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Toronto is Not the Centre of the Universe
16/06/2003

For years, Torontonians' arrogance has been mocked by references in the rest of the province (or country) to this city as "The Centre of the Universe". Torontonians have a reputation for behaving as if their city is the only thing that matters. I'm afraid that some of my readers may come to the same conclusion about me.

In several articles, for example, I have argued that it is the core of the City of Toronto that drives the regional economy and our provincial economy. Furthermore, I have certainly taken the stance that outlying areas are taking advantage of the city... living off of a net-outflow of our wealth, sending very little back.

The truth is, I wouldn't argue so fiercely against our neighbours, if it wasn't for what I feel to be an unfairness in recent provincial politics that goes toward an Un-Canadian extreme.

Since 1995, the Harris-Eves have systematically attacked the social contract on which Ontario has been built. Toronto has suffered, and not by accident. Here are some highlights, from a John Sewell column in Eye magazine:

The Ontario government pushed its costs down onto municipalities by rewriting funding arrangements for local transit, affordable housing, social service programs and public health. City staff estimate the extra annual costs piled onto Toronto's property taxpayers totalled $276 million in 2001.

Current market value assessment was implemented, which transferred tax burdens from suburban taxpayers onto the downtown. Other legislation prevented the municipality from raising the property taxes of anyone other than homeowners.

The education system has been severely damaged. Before Harris was elected, decisions regarding Toronto's school boards, both public and separate, were controlled by locally elected trustees and the system was funded entirely by property taxes generated in Toronto.

The provincial government scrapped local control of education by wresting the funding that boards had received from local property taxes. Trustees' powers were eviscerated and their compensation was limited to $5,000 a year. A funding formula was put in place that discriminates against Toronto's older schools, and education spending in Toronto was reduced by 20 per cent (almost $400 million).

This is certainly rough news, but what makes it un-Canadian?

Right now the city is struggling, because the demand for social services is so high here compared with the municipal government's ability to pay. Until there is a major structural change, this problem will persist. The city simply can't raise enough money to provide these services from property tax. It is just not progressive enough.

The city could always make the choice to not fund these services, and let people make their own way in life. But this is where the un-Canadian part comes in. Part of the Canadian experience has involved the successful learning of the lesson that helping out the people around us actually makes life more rewarding and enjoyable for the rest of us. We could decide to just not provide social services if we wanted to live in a thrid-world-type community, with a clash of extremes around us. But instead, Canada has followed a path of helping others. This is a major contributor to the high quality of life ratings we continually earn.

Unfortunately, the Harris-Eves government has taken advantage of this in the worst way. Downloading of social services is what has made a poor city out of rich Toronto. How? Well, the province is happy to take advantage of the city's wealth when it collects income tax, which it spends to support minimal programs everywhere. On the other hand, when it comes to social services concentrated in urban areas, the province is happy to leave this to the property tax payer.

The result is a system where non-Tory-voting urbanites get stuck with an impossible choice about whether to fund social services or let their communities descend to a lower standard. Meanwhile, Tory-voting suburban regions enjoy living in a province in which considerably less of their income tax goes to services typically not associated with suburban living. It's not just a shift of wealth from city to suburb. It is also a shift from a more equitable society to a less equitable one.


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