The False Panacea of City Charters? A Political Perspective on the Case of Toronto

  • Andrew Sancton University of Calgary


Toronto is unlike any other city, as its local boosters will not hesitate to point out. That was the basis, after all, of the “charter movement” that demanded special rights for a mega-city that the movement’s backers insisted was so vital that it even warranted a status similar to that of an entire province. Their efforts culminated in the province’s passage in 2006 of the City of Toronto Act, which appeared on its face to grant the metropolis the power it believed it required and merited. In reality, the Ontario government may have actually set Toronto back, leaving it more at the mercy of provincial power than other smaller municipalities. The few additional taxation powers that were granted by the ostensible Toronto “charter” — the City of Toronto Act — are, in reality, still overseen by the province, which retains the right to limit those revenue tools if it considers it “desirable in the provincial interest to do so.” But while Toronto may have been given just a small number of revenue tools, which it has used only sparingly, and the use of those tools is ultimately decided by Queen’s Park, their very existence has given the province licence to sidestep the city’s calls for more funding. The provincial Liberals have, in the past, insisted that Toronto make use of its own taxes before it demands more provincial funds. Meanwhile, the City of Toronto Act did nothing to curtail the power of the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). Because municipal zoning decisions made in Toronto can be appealed to the OMB, which can substitute its own idea of “good planning” for elected local government, the City of Toronto is ultimately left with limited control over its planning decisions. In sum, virtually none of the desires that Toronto expected would be served by a city charter have been fulfilled. Quite the opposite, it would appear that the dreams once imagined by charter-city proponents have been snuffed out, and there is no longer any real political voice anywhere advocating for more autonomy and taxing authority for Toronto. In the pursuit of more funds for transit infrastructure, the current mayor, John Tory, has returned to the traditional model of attracting funds from higher levels of government, rather than seeking to use any of the revenue tools provided by the City of Toronto Act. It would be truly surprising if municipal leaders anywhere else in Canada sought to emulate Toronto’s experience with charter status. If that experience serves as a model for anything, it is as a way for provincial governments to cleverly defuse and deflect a major city’s demands for enhanced status.
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