Representing Toronto’s Distinct Interests to the Ontario Provincial Government

Martin Horak, Department of Political Science, Western University

Relevance of the Practice

As we saw in the Introduction to Intergovernmental Relations of Local Governments, report section 5.1., Canada lacks party systems and civil service systems that are integrated across levels of government. Absent these mechanisms of intergovernmental communication, many provincial governments adopt a very top-down approach to their relationships with municipalities. This is certainly the case in Ontario, where the provincial government has a history of dealing with local governments without much regard for local preferences or inter-local differences. Historically, this tendency has manifested itself in a number of ways:

  • through periodic provincially-imposed structural reorganization;[1]
  • through periodic top-down reorganization of functional and funding responsibilities;[2]
  • through the tendency of the provincial government to develop homogeneous standards and policies for all local governments, rural and urban.

Insofar as municipal governments in Ontario have had a say in provincial policy and action towards the municipal sector, it has mostly been through collective action by the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO), the province’s main municipal association. For a long time, AMO represented all of Ontario’s 444 municipalities – a remarkably diverse group, ranging in population from 97 people (Brethour) to 2.9 million, and from ethno-racially diverse urban centres to sparsely populated tracts of wilderness in the far north. Because of this diversity, Ontario has over the decades evolved a range of smaller municipal associations that represent more specific groups of municipalities. These include the Rural Ontario Municipal Association (ROMA), the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association (NOMA), the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities (FONOM), and others. AMO itself has also developed a system of internal caucuses that group municipalities regionally and by population. Nonetheless, the City of Toronto, which is three times as large as the next largest municipality (Ottawa), has chafed at being part of a large collective, and in 2005 it left AMO, and has since ‘gone it alone’ in dealing with the province. The successes and limitations of this strategy give LoGov researchers insight into the capacity of Ontario’s largest urban municipality to articulate its own interests in a centralized provincial-municipal system.

Description of the Practice

After the municipal amalgamations and imposed reorganization of provincial-municipal responsibilities and funding arrangements in the late 1990s, the municipal sector in Ontario sought to identify ways to increase local input into provincial policies regarding municipal matters. In 2001, AMO convinced provincial officials to engage in a periodic process of negotiating an AMO-Provincial Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that would identify mutually agreed policy directions and priorities. While many Ontario municipalities saw this as a step forward in provincial-municipal relations, the City of Toronto did not. The new post-amalgamation city had distinct needs and policy priorities from many other Ontario municipalities, including higher than average social service costs and a backlog of large transit infrastructure funding needs. Furthermore, with about 20 per cent of the province’s population, Toronto was not content to be one of 444 municipal voices in AMO. As a result, in 2004 Toronto left AMO, and began dealing with the provincial government independently. Toronto has remained outside of the AMO framework since that time.

Assessment of the Practice

Toronto’s strategy of going it alone in its relationship with the provincial government has been quite successful in some ways. Taking advantage of the weight of its large population and economic base, Toronto has at times been able to successfully articulate its distinct needs and priorities to the provincial government, as well as to the federal government. An early example of this came in 2007, when the city successfully concluded negotiations with the provincial government for a stand-alone piece of governing legislation, the City of Toronto Act. This act, which came into force in 2008, removed Toronto from the jurisdiction of the Municipal Act (which continues to apply to all other municipalities in Ontario), and gave the city some modestly expanded powers and resources, including some new taxing powers.[3] Beyond this, withdrawing from AMO has given Toronto the opportunity to negotiate independently with both other levels of government about a variety of issues and initiatives. For example, allocations of the federal gas tax, which are the subject of an agreement between the federal government, the provincial government and AMO for most of the province, are the subject of a separate federal-provincial-Toronto agreement.

Of course, Toronto’s successes in ‘going it alone’ in its relationship with other levels of government is only made possible because of its extraordinarily large population. This is not an option that would be viable for other Ontario municipalities, which must continue to struggle with the priority trade-offs inherent in being part of a collective municipal association. According to one expert interviewed for this project, Toronto leaving AMO precipitated a crisis in the organization, which led to internal reforms that have ultimately made AMO a more effective representative of municipal interests at the provincial level.[4]

Toronto’s strategy has also faced some limitations. First, since the City of Toronto contains less than half of the population of the Toronto urban area, its independent intergovernmental status has not helped it in having a voice on issues that are regional in scope – such as planning and regional transportation. On the contrary, divisions on regional policy priorities between Toronto and the surrounding suburbs have tended to deepen in recent years, and there is a truly remarkable lack of coordination between Toronto and the 24 suburban municipalities that surround it (which together house about 3.5 million people). The lack of intra-regional coordination is all the more striking given that Toronto and AMO maintain a regular dialogue, and on many general issues of law and policy that affect all municipalities they present a common front to the province. Second, going it alone on intergovernmental relations has meant that these relations have been destabilized by Toronto’s notoriously unstable political leadership, which tends to swing among political priorities from one electoral term to the next. As a result, important provincially supported projects such as major transportation infrastructure initiatives have become bogged down by local political instability.

References to Scientific and Non-Scientific Publications

Côté A and Fenn M, Provincial-Municipal Relations in Ontario: Approaching an Inflection Point (Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance 2014)

Graham KA and Phillips SD, ‘“Who Does What” in Ontario: The Process of Provincial‐Muncipal Disentanglement’ (1998) 41 Canadian Public Administration 175 Horak M, ‘Governance Reform from Below: Multilevel Politics and Toronto’s “New Deal” Campaign’ (Global Dialogue paper series 4, UN Habitat 2008)

[1] As discussed in report section 4.1. Beyond Municipal Amalgamations in Ontario, above.

[2] The most recent major reorganization of this kind occurred in the late 1990s, at the same time as the wave of amalgamations discussed above. At this time, the provincial government took on costs for public education, while downloading costs and responsibilities for numerous social services and public transit to local governments.

[3] See report section 3.1. on Property Tax Reliance and the Re-Emergence of Provincial Funding Transfers to Local Government in Ontario.

[4] Interview with local government expert and consultant, Toronto (13 June 2021).