I set out to write a little fluff of a travelogue after my excursion to Montreal last week. A comparative piece to my hometown here in Toronto. Hometown? Is that what you call somewhere you’ve lived for almost all your adult life that still doesn’t really feel like home so much as the place where you live?
See? Immediately, I’m in the weeds, my bias glaringly apparent. There was no way Toronto would come out the winner in a contest against Montreal as tilted as the scales were in what was a superficial sampling. Days visiting versus years living. Exciting novelty versus dull routine. A bit of the exotic versus the monotony of routine. The stale air of familiar inevitably ranks mustier when fresh air breezily wafts past.
Fortunately for everyone concerned, reader and writer alike, I got sidetracked while looking through stats about Montreal in sizing it up with Toronto. Population, density, kilometres of bikelanes and transit, etc., etc. Out of all of that, the thing that really caught my attention was city council. More specifically, the number of city councillors that are elected to represent the residents of Montreal.
The full Montreal city council consists of 1 mayor, 18 borough mayors and 46 city councillors.
For those counting along, Toronto city council is made up of a mayor and 25 city councillors.
There are more women elected to city council in Montreal than there are all city councillors who occupy the chambers at Toronto City Hall, women representing over 50% of Montreal’s council. Last term in Toronto that percent was less than a third. As for visible minority representation? After the municipal election last year in Montreal the percentage rose to 17% of council members, roughly half the city’s percentage. In Toronto in 2018? 4 of 26, just over 15% in a city where, well, visible minorities are, in fact, a majority.
There are roughly 1 million more people living in Toronto than in Montreal. That works out to each city councillor in Toronto representing the interest of roughly 110,000 residents. In Montreal, the ratio’s 1:27,000, a more than 4-fold difference. Meaning, that a Toronto city councillor has 4 times the number of constituents than their counterparts in Montreal.
Following the logic of those who’ve created such a monstrous discrepancy, Toronto City Hall should be run at least 4 times as efficiently as l’hôtel de ville à Montréal, a well-oiled machine that spits out decisions and by-laws like clockwork, debate & vote, signed, sealed, rubber stamped and delivered in 45-minute monthly meetings. Evidently not efficient enough for the makers of City Council Denudation 2.0 back in 2018. This time around, Toronto city council will be facing a mayor with ‘strong powers’, meaning essentially that anything deemed to align with a nebulous ‘prescribed provincial priority’ can be pushed through with as few as 10 votes, the mayor and 9 city councillors.
Democracy can’t get much more local than that, amirite?
Now, I’m not suggesting that what I saw in Montreal over a five-day period, things like operational water fountains, both drinking and decorative, useable trash cans not stuffed to overflowing, spewing litter on the street around it, peaceable and courteous interactions by road users, you know, the basic elements of a functioning city, all stem from a bigger, more representative city council. But it should be a considered variable, shouldn’t it? A contributing factor to the make-up of a livable, inclusive, equitable city.
Of course, Toronto has only been operating at such a skeletal political scale for four years now. So everything that’s wrong, the routine defacement of and inattention to our public spaces and places, can’t be chalked up to our most recent mal/ill/under/mis-management. But local governance here has been under attack and undermined by the province since amalgamation in 1997 with a cessation of outright hostilities during a Liberal reign that also did little to truly loosen provincial oversight of municipal affairs, benignly leaving it open to future malignant governments at Queen’s Park.
(Admittedly, the city’s done itself no favours with multiple self-inflicted wounds at the ballot box right from the outset of the megacity.)
Still, there has to be some correlation between Toronto’s incredibly shrinking city council and its current state of affairs. The increasing disparities. The deadly hostilities on our streets. The underperforming of over-policing. The garbage, all the garbage. Did I mention the garbage? The political disengagement as suggested by the reduced number of candidates running for city council this election cycle.
In this week’s City Hall Watcher (if you don’t subscribe, what the hell are you waiting for?), Matt Elliott writes about the ‘Unfinished business’ of outgoing city council, detailing how some 22% of reports requested from staff by city councillors have gone unanswered, and are now dead and deep sixed with the end of the term. More than 1-in-5 pieces of information asked for by our local elected representatives were simply ignored. As Matt explains, there are certainly legitimate explanations for some of the lacuna, Covid being the most glaringly obvious, although, as he says, it isn’t like the pace of staff response improved after things got back to normal-ish.
An argument could be made that, like city council itself, the city bureaucracy has been starved on a perpetual diet of finding efficiencies, redundancies remaining redundant, vacancies left vacant. It has neither the adequate resources nor time to fulfill all the requests for reports made by city council. But certainly, the inevitable increased workload councillors faced with the expansion of their wards and doubling of the residents they represent, an increase cited by almost all the retiring incumbents, even the terrible ones like Denzil Minnan-Wong whose, as far as I can tell, constituent work seemed to consist of little more than keeping property taxes low and multi-residential building out of his ward, contributed to the staff non-returns of requests for reports. There are only so many hours in the day to be chasing down laggard requested reports.
A trickle-down effect of neglect and perceived official disregard leading to a cynical spiral of lessened, defeated expectations. Why bother? Nobody listens to us anyway. Civic participation dwindles, leaving the city to the dealings of a small strata of ‘invested interests’, let’s call them. A local democracy dead-end.
A proper city, a great one even, hell, I’d be delighted with Montreal at this point, can’t be built by imperial fiat, at least not since the fall of the Roman Empire or Robert Moses. Ancient history, is what I’m saying. City-building is a garden that needs plenty of gardeners, he says, flowery. Fewer decision-makers do not lead to better decision-making. In fact, I think what we’re witnessing here in Toronto is the exact opposite. Myopic. Ideological. By and for the privileged few.
Very much, it feels like, an intended consequence of such municipal downsizing.