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.