Ontario’s strength; Ontario’s challenge
Troy Media – by Bruce Stewart
It’s often seen as un-Canadian in most of the country not to dislike Toronto. It’s big, it’s noisy, it’s endlessly on the news (which comes from there, too, if you watch your national news in English).
Perhaps Toronto is disliked because it really is more like a Chicago, a New York or a Los Angeles than anything here.
In many ways, Toronto and region are a province in their own right. The mayor of Toronto is directly elected by more people than any other politician in Canada. The City of Toronto alone, if it were a province, would be our fifth largest by population. Add in the surrounding suburban cities and towns that are an essential part of the economic region – imagine Vancouver without Surrey, or Calgary with Okotoks and Airdrie – and it would be number three, ahead of B.C. and Alberta.
Only the rest of Ontario, and Quebec, have more people. (Indeed, if Toronto separated from Ontario, the rest of Ontario, Quebec and Toronto would all be of roughly equal size.)
Needless to say, the Ontario Government isn’t about to rush to put in the regional political mechanisms to make the Toronto city region work well! Toronto was where the notion of regional government was pioneered in Canada, with “Metro” back in 1953. That was ended in 1998, when the elements were merged into one city. But a new “Metro,” covering the region, is needed. The trouble is: build that, and Toronto doesn’t need Ontario any longer. So it’s not going to happen.
Toronto and its region is one of the world’s premier immigrant destinations. About half of all immigrants to Canada end up here every year. What’s less often noticed is that Toronto, unlike most other places in the country, is very good at getting those immigrants integrated and on the ladder to their future success. Some world cities that receive these floods do that well; others just have people pile up but never making the transition to urban successes. Toronto’s been doing it for years, with wave after wave.
It’s also a more dynamic place than is sometimes recognized. Start-up companies get lost in Toronto: there’s a technology sector that rivals Montreal’s and Vancouver’s, for instance, but no one knows it’s here: thousands of companies slip under the radar. Waves of new manufacturing companies will open – the last one was in the regional community of Brampton – but again, hundreds of new names hiring tens of thousands of people just gets lost in a world of about six million people. Still, these are keeping the area prosperous, even as the older manufacturing base of Ontario has its difficulties.
It’s safe, too – even after this year’s shootings the murder rate is running behind previous years (and it’s a 10th of Chicago’s, a city region of equal size to Toronto).
One big difference in Toronto from other Canadian cities is that the federal government is seldom seen. Not only does Ontario not use the RCMP for policing, not a single community in the Toronto region uses the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) either. Police and fire services are all done by the communities. As the provincial capital, many of the ministries and most of the 600 plus provincial agencies are located in the city, but the skyline is dominated by the chartered banks, the insurance industry, and the international consulting firms, not the public sector. Probably the CBC is as close as Ottawa gets to visibility in Toronto.
The region is not without its problems. Thirty years of inaction on public transit in the area have created gridlock galore: Torontonians just smile when Vancouverites or Calgarians complain about traffic! The region has been good at generating plans, but battles with the province to get them funded and built. (Once, subway tunnels under construction were actually filled back in and the project abandoned after a change in the provincial government.)
But it is also a region of neighbourhoods, of local shops, of local communities. This is so much a factor that no single event in the city really “takes it over”. Fifty years ago, the region would feel empty on the weekend, as half a million would pulse north to cottage country in the summer. Now, a million go, but that’s too small to be noticed. Even major events – the annual Pride parade draws upward of a million each year – have to compete for attention. Every week, therefore, has multiple neighbourhood events taking place.
Over 100 languages heard daily on the streets – millions pressing each other on the sidewalks at lunch hour – a city where the federal government forgot that a quarter million people live in the zone where the G-20 was held in back in 2010 (up in Ottawa, the planners thought downtown was a business-only zone). It’s a vibrant mix: Ontario’s strength, and Ontario’s challenge, simultaneously.
Troy Media columnist Bruce Stewart, a Toronto-based management consultant, will be keeping an Eye on Ontario each Monday.
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