed time constraint to enact municipal reform by the end of 1997, "I would have kept the issues separate - dealt with amalgamation, and done that separately without some of the other things."

In the wake of last week's referendum results, the Conservatives had to address the scale - and volume - of opposition to their municipal reform package. First, they delayed the deadline for amendments to Bill 103 until the end of March - an indication that substantial changes are in the works. Those could include curtailing the powers of the trustees and transition team, and possibly guaranteeing that property taxes will not rise as a result of amalgamation. More important, Harris has broadly hinted that the government will rethink its downloading scheme. One option, which Crombie and other Tory supporters have been pressuring the province to adopt: leaving some capital costs of education, like busing and building maintenance, with the municipalities, while maintaining the traditional 80-20 provincial-municipal split on welfare funding. But Leach and Harris have also made it clear - referendum or not - that the megacity will go ahead more or less as planned.

Like many others, City of Toronto Mayor Hall predicts dire consequences for downtown neighborhoods like Cabbagetown, where she has lived for the past 30 years: a flight of the middle class, declining infrastructure, more poor people on the streets. Yet, sitting over a cappuccino in a small, trendy café recently - as patrons regularly come up to say "Hi" - Hall foresees something positive arising from the megacity debate. "Whatever happens, big change will come from it," she says. "People have seen their communities at risk, and have put time and energy into organizing and talking about things. I don't believe that will disappear - people will stay involved, and find ways to take responsibility in civic life." If that prediction turns out to be true, there might be hope for the megacity after all.

Smokeless in Hogtown

The woman who owns the café is nervous - her customers are, after all, breaking the law. In a corner, about 20 nicotine cravers puff away in defiance of Toronto's tough new antismoking bylaw, which came into effect on March 3. The owner, exasperated, says she has asked smokers to butt out, only to have others light up. "Some of them are like my brothers and sisters - I see them more than my children," she says. "They say to me, 'Are you not ashamed?' "

So it was last week, as Toronto the Good tried to live up to its name. Adopted last July, the hotly contested bylaw forbids smoking in all restaurants and bars. Businesses can build a costly enclosed and separately ventilated room for their smoking clientele - up to 25 per cent of seating capacity - though most are waiting to see if the bylaw survives the proposed megacity amalgamation of Toronto with five other municipalities. In the meantime, owners are posting the required no-smoking signs and, according to the bylaw, issuing verbal warnings to smokers. "All they have to say to them is that 'it is my duty to inform you that you are smoking in a prohibited area' - it ends there," says Pamela Scharfe, Toronto's environmental health manager. "They don't have to say, 'Butt out, step outside or I'm not going to serve you.'"

Which raises the issue of enforcement. About 25 inspectors plan to visit all 3,500 affected establishments by the end of this month, and issue owners notices detailing their degree of compliance. Those visits will be followed up with spot checks (the city also has a so-called snitch line). Fines range from $205 to $5,000. But as long as no-smoking signs are posted and warnings issued, establishments cannot be charged. As for smokers breaking the bylaw, health inspectors have no power to force them to produce identification. So, Scharfe concedes, "you can't give a ticket if you don't know who the person is."

The immediate effect of the new regulation was to empty many establishments - particularly the small shops that rely on coffee-break business. And while organizations such as the Canadian Cancer Society cheered the new bylaw, many business owners and smokers were left fuming. "Are they going to be in our bedrooms next?" asked one woman while defiantly dragging on a cigarette in a financial-district coffee-shop. "This is going to be a war." Perhaps. Despite the ban on smoking, the air in Toronto has certainly not been cleared.

Maclean's March 17, 1997