Only a handful of people know what it’s like to run Toronto. To celebrate our 50th anniversary, we invited them to lunch at the Ritz-Carlton, plied them with charcuterie boards and chardonnay, and asked them about taxes, condo development and the legacy of Rob Ford
Toronto is an interesting, vibrant city. What were the most significant events over the past 50 years that created the Toronto of today?
TORY: Amalgamation is one of the biggest events of the last 50 years. Whether you think it worked or not, it was huge. Building the St. Lawrence community was another big one, because it established downtown as a place for people to live. Finally, the cancellation of the Spadina Expressway. Interestingly, two of those three things were provincial initiatives.
SEWELL: The megacity has been a disaster to the former city of Toronto and all the former metropolitan areas.
EGGLETON: As the city has grown, what has been important is the integration of the population. At the end of the Second World War, we were a very British community. Now we are a city with people of all different races and ethnic origins. It’s not perfect here. There’s still racism; we still have problems. But as minister of defence I spent some time in conflict zones and saw some of the worst of humanity. We’ve integrated people from all over the world successfully here by comparison. Toronto is a beacon to the world, and I think we should be proud of it.
CROMBIE: The city benefited enormously from the Vietnam War and the Quiet Revolution in Quebec. When I talk to anybody around the world about Toronto, diversity’s the story.
TORY: Did you hear what the new mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said after he got elected? He declared that he was proud to be the mayor of the most diverse city in the world. The BBC wondered if this was true, did research and reported that Mayor Khan was wrong. The most diverse city in the world is Toronto. London is, in fact, fifth.
Mayor from 2014 to today
The current mayor helped usher in police carding reform, and approved the Scarborough subway extension and the removal of the eastern part of the Gardiner Expressway. He may yet build SmartTrack and/or an 8.5-hectare green space in the downtown core.
HALL: While I opposed amalgamation, one positive result is that we are doing a better job of bringing people into the city, including newcomers who live outside the core. I love the fact that a lot of kids from Scarborough and Etobicoke talk about the 6, and Drake has made them feel this is their city.
Another big development that led to a vibrant residential downtown was a project I was involved in—the rezoning of areas around King and Parliament and west of King and Spadina so old factories could be used for housing. Back in the early ’90s, buildings were being torn down to become parking lots, and you couldn’t build residential units downtown. The core was going the way of large American cities. Now we have a vibrant residential core. There’s a lot of action here.
LASTMAN: I was opposed to amalgamation at the beginning, but once it happened, I thought it could work. Then Ontario dumped public housing onto the city of Toronto. Mike Harris could have been a hero if he hadn’t done that. I really went after Harris on it. I was quoted in the paper saying to him, “You lied” and stuff. He did lie. That hurt Toronto a lot. If it weren’t for amalgamation, North York today would still be booming because of the income that’s coming in from all the development that started after we put in the subway. People criticized the Sheppard subway then. The papers said: “You don’t build a subway before people move in.” Bullshit! If people move in first they have cars and they don’t want the subway. You put the subway in and people come and they don’t buy cars.
CROMBIE: I was skeptical about amalgamation too. I didn’t believe it was going to save money. I don’t think it has. But I think it has made the city stronger. I don’t know that we would have a City of Toronto Act, for example, if it weren’t for the amalgamated city. It’s given us more political clout and it’s erased boundaries that are artificial nowadays anyway.
TORY: Maybe it blurred them. Not sure it’s erased them. Believe me, I’m living it.
No one exploited divisions between the pre-amalgamation municipalities better than Rob Ford. What was it like for you to watch the whole Rob Ford saga unfold?
CROMBIE: It’s the easiest thing to exploit divisions. Kids do that in school. I regarded Rob Ford’s four years as an aberration. It was not part of the normal way in which Toronto worked.
EGGLETON: I think we should be careful speaking about those who are no longer with us. It was a distraction. It was a circus.
Mayor from 1980 to 1991
Toronto’s longest-serving mayor, he propelled the development of downtown, including the SkyDome and the convention centre, and created 20 hectares of new parkland.
SEWELL: I remember I went to an election meeting when he was first running and I said, “Rob Ford’s going to win it.” He was on council. The other major candidates weren’t. Plus, he had this extraordinary relationship with people. Unbelievable. He was a really powerful influence. But I agree that it was a destructive four years.
HALL: When Ford refused to attend Pride, it created an opening for homophobes to strike out at members of the LGBT community. It was a setback in terms of rights and progress, which have come a long way in recent years. On a positive note, his mayoralty proved that the city is stronger than one person. A lot of people got engaged and advocated in public. They said, “This is our city. We love it. We’re going to make more things happen.” There was, and there continues to be, an energized community involvement, some of which flowed from that time.
LASTMAN: It was a nightmare. I didn’t believe it happened. I still don’t. It’s unreal. The dope. The everything. I’d rather not discuss an individual, I’d rather just leave it as a nightmare.
Mayor from 1998 to 2003
The Bad Boy Furniture chain owner and North York patriot introduced the Sheppard subway line, brought in green bins and famously called in the army during a snowstorm.
TORY: We went through a polarizing time, and it was damaging because it pulled something apart that takes a lot of effort to hold together. Toronto requires somebody who tries to bring the city together.
What was the most surprising part of being mayor?
CROMBIE: Being called “Your Worship.” That was the first one. That title makes you understand that you are at bat. It helps you remember that when you’re the mayor, you’re speaking for everybody.
HALL: People see the mayor differently from how they see other political leaders. There’s a sense of intimacy, ownership. It’s almost 20 years since I was mayor, and yet, on the streetcar, on the street, shopping, people still approach me and talk about something that happened when I was mayor. They remember that I came to their community centre or something. There’s a real sense of connection.
LASTMAN: Well, I was surprised by all the old bylaws that nobody ever bothered to change. Like, you can’t molest a squirrel. Who the hell would want to molest a squirrel except another squirrel? Also, you can’t drag a dead horse down Yonge Street until after midnight. That’s crazy. Who’s dragging dead horses down Yonge Street? Nobody.
TORY: Speaking for all the people has become a lot more complex, because of course, you are now speaking for the people of Scarborough and Etobicoke and North York and York and East York and downtown all at the same time. I have been surprised at the slow evolution of an “all for one, one for all, one city” approach. It goes back to our discussion on amalgamation. Things have progressed but not as far as I would have thought they would after all these years.
I’m amazed at how people turn to the mayor for everything. Whether it’s immigration, or foreign policy, or you name it, people will turn to you first—even if you have nothing to do with the decision because it’s outside your jurisdiction. I think it’s because the mayor is more visible than the provincial or federal politicians. We’re around more. People see the local leadership as there to solve problems for them and make things happen, which is very gratifying. At the same time, it can be frustrating because when you explain to them you don’t have responsibility for that, some of them will look at you with squinty eyes and think you’re passing the buck. When, in fact, it’s just the truth.
Let’s talk about all the condos going up. Some people think that developers do whatever they want. The developers say the city controls everything. Who’s really in charge? Developers? The city? The Ontario Municipal Board?
LASTMAN: The OMB is not political. They make the decision based on the evidence. I hope, and I think.
EGGLETON: Well, that’s not always the case. I think the OMB needs to be considerably constrained from what it is now. Developers run off to the OMB, bypassing council and the community. This is wrong. The province was talking about restraining their authority. But that’s not happening. The system needs to be reined in.
HALL: Transparency is important.
Mayor from 1994 to 1998
The last pre-amalgamation mayor, she pushed for residential development in downtown warehouses along King Street. She was also the first mayor to walk in the Pride Parade.
TORY: I’ve been mayor a year and a half, and I can’t recall a debate that took place on a particular development where anyone asks, is this the right thing to do for the city? The reason there aren’t many debates at city council about specific developments is because of two things: professionalization and localization. By professionalization, I mean that we defer to professional people, planners and so forth. By localization, I mean there’s a deference to the local councillor.
CROMBIE: In the early days an appointment to the OMB was for 10 years, like a judicial appointment, to protect the independence of the OMB. Premier David Peterson moved it to seven years; it’s now three years. Three years—it’s difficult to make an argument that that’s independent.
EGGLETON: Exactly. How are you going to have any kind of continuity when people are coming and going?
What does city hall need now to position Toronto to be a successful city in 50 years?
SEWELL: Get a whole bunch of new taxing powers. Get them fast and start imposing them, raising the money so you can do what you want. That’s the most important thing for Toronto to do right now.
Mayor From 1978 to 1980
Known as Mayor Blue Jeans for being a radical, he rode a bicycle to work, and was an early supporter of gay rights, an early environmentalist and a big champion of Jane Jacobs.
CROMBIE: That’s right. The city is revenue deficient. Toronto can’t pay for all the housing and transit it needs just with property taxes.
LASTMAN: Hold on. The province is probably going to go bankrupt. The federal government looks as if they’re going bankrupt. They say their deficit of $10 billion is actually going to be $30 billion. Cities have been stupid over the years by taking on things that aren’t their responsibility. They’ve taken on thing after thing, item after item. I’m not saying get rid of it, but daycare? What has that got to do with the city taxpayer? If a person’s child is going to daycare, that means they can work and make more income and pay more income tax. We’re doing everything for the province. The cities can’t afford it.
HALL: I agree that Toronto needs to find new revenue sources. A number of them have been proposed. Like the hotel tax, where visitors must pay a municipal fee in addition to the price of the room. Maybe a combination of them? The other thing is working to dismantle barriers to opportunity and employment. The city can play a key role in all the uncomfortable conversations about racism. We see it in policing. If our diverse population is going to live well together, we need to be conscious of where the challenges are and work on them.
TORY: I accept the challenge that Barbara laid out, which is a human challenge. If you’re lucky enough to have a city that is as diverse as ours, it is going to pose many more challenges—in terms of maintaining confidence in the police, maintaining confidence in the entire system, the protection and respect for people’s rights and opportunities.
Then there’s the practical side—you have to build transit because access to opportunity is through the transit system, and you have to deal with the affordable housing issue to allow people to live in the city.
That’s why we need money. Not much has been done in that regard since the City of Toronto Act. One of the new revenue tools granted under the act, the land transfer tax, for example, produces $500 million today.
I’ve said I’m going to do something in this regard, maybe to my peril. So we’ll see, when we put it to the test, whether people buy in to the fact that you’ve got to invest.
SEWELL: I’m concerned about poverty and equality in the city. When Toronto Life started in 1966, Toronto was a city of middle-class neighbourhoods. More neighbourhoods are polarized now between people who have wealth and people who don’t. It’s become an expensive city, and if we want to have people of different incomes, we’re going to have to find a way to have affordable housing.
CROMBIE: Our generation had it better than any other generation before or since. We were raised with a sense of what the Depression was about, some sense about the war. I can remember my dad saying in 1950 to his sons and daughter around the supper table, “You guys are going to belong to the richest city in the richest province of the richest country in the world and all you’ve got to do is show up with some manners.” We had terrific economic growth, but people were also welcoming change. We often said a phrase that editorial writers used to use: “Youth must be served.” You don’t see that anymore.
Mayor from 1972 to 1978
Known as the “tiny perfect mayor,” Crombie oversaw the creation of the St. Lawrence neighbourhood, protected Kensington Market from redevelopment and helped stop the Spadina Expressway.
LASTMAN: I’m quite concerned that the province is talking about increasing the densities. The province wants to double the densities in every area. I don’t think the schools can handle it. I don’t know where the money’s going to come from. I’m sure the developers are going to do all right and it may generate some more taxes, but it’s going to cost more. Because you’re going to need more schools, libraries, parks and whatnot.
What advice do you former mayors have for the current mayor?
SEWELL: You have got to establish a sales tax. You have to stand and provide the leadership. I think people will say yes. I think the business community will be strongly in support of it.
LASTMAN: How would business people be able to hire more employees if taxes went up? You think the retailers want to increase taxes?
SEWELL: Putting two per cent, as an example, on the HST. Not a problem at all. I don’t think people would even notice it. It’s not very much and I believe the minute we did that, Mississauga would do it, York, everybody would do it.
LASTMAN: Then why did the federal government drop it? The two per cent?
SEWELL: I don’t see any political downside to it. Sure, there are going to be some squawkers, but I believe most people would say, “Exactly, let’s get that money and let’s start spending it wisely.”
LASTMAN: That’s how Rob Ford got elected! The spending, the spending. What did he call it? The gravy train. People can’t afford it anymore. There’s only so much you can pull from an individual. They don’t have it.
And prices are going up. Take a look at cauliflower. One time it was $7. Groceries are going way up. Rent is going up. It used to cost $200 a month to rent an apartment. Today it’s $2,200. No, no, stop the increase in taxes.
SEWELL: One reason for Rob Ford’s popularity was that people were angry at the city. They believed they’d been left out, they weren’t getting opportunities. Anyway, that’s my advice.
CROMBIE: It’s got to be done and it’s got to be done with the mayor leading the charge—if you don’t mind me saying so, John. You’ve got to nail their asses to the wall and create the constituency they need to obey.
TORY: Whose behind am I trying to nail to the wall? Just so I’m clear on that. I want to make sure.
CROMBIE: The lovely lady at Queen’s Park.
TORY: Okay. I didn’t know who you were talking about.
CROMBIE: I’m talking about the province, of course! Listen, when we built the St. Lawrence neighbourhood, we didn’t do it as the city. We didn’t have a dime to do it, but we were able to enlist the power of the provincial and the federal governments by appealing to their constituency and their politicians. Your ability to create a constituency is far greater than your ability to create money.
Six in the 6: (lead photo) Mel Lastman, John Tory, John Sewell, Barbara Hall, Art Eggleton and David Crombie. Other living mayors who were invited but did not attend: June Rowlands, who’s 91, and David Miller, who politely declined.