After John Tory cruised to a third-term victory after a somnolescent mayoral election campaign in October 2022, few would have predicted any significant change in the city’s governing priorities any time soon. Yet only a few months later, Tory’s shock resignation over sexual impropriety with a much younger staff member left Canada’s largest city with a new and very different mayor with very different priorities: former city councillor and MP Olivia Chow. What does this unexpected change mean for Toronto, Ontario and Canada as a whole? What will happen next?

Bridging Divides?

The City of Toronto in its current form was created in 1997, when the provincial government amalgamated the former City of Toronto with its suburban neighbours: the former boroughs of East York, Etobicoke, North York, Scarborough and York. Since then, mayoral elections have been decided by voters in the suburbs, which have more than twice the population of the core. Core and suburban areas have supported different candidates in most of the nine mayoral elections since 1997, and usually by a large margin. Politicians whose base lies in the urban core can only win the citywide ballot by peeling off suburban voters.

This has proved elusive. In 1997 and 2000, longtime North York politician Mel Lastman trounced candidates identified with the core, including the mayor of the former City of Toronto, Barbara Hall. In 2010, the infamous Etobicoke councillor Rob Ford defeated former provincial Liberal Deputy Premier George Smitherman, who had once served as Hall’s chief of staff. In 2014, patrician North Toronto lawyer John Tory1 and Rob’s brother Doug Ford (past and future leaders of the provincial Progressive Conservative Party) relegated former MP and downtown councillor Olivia Chow to third place, with Tory coming out on top. In 2018 and 2022, Tory easily steamrolled over progressive “downtown” candidates Jennifer Keesmaat, the city’s former chief planner, and Gil Peñalosa, a global urban planning consultant. When the electorate splits on core/suburb lines, the suburban candidate wins.

The exceptions are notable for their rarity. In 2003 and 2006, progressive lawyer, councillor and former NDP candidate David Miller won by adding diffuse suburban support to his overwhelming victory among core-area voters. And in the 2023 byelection, Olivia Chow received more votes than her principal opponent, Ana Bailão, John Tory’s anointed successor (figure 1). Unlike “core” candidates in the other elections (including Chow in 2014), who had emphasized stereotypically progressive urbanist policy planks, both crafted a message with citywide appeal. Miller assailed the policy failures and scandals of the post-amalgamation years, positioning himself as the best person to clean up the city, both ethically and physically, and to get the city moving again. Chow followed a similar script, reframing Tory’s incrementalist governing style and fiscal conservatism as inadequate to face the city’s current policy challenges, not least skyrocketing housing prices, a decaying public realm and a post-COVID budget hole approaching $1 billion annually.

Why there is such a strong divide between the voting behaviour of core and suburban neighbourhoods is a matter of some debate. One possible explanation is what political scientists call social sorting: that different kinds of people live in different locations because people are attracted to others who share their beliefs and values. By this logic, the core/suburb divide is really an ideological divide between conservative-leaning people, who are geographically concentrated in the suburbs, and progressives, who mostly live in the core. Conservative candidates win when conservative voters outnumber progressive voters, regardless of where they live within the city.

Another explanation is that people’s voting behaviour, especially in local politics, is driven by their place-based lifestyles. Much of what municipalities do is provide services to properties and their owners, including waste collection, water and sewer services, parks and recreation services, and roads and sidewalks. By this logic, property owners are more motivated to vote than tenants because they are the ones who receive the property tax bill, and they tend to lean conservative because they want to pay less tax and avoid disruptions to their property.

At the same time, car owners and commuters have a strong interest in opposing transit and cycling initiatives that take away road space from automobiles. As home and car ownership are more common in low-density suburban areas, the suburbs tend to vote for suburb-friendly candidates, while tenants, transit riders and users of collective amenities are concentrated in older core neighbourhoods and support candidates who will further their interests.

A third explanation is institutional. Politics in Toronto, as in all municipalities across Canada that have experienced amalgamation, plays out in the long shadow of institutional change. The former municipalities in now-amalgamated jurisdictions had their own identities, political traditions, administrative practices and policy priorities. In many amalgamated cities – including Halifax, Quebec City, Montreal, Ottawa, Hamilton, Toronto and Winnipeg – the political, administrative and fiscal shock of amalgamation was traumatic, and it has lingered decades after the event. The core/suburb divide in Toronto and in these other cities may be interpreted as, in part, the enduring failure of the amalgamated body to coalesce politically.

Olivia Chow’s victory in the June 2023 byelection represents the bridging of this divide, if only temporarily. Within the former core City of Toronto, the geographical pattern of Chow’s support was virtually identical to that which she received in 2014, and to Keesmaat’s support in 2018 and Peñalosa’s in 2022. The difference was in the suburbs, where she dramatically increased her support in the less-well-off neighbourhoods of York and Etobicoke to the northwest and East York and Scarborough to the northeast (figure 2). These neighbourhoods are home to large numbers of immigrant Canadians from South Asia, Hong Kong, mainland China and many other parts of the world.

Whether this coalition of reliably progressive core neighbourhoods and disadvantaged and diverse suburban neighbourhoods which often vote for conservative candidates will hold is an open question. Serving an abbreviated three-year term before the fall 2026 election, Chow will have to deliver tangible results quickly to the diverse elements of her tenuous coalition or the city’s apparent progressive resurgence may be short-lived.

A Change in Image and Style

During the 2023 byelection campaign, Olivia Chow pointedly drew two contrasts with Tory and what he represented. The first is a contrast of origin stories. Descended from a British soldier in the Revolutionary War, scion of the founding family of one of Canada’s most prestigious white-shoe law firms, educated at Upper Canada College, and with a career that has spanned law, business, broadcasting and politics, Tory is a product and personification of Toronto’s establishment. Chow emphasized her and her family’s immigration story, describing the many difficulties they faced and relating them, authentically, to the contemporary struggles of ordinary people to make ends meet.

The important long-term effect of Chow’s victory may therefore be symbolic. Chow is the amalgamated city’s first woman and immigrant person of colour to serve as mayor.2 The 2022 ward elections brought to office the most diverse council yet. Joined by Chow, the city’s elected officials are more closely beginning to resemble the ethnoracial composition of the city. And it should be noted that the city’s diversity was reflected in Chow’s top-tier opponents. Ana Bailão immigrated from Portugal when she was 15; former police chief Mark Saunders (endorsed by Premier Doug Ford) was born in London, England, to Jamaican parents; former provincial Liberal cabinet minister Mitzie Hunter moved to Canada from Jamaica when she was four years old; and Chloe Brown, the 2018 election’s third-place finisher, is a Black woman. The “real” city is finally elbowing its way into elected politics.

The second contrast is of leadership styles. Until his sudden downfall, John Tory’s political success hinged on his projection of steady, moderate leadership. This appeal was eagerly rewarded after the chaos of Rob Ford’s tenure in office. From his original mentor, Ontario Progressive Conservative premier Bill Davis (in office 1971–85), Tory absorbed the lessons that political longevity accrued to those who hewed to the political centre, wherever it might be, and who never got out too far ahead of majority opinion.

These lessons were reinforced by his past political failures: an unsuccessful run for the mayoralty in 2003, in which he positioned himself on the small-government, tough-on-crime right (but finished second to David Miller), and an ill-fated tenure as Ontario Progressive Conservative Party leader between 2005 and 2009, during which he proposed extending public funding to all religious schools, including those that taught creationism. He lost the 2007 general election to the Liberals and twice failed to win a seat in the legislature.

As mayor between 2014 and 2023, Tory cultivated an image as a moderate bridge-builder who rose above petty squabbles – the “grownup in the room” who could be relied on for his decency and probity. Behind this image – which was, of course, demolished by the personal impropriety that led to his resignation – lay calculation. While he promised a politics in which there were no parties or camps, in practice his hand-picked executive committee was dominated by suburban councillors, with representatives from the downtown wards virtually shut out.

Tory also betrayed something of a tin ear for Toronto’s burgeoning diversity – the city, after all, is more than 50 per cent non-White, and about half of its residents were born outside Canada. During the 2014 election, he told reporters that Whites are not advantaged (a statement for which he later apologized) and remained silent on a debate stage when audience members shouted “go back to China” at Chow.

There is also his clandestine request to Doug Ford’s provincial government, revealed prior to the 2022 election campaign, for a form of “strong mayor” powers. Two provincial laws passed in late 2022 gave Toronto’s mayor unprecedented legal powers to personally appoint, without oversight, a wide range of municipal public servants; to veto council decisions or force the consideration of mayoral priorities; to draft the city’s budget; and to pass mayor-initiated bylaws even if two-thirds of the council is opposed to them. This last power is unprecedented in any advanced democracy.

Why Tory felt he needed these powers remains a mystery. Analysis of council votes indicates that throughout his tenure Tory was on the winning side of virtually every vote of any consequence. What it indicates is the essence of his leadership style as it had evolved during his political career, one of increasing closure and “father-knows-best” noblesse oblige.

Drawing on her decades of experience as a community activist, school board trustee, Metro Toronto councillor, amalgamated City of Toronto councillor and NDP member of Parliament, Chow has self-consciously projected a different kind of leadership style. Perhaps most consequentially for her day-to-day political management of the city, she pledged to work collaboratively with council and not use the new “strong mayor” powers. She has also signalled a desire for greater openness and transparency. She and her budget chief, longtime councillor Shelley Carroll, are planning to restore prebudget consultations not seen since David Miller’s mayoralty.

A Change in Substance

Chow’s rise to the mayoralty of Canada’s largest city is not only about style and symbolism. It is also about substance. In retrospect, Tory’s biggest and boldest proposals – integrating the province’s regional rail lines running within the city with the local transit system by adding new stops, and a major new downtown park to be built by developers on a deck built over a wide rail corridor – have amounted to little. A bid to toll the city’s limited-access highways was denied by the provincial government. An expensive reconstruction of the eastern branch of the Gardiner Expressway, much reviled by progressives and opposed by downtown ward councillors but important to suburban car-commuters, is proceeding but may yet be altered by the new council. Chow has not made the same kinds of expensive and flashy promises, although she has pledged to build, somehow, 25,000 new units of affordable housing.

Consistent with his predecessor Rob Ford, Tory ran a tight budgetary policy that shielded residential property owners. Indeed, adjusting for new housing construction and inflation, property tax per dwelling has held roughly constant over the past decade. In the meantime, housing prices skyrocketed, inequality widened, the visibility of homelessness and the opioid crisis grew and service quality eroded – all in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic’s profound disruption of all facets of public and private life. To be sure, some of these crises are general and are being experienced by cities across the country and beyond. But for many observers, the magnitude and complexity of the city’s policy challenges demanded bolder measures.

Chow’s victory, and indeed the tenor of the byelection campaign itself, may signal a recognition that incrementalism in the service of suburban property owners has run its course. During the campaign, columnists noted the absence of a “no-growth” candidate appealing to protecting homeowners from changes to their neighbourhood. Responding to the housing affordability crisis, every candidate ran on a platform of policy changes, some more fanciful than others.

It is early days. So far, Chow has secured a safe majority on council and developed the foundations for a comfortable working relationship with the Premier. Fixing the budget crisis is a prerequisite for accomplishing any of her social and environmental policy objectives, and the clock is ticking. To fill the city’s yawning budget hole, Chow has advocated new local tax bases and additional ongoing fiscal support from the provincial and federal governments – there is no sign that such major initiatives from higher orders of government are on the horizon. What ends up happening on this front will have implications for local governments across the country, as any deal Toronto gets will be demanded by all other cities as well.

Toronto may be the city that other Canadians love to hate, but it nevertheless matters. It is Canada’s largest, most economically dynamic and powerful and most ethnoculturally diverse metropolitan city. In many ways, Toronto is a harbinger of Canada’s demographic and economic future. A Toronto in decline isn’t good for anyone, whether they live in Victoria or St. John’s or anywhere in between. Can Chow reverse Toronto’s negative trajectory? Can she persuade other levels of government – which are led by different political parties – to help her? And will her rainbow coalition stay with her, giving her a second mandate in 2026? Only time will tell.

Continue reading “Olivia Chow’s Mayoral Victory Means Big Changes for Toronto”

What’s up with Ontario? The June election that brought Doug Ford and his Conservatives to power has sent shockwaves across the federation. In an instant, Ontario has gone from being a reliable centre-left partner of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal federal government to being its principal antagonist. Using highly charged populist rhetoric not heard since the days of Depression-era Premier Mitch Hepburn, Ford is actively challenging Trudeau’s climate change policy and calling into question his NAFTA strategy. In its first 100 days, the Conservatives have rolled back the previous government’s environmental policies in the name of economic competitiveness and its social policies in the name of a silent majority.

Doug Ford has made politics and policy personal. Drawing from the populist repertoire, he claims the exclusive ability to speak “for the people” – positioning his opponents as enemies. His creation of a select committee of the legislature to investigate the accounting practices of the previous Liberal government – and characterizing them as fraud from which Liberals personally benefited – fuels a polarized climate in which political opponents are demonized. His decision to unilaterally reduce the size of Toronto’s city council in the middle of the municipal election campaign, promising to override the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to do so if necessary, came off as a desire to settle scores from his time serving on that council with his late brother, Mayor Rob Ford.

In his 2001 book Loyal No More, Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson wrote that Canada’s largest province was retreating from its longstanding role as the country’s moderate centre, a political community that so strongly identified with the nation as a whole that it lacked a distinct identity of its own. Whether Ford’s election signals a permanent or a cyclical shift in Ontario’s place in Confederation is unknown. What is clear is that federal-provincial relations are going to become more conflictual. And within the province, politics is going to get a whole lot nastier.

Place and politics

On the face of it, the Liberals’ defeat was entirely predictable. Carrying the accumulated baggage of 15 years in office, their luck finally ran out. When Kathleen Wynne took over from Dalton McGuinty in 2013, she attempted to renew the Liberal brand much as the Conservative “Big Blue Machine” had done from the 1940s through the 1980s under premiers Drew, Frost, Robarts and Davis. In this she was unsuccessful. The Conservatives had led the polls for over a year before the 2018 election and were structurally best positioned to win as a government-in-waiting, regardless of the specifics of their platform or the personality of their leader.

This is all true as far as it goes, but it does not explain Ontario’s electoral map.1 Outside greater Toronto and Ottawa, we see a stark urban-rural divide across southern Ontario. The Conservatives won virtually every rural seat. The NDP took almost every riding containing a city or town of any size, including Hamilton, Kingston, Kitchener-Waterloo, London, Niagara Falls, Oshawa, Sarnia and Welland, while Green Party leader Mike Schreiner won in Guelph. The politics of the big cities – greater Toronto and Ottawa – appear to operate according to a different logic, with the three major parties dividing metropolitan space. (Northern Ontario, with its handful of seats, has also marched to the beat of its own drummer, generally eschewing the Conservatives in favour of the NDP and the Liberals since the mid-1980s.)

It seems that place matters in Ontario politics, perhaps more so than ever before. As figure 1 shows, density is in some sense political destiny: only at a gross density of about 50 households per hectare – a truly “urban” physical environment – did electoral districts tilt away from the Conservatives and toward the Liberals or the NDP. Why is this the case? And what does it mean for political cooperation and conflict in Ontario and across Canada, today and in the future?

The Two Ontarios

Writing about the rise of populism in Europe, geographer Andrés Rodríguez-Pose argues that we cannot understand today’s politics without also understanding the wrenching economic changes of recent decades and governments’ responses to them.2 From the 1950s through the 1970s, governments around the world actively pursued industrial policies designed to help laggard regions catch up. Since the 1980s, but especially since the early 2000s, regional economic development been largely eclipsed by a new agenda of investing in the economic capacities of the “alpha” cities now recognized as nations’ nodes in global economic networks of production, consumption and innovation. Rodríguez-Pose interprets the political convulsions we have seen across the West – Brexit, Trump and growing support for the Front National in France and Alternativ für Deutschland in Germany – as “the revenge of the places that don’t matter.”

Rodríguez-Pose argues that progressive elites have made a political error in recent years by focusing on growing income inequality (the expanding divide between rich and poor people) while ignoring territorial inequality (the expanding divide between successful and declining places). Across the West, right and left populism has been most successful in places that are the casualties of globalization: rural and old industrial regions that have experienced sustained job loss and decline relative to high-growth metropolises where the high-value-added service economy is concentrated.

Is this what’s happening in Ontario? To help answer this question, I pulled data on employment and immigration from the census at ten-year intervals between 1986 and 2016 for Ontario’s 49 census divisions – counties, regional municipalities and single-tier municipalities like the cities of Toronto, Ottawa and Hamilton. Census divisions are a convenient unit of analysis because unlike electoral districts their boundaries remain stable over time.

Comparing the spatial distribution of growth across regions reveals a starkly uneven pattern of development. The vast majority of the province’s population and employment growth over the past 30 years has flowed into the Toronto region (table 1). To be sure, big cities everywhere have attracted investment and resources out of proportion to their share of the population. What is striking in Ontario is the magnitude of this disproportionality and the fact that this trend has accelerated over time. Between 1986 and 1996, greater Toronto attracted 58 per cent of population growth and 49 per cent of jobs growth – shares greater than its in 46 per cent share of the provincial population in 1986. Between 2006 and 2016, the region attracted 71 per cent of the province’s population growth and 82 per cent of jobs growth. Expanding population and employment have been fuelled by international migration – greater Toronto has captured an increasing share of Ontario’s immigrants, from 60 per cent in 1986–96 to 89 per cent in 2006–2016. Most of the remaining population, job and immigrant population growth has flowed to Ontario’s second metropolis, Ottawa. Without renewal of their population and labour markets, other places are greying and becoming less economically dynamic.

Greater Toronto’s relative economic success has occurred in the context of profound long-term changes to Ontario’s economic base. Manufacturing’s share of Ontario employment has dropped by more than half across the province since 1986. These losses have been roughly evenly split between greater Toronto and the rest of the province. Yet while the economic base of many parts of nonmetropolitan Ontario has shifted toward lower-wage precarious work, the metropolis has transitioned to a postindustrial service economy. The City of Toronto and surrounding municipalities have captured more than three quarters of new jobs in high-value-added service sectors: finance, insurance and real estate. Professional, scientific and technical jobs are also highly concentrated in Toronto and Ottawa, making up 10 per cent of the employed labour force, as opposed to less than 5 per cent in the other regions. Partially as a result, the average individual income outside the Toronto and Ottawa regions is considerably lower than the provincial average. The local exceptions are midsized cities with “eds and meds” – large colleges and universities, and also hospitals – places like London, Kitchener-Waterloo and Windsor.

These numbers suggest that metropolitan and nonmetropolitan Ontario are on different tracks, and that these tracks are only becoming more divergent over time. To use economist Mike Moffat’s phrase, there are “two Ontarios,” one which has reaped the economic benefits of agglomeration and immigration and is on a rapid growth trajectory and another that, while still slowly growing, is in relative decline.

We can interpret Ontario’s increasing political polarization as being driven by this divide. This tendency will likely only increase as economic and social polarization becomes more intense.

The discussion so far paints a discouraging picture of Ontario’s fracturing into two worlds: a vibrant Toronto-centred postindustrial metropolis in opposition to a declining, deindustrialized hinterland. But these worlds are of course not homogeneous. The rural hinterland is punctuated by urban centres increasingly specializing in higher-order medical and educational services. Today’s Conservatives draw greatest support from the hinterland and the NDP from the urban centres.

And as I wrote in Inroads four years ago, the economic and social geography of the amalgamated City of Toronto is also divided between successful and marginalized zones, a division which is expressed in the city’s own political geography.3 Toronto is divided between the older urban core, which generally supports progressives, and the postwar suburban belt, which leans to the right. Sometimes suburban neighbourhoods vote together, as they did for Rob Ford in 2010 and for John Tory in 2018 when each faced a single core-based opponent, former Ontario Liberal cabinet minister George Smitherman in 2010 and former Toronto Chief City Planner Jennifer Keesmaat in 2018. Sometimes the suburban belt splits. In 2014’s three-way race, marginalized and declining suburban neighbourhoods, many with concentrations of recent immigrants, supported Doug Ford, while high-status areas went for Tory. While suburban political behaviour is variable, the core remains a political world of its own. In 2014, Olivia Chow was strongest in older gentrifying neighbourhoods in the core, places that are walkable and well connected by transit. Chow’s and Keesmaat’s zones of support look much the same, and also bear close resemblance to the NDP’s support in the 2018 provincial election.

In an economy and society that features hardening “macro” divisions between regions, as well as growing “micro” divisions within them, it is only to be expected that political parties would seek to differentiate themselves from one another by strategically appealing to place-based grievances, lifestyles and problems. Indeed, our winner-take-all, single-member-plurality electoral system creates a powerful incentive for them to do so. Alternatively, a party’s becoming identified with one region may reduce its competitiveness in another. As institutions, political parties play a pivotal role in recruiting future leaders. They do this primarily where they are most successful. The spatial polarization of party support is therefore a self-reinforcing trend, one that fuels the insularity of party elites and their supporters.

We can see how this has played out in Ontario. Over the past 15 years, Ontario’s Liberals won elections by sustaining a coalition of urban and suburban voters in metropolitan areas and midsized cities. In 2018, they retained residual support among metropolitan urbanites with proposals for continued investment in public transit infrastructure and expanded environmental protections, including the imposition of a cap-and-trade system. They were abandoned for the Conservatives by rural and small-city voters whose material interests are tied to low-density environments: car drivers sensitive to the price of gas, owners of large detached homes sensitive to home heating costs, and rural dwellers who resented their lack of influence over the siting of wind turbines. The NDP inherited much of the Liberals’ metropolitan core-area and midsized city “eds and meds” voter base but, as the map shows, it failed to connect with sufficient rural and suburban voters to tip ridings in their favour. Ontario’s three major parties now specialize in different types of places.

What is to be done?

The entrenchment of place-based conflicts in politics is a worrisome trend for Ontarians, and for Canadians more broadly. Looking to the American example, we can see what happens when parties cease to broker regional interests and instead become fused to place-based interests, identities and lifestyles. When different types of places no longer communicate with one another or appreciate one another’s distinct needs, there is no basis for compromise, legitimate opponents become illegitimate enemies, and parties govern in the interest of supporters rather than the whole.

I have argued that political conflict in Ontario, and likely elsewhere in Canada, is increasingly generated by widening territorial inequality. Is there a way out of this predicament? Must political conflict increase (and policy problem-solving decline) as economic and social differences widen between places defined by distinct interests, lifestyles and identities?

The answer is unlikely to be primarily political in the sense of parties finding new ways to package themselves to become competitive in areas that have forsaken them. Such realignments are likely to be harder to achieve as territorial inequality increases and place-based party identities become increasingly locked in. Electoral reform – some form of proportional representation – might increase moderation and collaboration through coalition government. Or it might fuel conflict by permitting the proliferation of antagonistic place-based parties. Either way, electoral reform is unlikely to come to Ontario any time soon.

The more fundamental question is how to reduce the gaps in the first place. We can imagine two solutions.

The first is to accept that the Toronto region will continue to be the engine of provincial jobs and population growth but make it cheaper to live in and easier to get to from farther away. The previous Liberal government implicitly pursued the latter approach by dramatically expanding the capacity and frequency of the GO Transit commuter system, and by advocating for a high-speed rail connection from Toronto to London and Windsor via Waterloo Region.

But while a policy of incorporating southern Ontario into a single greater Toronto labour and housing market may equalize housing prices and more evenly distribute jobs across space, it may hold less appeal for the midsized cities that wish to chart independent destinies. They would likely prefer a second solution: expanding economic opportunities in nonmetropolitan centres. Indeed, this is what Rodríguez-Pose suggests: tailoring policies at all levels to places to harness their distinct human, institutional and physical endowments.

We have seen some examples of such “multilevel governance” approaches already: the early 2000s Martin federal government’s urban development agreements and the partnerships generated by federal economic development agencies. Mike Moffatt has argued for locating new university and college campuses in laggard regions. However, taking this path would require more and different government expenditures and intervention, not less. This seems unlikely at a time when the new government is scaling back spending on the drivers of the new economy, especially infrastructure and higher education, and on support for people dislocated by economic change. This is too bad, for without differential attention from government, the Toronto region risks choking on its own success while the hinterland continues on its trajectory of relative decline.

Continue reading “Ontario’s “Places That Don’t Matter” Send a Message”

Toronto’s neverending election is over. Having dispatched Doug Ford – the eleventh-hour campaign surrogate for his ailing brother, Mayor Rob Ford – as well as former councillor and NDP MP Olivia Chow, John Tory takes office on a promise of bringing managerial competence and political stability to the city that journalist Robyn Doolittle has dubbed “Crazy Town.” Toronto can go back to being its boring old self – the city the rest of Canada loves to hate or tries to ignore.

Or can it? The mayor may have changed, but the rest of the city hasn’t. Canadians should take notice, for the causes of the city’s fractured politics are not limited to Hogtown, and their effects may have repercussions far beyond city limits.

The origins of the two-track city

For most of the postwar era, Toronto was the industrial engine of the Canadian economy. While the industrial metropolises of the American midwest and northeast foundered, Greater Toronto grew like a Sunbelt city, adding almost a million new residents decade over decade. Favoured by location and national trade policy, Toronto supplanted Montreal as the country’s preeminent city and became an extraordinarily successful integrator of immigrants from around the world.

The foundations of Toronto’s success started to come undone in the 1980s and 1990s as the federal government liberalized continental trade and rolled back income support programs. Free trade sparked a painful restructuring of the manufacturing base, accelerating the shift to a service-based knowledge economy. City statistics report a halving of manufacturing employment between 1983 and 2013 – a loss of 117,900 skilled jobs. Total employment only surpassed its 1989 peak 24 years later, in 2013. Those left behind by deindustrialization faced a rocky transition to lower-paying and more precarious service jobs, with more limited social supports. The foundations that supported a substantial proportion of Toronto’s postwar middle-class prosperity eroded.

Also in trouble was a growing cohort of underemployed immigrants. National immigration policy admits immigrants on the basis of their education and skills, yet many face difficulty in the job market because their credentials are not recognized or they lack “Canadian experience.” As a result, recent immigrants to Toronto and other Canadian cities tend to have higher unemployment and make lower wages than native-born Canadians. While immigrant labour-market outcomes tend to converge with those of others over time, Toronto’s role as the country’s principal immigrant-receiving jurisdiction means that a substantial proportion of the city’s people are newcomers. According to the 2011 National Household Survey, 16 per cent had arrived within the last decade.

Paralleling these developments is growth at the top of the income ladder. The proportions of households with high and low incomes have both increased, squeezing the middle. The overall picture, then, is of a two-track city in which rising income inequality has driven a wedge between haves and have-nots.

A growing city-suburb divide

These economic and demographic transformations are not spread equally across the city. Mapping concentrations of immigrant residents and visible minorities (a proxy for more recently arrived immigrants) shows that they are predominantly located in the postwar suburbs outside of the old City of Toronto: north Etobicoke, Scarborough and the west half of North York. Immigrants have concentrated in the suburbs for a variety of reasons. For those with the means, home ownership was more affordable than in the core. Also, Toronto’s large supply of suburban postwar high-rise apartments remains a source of relatively affordable housing. Many neighbourhoods and apartment clusters have become what journalist Doug Saunders calls “arrival cities” – reception zones for specific communities of origin, each with a range of group-specific and often faith-based self-help organizations. The suburbs are also home to a large proportion of the postwar middle class who used their purchasing power to buy single-family detached houses away from the bustle and congestion of the core.

A parallel transformation has occurred in the prewar city. Since the 1970s, young professionals have bought up and renovated houses in areas previously dismissed as slums. The sustained influx of more affluent residents, coupled with the provincial government’s weakening of rent control and condo conversion rules in the 1990s, has propelled a rise in property values, making core-area neighbourhoods more exclusive. Today there are few pre-1945 neighbourhoods untouched by gentrification. At the same time, the downtown core and surrounding areas have seen a continent-leading condo boom. The number of dwellings in the central area more than doubled between 1971 and 2006. A recent city survey found that the typical downtown resident is young, well educated and high-income.

The result is a new socioeconomic geography in which, by a number of measures, one part of the city – the core – is on its way up, while the other – the suburbs – is on its way down. As housing expert J. David Hulchanski and his colleagues have shown, 66 per cent of Toronto’s neighbourhoods were middle-income (defined as being within 20 per cent of the average) in 1971; in 2006 only 29 per cent were. The percentage of low-income neighbourhoods increased from 19 per cent to 53 per cent in the same period. He refers to the growing segregation of high-, middle- and low-income neighbourhoods as the “three cities” within Toronto (see map).

The city-suburb divide is reinforced by the relative absence of amenities and poor transportation options in suburban areas. Since the 1970s, there have been many plans to extend the city’s subway and light rail network to the suburbs, but none have been implemented. Congestion has worsened for automobile commuters but there is no reasonable transit alternative. For those without a car, access to amenities and shopping is poor. The suburbs were not built as walkable environments.

Amalgamated city means amalgamated politics

10_TorontoElection2014_supportThis divide has become politically important because of the city’s amalgamation. Before 1998, what is now the City of Toronto had a two-tier system of government. The old City of Toronto, whose boundaries corresponded to the pre-1945 city, exemplified what political scientist Clarence Stone refers to as a “middle-class progressive regime” – a cosy, neighbourhood-oriented politics in which the wealthy commercial tax base subsidized generous services to residents and the provision of collective civic amenities. The five suburban municipalities exemplified a leaner mode of governance focused on providing low-cost services to individuals as householders and drivers. Core-dwellers and suburbanites possessed different expectations of the role of local government.

When they lived in separate political units, these different expectations did not matter. By rolling everyone together into a single unit with uniform standards and tax rates, amalgamation generated a new dimension of conflict. Layering the spatial division of expectations on top of the growing socioeconomic divide created an unreconciled dilemma. Suburban homeowners are the most tax-averse, yet it is suburban areas that are in the greatest need of spending on improving civic amenities, transportation options and social supports.

Building Ford Nation

The only surprise in the 2010 election is that the downtown pundit class didn’t see Rob Ford coming. Until he took the lead in summertime polls, the candidacy of the long-time councillor was viewed as the vanity project of a loose cannon who had few friends in the chamber and was on the “wrong” side of every issue. Ultimately Ford won with 47 per cent of the vote, 12 points ahead of the establishment candidate, former provincial deputy premier and downtown condo-dweller George Smitherman. My analysis shows that fully 80 per cent of Ford’s votes came from the postwar suburban zone. Few parts of the city were competitive. In only 16 per cent of the city’s 1,110 polling divisions was the electoral margin between Ford and Smitherman less than 10 per cent.

Rob Ford won in 2010 because he translated these overlapping divides into a simple yet encompassing set of populist messages. With the slogan “respect for taxpayers,” he appealed directly to suburbanites as individual consumers of municipal services. Homeowners would enjoy lower property taxes and the unpopular Municipal Land Transfer Tax and Vehicle Registration Tax, introduced by the previous mayor as a means of diversifying the city’s revenue sources, would be eliminated. Decrying a tax-and-spend culture at City Hall, he promised strict fiscal discipline. Importantly, “respect” also extended to the responsiveness of city government. Famous for claiming to return every call placed to his office, Ford promised a new focus on “customer service.” Forays into environmental and social policymaking had taken city government away from its core mission of providing services to taxpayers. Ford would cut the frills and bring it all back to basics. These messages appealed to traditional suburban homeowners, many of whom were hard pressed by economic change.

Ford killed two birds with one stone by promising to gut the previous mayor’s suburban surface light rail expansion plan, known as TransitCity, in favour of new subways. First, he cast surface transit as a cause rather than a solution to suburban traffic congestion. Subways would clear the roads for drivers. Second, the promise played to the belief that since the downtown core was well served by subways, suburban areas deserved them too. Transportation planning and engineering experts protested that low-density suburban areas would generate insufficient ridership to justify the great expense and capacity of subways, but symbolism prevailed.

Perhaps most importantly, Rob Ford’s naked populism brought to the surface a deep sense of grievance among a broad swath of suburbia. In the wake of the 2008 recession, the perception that the suburbs were ignored while public and private investment was deliberately funnelled into the city’s core was fuelled by Rob Ford’s public contempt for downtown elites, “Bay Street fat cats,” cyclists, environmentalists and streetcar riders.

The numbers are clear. On election day, low-income neighbourhoods gave Ford 56 per cent support versus 26 per cent for Smitherman, while high-income neighbourhoods supported Smitherman and Councillor Joe Pantalone over Ford by two to one (62 per cent versus 35 per cent). On average, Ford-supporting neighbourhoods had a lower rate of university education (29 per cent versus 53 per cent), a higher proportion of car commuters (65 per cent versus 37 per cent) and a lower proportion of high-end service and professional workers (19 per cent versus 34 per cent).

On the campaign trail and in office, Ford personalized the identity of his support base. Riffing off the identification of Toronto hockey fans as “Leaf Nation,” Ford dubbed his supporters “Ford Nation,” and at every step pronounced himself the authentic representative of “the people.”

Ford Nation remains

It would be easy to dismiss Rob Ford as a singular character who capitalized on a singular confluence of events. In office, he failed to accomplish most of his goals because he proved incapable of doing what leaders in a weak-mayor system must do: build issue-by-issue majorities on council. In the wake of revelations of drug and alcohol abuse, even his allies on council abandoned him, and council voted to transfer virtually all of his executive authority to the deputy mayor. Council effectively governed without the mayor for almost half his term.

His personal travails and spectacular failure as mayor ought to have discredited the Ford brand. Yet the 2014 election shows that this did not occur. Rob Ford essentially reran his 2010 campaign, promising low taxes, privatization and subways. By midsummer he surpassed Olivia Chow in the polls, running second to John Tory. When he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in September, his brother Doug took his place. Rob’s support not only transferred smoothly to Doug, but Doug consistently outperformed his brother in the polls.

In the end, John Tory won the mayoralty with 40 per cent support on election day. But even as opponents breathed a sigh of relief, Ford Nation also scored a victory of sorts. With record high turnout, more than a third of the electorate continued to support the Ford message. Winning back his old council seat with over 50 per cent of the vote, Rob Ford has promised to be aggressive on council and, health permitting, to run again for mayor in 2018.

The spatial distribution of support in relation to the two-track city’s socioeconomic geography is clear (see map). John Tory’s support was concentrated in historically affluent areas and downtown condoland, while he benefited from diffuse support elsewhere. Olivia Chow, at 23 per cent support, did best in the older west-side core neighbourhoods populated by a mix of gentrifying professionals and early postwar working-class immigrant communities. With 35 per cent support, Doug Ford captured the distressed postwar suburban zone. These zones of support correspond almost perfectly with Hulchanski’s three cities. It is no small irony that Chow’s support was lowest in precisely the areas to which her platform of social investment might have greatest objective appeal.

What it means for the rest of Canada, and for Canadian politics

These events are important to the rest of Canada because they are local expressions of more general phenomena. We are accustomed to thinking of Canadian politics as being a game of regions – the west versus Quebec, and so on – or as divided between urban and rural voters. As federal and provincial political parties have already figured out, our now highly urbanized society has become fractured along new lines. Politicians have taken advantage of this by framing and activating localized political identities in relation to a mix of personal lifestyle orientations, socioeconomic status and relationship to government services.

As journalist Susan Delacourt recounts in her book Shopping for Votes, the Conservative Party has built and sustained electoral success through the assembly of such microtargeted identity groups. In the process, it has reframed politics as a conflict between two worlds – the “real” Canadian suburban or small-town family that sips Tim Horton’s at the hockey rink versus the elitist downtowner who works on a laptop at Starbucks.

What gets lost in the politics of symbolism is the fact that symbols have real-world referents. Post-1980s welfare state retrenchment and economic restructuring have increased income inequality, the impacts of which have played out disproportionately in our cities. Variants of the two-track city are visible from Vancouver to Montreal and beyond.

Canada’s cities thrived in the postwar period because they were engines of middle-class wealth creation. This is now at risk as the gaps between income groups and between neighbourhoods grow. Our leaders at all levels face a choice. They may reap electoral rewards from playing to growing divisions and associated grievances, or they may seek ways to bridge them.