by Jeremy Tompkins
Originally published by VC Magazine, Winter 2014/15
I’M A SUCKER for Toronto. I was jonesing for the place before I was a resident. The best concerts were here, the brightest lights too. Admittedly, Toronto is not the only city I’ve loved. There was a serious and sensual affair with London, Ontario as the 1980s became the ‘90s. Rules were broken. We bonded. We’ll always be tight. But, like many young trysts, that one came to an explosive end. Afterwards, certain appendages were dipped into other great cities short-term; Barcelona and Paris, Saigon and Hong Kong, Los Angeles and Boston. Toronto though is as close to a home as I have known.
Civic pundits like to make the obvious connection between Toronto and New York. “We’re Manhattanizing,” they say. Except no, we’re not. We’re Toronto-izing. There’s no questioning the city’s rapid change. There are more cranes in our skies than anywhere outside of China and Dubai. The Greater Toronto Area is adding more than 100,000 net residents every year. In another four years there will be a whole new London inside of us. This frenetic pace has made life both less polite and more interesting. Toronto is growing up. No one knows for sure when (or for how long) its star will burn brightest.
Queen Street art by DEADBOY
Toronto is a younger metropolis than many of its global competitors. Londinium was founded in the first century AD by the Romans. Toronto’s predecessor, the Town of York, was established in 1793. Unlike Montreal, Toronto was not an indigenous city before the Europeans showed up. It started fresh and is still figuring things out. Barcelona has more fun. Boston is smarter. Toronto’s sunshine count means it will never be as glamorous as the City of Angels. But her best days are in front of her. Despite the cold, people keep showing up. It’s safe and livable. The world loves Toronto even if Alberta doesn’t.
Why shouldn’t Toronto feel the love? Every year the city distributes billions more in tax revenue to Canada than it receives. It’s a cash cow. Ontario and Canada are better off with such a formidable business capital. And therein lies the challenge. When you look at Toronto’s continental competitors, you see government management that is more educated, accomplished, and understanding.
To an unfortunate minority, Toronto will always be Timmins plus 2.5 million people. Today though, when you search for more populous cities (proper, not metro) across North America there are only four. Without exception, those four places are guided by supremely capable individuals. Mexico City’s mayor was also its attorney general and a law professor. The chief magistrates of New York and Los Angeles both hold master’s degrees in international affairs. They care about their communities and world. They have goals. Bill de Blasio distributed food during the Nicaraguan Revolution, in Nicaragua. Rahm Emanuel was an advisor to two United States presidents. His previous job was White House Chief of Staff. Elitism you say? Joe and Joanne Public have just as much right to take public office – but they might want to show up with more than a potty mouth.
Since 1998 when little Toronto was amalgamated with its five surrounding boroughs to form big Toronto, its representation has appeared less by contrast. Mel Lastman, furniture impresario and the first megacity mayor, stepped into the job after serving in the same position for North York from the 1970s to 1990s. Self-made but big-mouthed, he once complained that parents were giving birth then shirking their responsibilities, before it was revealed that his other woman and other kids were living in poverty. In 2001, he publicly worried that a trip to Kenya in support of Toronto’s Olympic bid might see him wind up in a pot of boiling water surrounded by natives. If only we were so lucky
How does Toronto’s leadership stack up?
David Miller was an upgrade of sorts. He was educated in economics and law but then quickly became a career politician. He had big dreams for the city, but neither a funding plan nor the stamina to hang around to see them built. Toronto infrastructure appears to share qualities with Egyptian stele; the replacements mess with message. Miller used Toronto as a springboard, not the other way around.
Rob Ford was only the latest and most vulgar indicator of the city’s apathy for its democracy. His stint at the eponymous Redskins football camp was his most notable scholastic experience, and didn’t even lead to him getting off the bench for Carlton University’s football team. He quit school after his first year. In the name of community service, Robbie teamed up with his businessman-and-politician father and the Toronto police to launch an anti-drug campaign at a public housing complex near his home.
He was arrested in Florida the next year for impaired driving and just happened to have marijuana in his pocket. This comedy routine would be Oscar-worthy if it weren’t for the hypocrisy. The news didn’t get out and Robbie became a city councillor. Despite doing and saying impolite things across three terms, he also picked up the phone and called his constituents. He honestly likes people and is as likeable as the late Chris Farley’s Tommy Boy. He was just as unprepared to run a complex organization. But the joke is on us. We voted him in.
Because John Tory is now mayor, and not Robbie’s big brother, Toronto may have finally gotten the joke. Though equally as privileged as the brothers Ford, Tory is also educated. He has advised political power at the highest levels. He was a chief executive at one of Canada’s largest companies, even if his dad did first lay the groundwork. Unlike the Fords, he’s also conciliatory. It’s not surprising he won. What is surprising, however, is how close Doug came to beating him. Allegedly, Doug was the drug pusher to Robbie’s drug user. Much of the Ford clan is connected to a network of violent and dangerous criminals. Where Robbie wants to be your friend, Doug doesn’t care. RoFo is jokes. DoFo is scary. And he’s not going away. Hopefully Toronto’s indifference for its own future will.
Author’s note. This article would be libelous if it weren’t true. The most substantive original reporting was completed for The Globe and Mail newspaper by Greg McArthur and Shannon Kari and published May 25, 2013.