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.

Notes

1 North Toronto is a district in the northern part of the old City of Toronto, roughly in the centre of the amalgamated city.

2 She is not the first immigrant mayor; David Miller was born in San Francisco and moved to Canada when he was nine.