Canada’s biggest city faces major changes

TORONTO (AP) — A few months ago, Toronto was aglow at being ranked the world’s best city. Now, municipal leaders sound like doomsday is at hand — and blame their own province’s premier.
“It’s like the city has been bombed,” said Barbara Hall, the mayor of Canada’s biggest metropolis, its financial and cultural capital. Some of her constituents are talking of secession from Ontario.
The cause of the apocalyptic rhetoric is a one-two punch from Ontario Premier Mike Harris, whose budget-slashing Conservative government draws most of its support from outside the metropolitan area.
The first blow came in December, when Harris announced that Toronto and five adjoining suburbs would be merged — like it or not — into a single city of 2.3 million people, four times bigger than Toronto is now and run by a newly elected municipal government.
The second blow followed last week: a radical overhaul of Ontario’s spending policies that would, if it becomes law, force local governments to fund costly social programs formerly financed by the province while the province takes over the school budget.
The Conservatives contend their overhaul will balance out so municipalities’ spending burdens do not increase. But Torontonians say that won’t happen in their city, where the costs of welfare, public housing and public transit are far greater than elsewhere in Ontario.
The result, say Harris’ critics, is that Toronto will be forced to slash services or increase property taxes, worsening urban poverty while triggering an exodus by residents and shopowners who can afford to move.
A Toronto Star columnist, Michele Landsburg, compared Harris’ attitude toward Toronto to that of then-President Ford in 1975, when his refusal to provide emergency federal aid to New York City prompted the famous New York Daily News headline, “Ford to City: Drop Dead.”
“All last week … as the Harris government unleashed one bombshell after another, I watched with a kind of amazed despair the deliberate destruction of the city of Toronto,” Landsburg wrote.
By most measures, Toronto is a success. Forbes magazine rated it No. 1 among international cities, ahead of London, Singapore and Paris, in a livability survey last October. Its crime rate is low, it is almost slum-free, and it boasts a close-to-downtown mix of wealthy, middle-class and blue-collar neighborhoods matched by few North American cities.
Alan Tonks, chairman of a board that oversees metropolitan-area services, says the potential damage to greater Toronto is so horrendous that he assumes the Harris government miscalculated.
“I cannot believe that the province, the premier and the Conservative government meant to inflict that kind of harm,” said Tonks, whose staff estimates Toronto’s shortfall after the changes at $285 million.
“This is the most important urban area, not only in Ontario but in all of Canada,” Tonks said. “It’s not the time to bring it to its knees.”
The perceived onslaught has aroused a rare political fervor in Toronto.
More than 1,200 people packed a downtown church Monday night for an anti-merger rally. Petitions were distributed proposing secession if Harris doesn’t respect the outcome of votes on the proposed merger.
All six targeted municipalities plan referendums, but the Harris government says it won’t recognize the results.
Even the literati are mobilizing. A dozen Toronto-based authors gathered Thursday to express dismay at Harris’ plans, predicting the funding overhaul would mean less money for culture.