Monday, April 10, 2017
Toronto Mega City Amalgamation, Mike Harris, 20 Years Later
Exactly 20 years ago this month, Toronto was embroiled in a civic upheaval unmatched in our memory. The provincial government imposed a controversial merger on the six municipalities that stretched from Etobicoke Creek to the Rouge River, Lake Ontario up to Steeles Ave.
The forced amalgamation of Toronto, York, Etobicoke, East York, Scarborough and North York was resisted with verve, vigour and the kind of civic passion unparalleled since the huge majority of residents (three in four) had their protests squelched.
Mike Harris introduced Bill 103 at Queen’s Park. The entire creation, it seemed, hollered “No” — in referenda, nightly vigils, legislative filibuster and with the amplification provided by every available democratic tool. To no avail. The majority Tory government carried the day. The old city was history. A new one would be born eight months later. And everywhere, the citizens vowed never to love the child born out of what amounted to a political assault akin to forced marriage.
The fight has gone out of the dog — reality never matches the warnings of doom and destruction, so people forget what they had and what they’ve lost and celebrate survival where spectacular success was possible. But look close to the surface and the wounds are only now healing.
Of course, this sounds like strange doctrine to so many. Hundreds of thousands of newcomers have since arrived. The only Mad Max mayor they know of is Rob Ford, not the original Bad Boy Mel Lastman. Ancient grievances between old Toronto and the regional government of Metro Toronto are lost on them. They don’t get the stubborn, latent whine from Scarborough that the burbs get no respect.
Market Value Assessment. A New Deal for City. Downloading. Relics of the past, yes, the very near past. Still, one rarely hears calls for de-amalgamation.
By the time the amalgamated government took office on Jan. 1, 1998, the metropolis had grown weary. And Harris bludgeoned what little fight was left by turning the bazooka on the city with an unprecedented dump of service costs and cuts on the new city, rendering it almost stillborn.
Queen’s Park used to pay close to three-quarters of capital costs and half the operating costs for the TTC. Harris advised the new government it was getting out of paying the operating costs and grudgingly supplied a diminishing percentage of the cost of building the system and supplying it with vehicles.
Housing, a social cost if there ever was one, became Toronto’s responsibility. He stopped paying for sections of highways and dumped the cost on the city. And those costs have framed the fiscal arguments for the past 20 years.
The changeover was so tumultuous and seemingly designed to destabilize the city that, in order to survive, Toronto had to pull together.
Understand, this was the time the province filled in the tunnel already being built for the Eglinton West subway — yes the very route where the Crosstown LRT is being built now. Harris said no to the Spadina extension now going up to Vaughan. He acquiesced to Lastman for the Sheppard Subway, but short-turned it at Don Mills Rd., instead of all the way to the Scarborough Town Centre.
To many reading this, it is ancient history. But there are direct lines from our current fiscal issues to those decisions. Due to heroic, sustained advocacy, much of the social service costs — minus housing — have been taken back. It was the Liberal government, led by Dalton McGuinty, that started the repair. That might explain the persistent deference to the Libs.
So was the amalgamation the correct decision? I still think so, though it has never felt comfortable to hold that view, contrary to allies on most other fronts. The union was a natural evolution of a relationship that had survived more than 150 years.
But Harris executed the act with what still seems like malice and malevolence.
This was an act of sheer terror, a hatchet job that hacked the city to near death. We’ll never know what a unified Toronto might have accomplished — lovingly spawned after a proper gestation period and welcomed into the world with the appropriate crib and balloons and care package.
Instead, we got a new municipality, grieving a civic divorce, forced to exist in an arranged marriage with a good portion of its household income stolen by the source of the upheaval.
Little wonder the provincial Tories have never recovered. Toronto has become their political graveyard.
During the provincial election next year, the Tories could win the province by sweeping everywhere but Toronto. Again. But the road to governing can be greased with a little Toronto love.
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