The typical story about Toronto municipal politics is very short: amalgamation destroyed the city. 

In 1998, Mike Harris’ provincial Progressive Conservatives “amalgamated” Toronto with its surrounding suburbs of Etobicoke, York, North York, East York and Scarborough. This, the tale goes, saddled a progressive downtown core with conservative suburbs. 

The result: three of the megacity’s four mayors to date—Mel Lastman, Rob Ford and the current Mayor John Tory—were conservatives with suburban bases, and instituted austerity regimes in line with their home-owning, car-driving, small-business-loving constituents’ interests. 

Public transit has been sacrificed at the altar of the car; infrastructure and city services have deteriorated to the point that they became the subject of a guerilla Nuit Blanche exhibit, AusterityTO; restrictive zoning bylaws that protect single-family homes have choked development and contributed to a housing crisis that, by some estimates, is the worst in the world. 

But is that really the whole story? 

Here’s another way of looking at it. Prior to amalgamation, Toronto was famously conservative. In many ways, it still is. Downtown is both wealthier and whiter than the city as a whole. Downtown residents’ associations stand alongside suburban voters against the tax hikes that fund city operations and against the development that could threaten their property values. 

Downtown also voted for Tory three times—more weakly than other parts of the city, but still. Meanwhile, Toronto’s suburbs aren’t just the McMansions of North York; they’re also the apartment blocks and bungalows of Etobicoke and Scarborough. In this story, amalgamation didn’t just throw conservative shackles on a progressive city. It also brought swaths of working- and middle-class people into the city without really incorporating them into its institutions.

Basing their understanding of city politics on the defeatist interpretation of amalgamation, Toronto’s progressives have accepted defeat preemptively: Tory has run essentially unopposed in two of the last three elections. Candidates Gil Penalosa and Jennifer Keesmaat, whatever their merits, did not have the public profile or political acumen of veteran politicians. All the likely candidates declined to run.

There are good reasons not to adopt this defeatist account of Toronto municipal politics. 

The megacity’s one progressive mayor, David Miller, won not only the downtown core but also in diverse, working-class suburban areas. Jack Layton’s NDP did likewise in 2011, as did Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in 2015. In this year’s otherwise dispiriting re-coronation of Tory, city council candidates endorsed by Progress Toronto—a new advocacy organization headed up by Michal Hay, a former Jagmeet Singh campaign director and Mike Layton staffer—showed that progressives can still be viable across the city beyond the downtown core. Looking at these campaigns should point us in the direction of the kind of politics that might win in these areas. 

Until now, winning Toronto’s mayoralty may not have seemed terribly important for progressives. Under the weak-mayor system, the mayor was just one vote on council, with limited executive authority, though with agenda-setting and budget-writing prerogatives and substantial patronage opportunities. 

Under Premier Doug Ford’s new strong-mayor legislation, it has become urgent. A progressive mayor could do away with austerity and begin the process of reinvesting in essential services, transit and housing, funded by higher taxes and diverted funds (from policing and the Gardiner reconstruction, say). They would also be an indispensable lobbyist for the city’s interests at the provincial level, which holds many of the policy levers that should be held by the city—like rent control. 

Progressives must find a way to win. This starts with taking stock of recent losses.

John Tory in 2018: a non-benign neglect. Photo: Collision

The Tory Era: post-fact but solidly conservative

Tory won the 2014 election by virtue of not being Rob Ford. Embarrassed by Ford’s antics, a coalition of high-profile Torontonians from across the political spectrum drafted Tory and promoted him as the candidate most likely to defeat first Rob and then Doug Ford. This resonated not only in the suburbs but also in much of downtown, which abandoned progressive icon Olivia Chow to vote for Tory—strategically or otherwise. 

To appease this ad hoc pan-ideological anti-Ford coalition, Tory presented himself as the Fords’ opposite: capable, pragmatic, a team player. Since becoming mayor, though, he has largely proven to be their Bay-Street counterpart. Tory’s communications director Chris Eby chalked up his successful 2014 mayoral campaign to a newfound comfort with “post-fact politics”: saying whatever he needs to say to win. Underneath Tory’s genteel façade, that essential nihilism persists. 

There are, as came to light in the course of the 2018 election, long, deep and documented ties between Tory and the Ford family that reflect their shared commitment to conservative politics. That includes their shared comfort with corruption (it transpired that Tory has been receiving $100,000 a year from Rogers throughout his tenure to sit on its board) and—Covid response aside—their shared incompetence. None of Tory’s signature proposals—SmartTrack, Sidewalk Labs, Rail Deck Park, Housing Now, Vision Zero, tolls on the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway, Music City—have come to pass. 

Tory’s neglect is not benign. 

Encampment evictions, dilapidated infrastructure, incompetent service delivery and ambitious programs that fail to launch are just the tip of the iceberg. Swiss investment bank UBS recently identified Toronto as having the worst housing bubble in the world. Though it is now beginning to deflate, it’s too late for the people who have already been displaced or extorted. Mike Moffatt, senior director of the Smart Prosperity Institute and a regular commentator on Ontario housing issues, calls the displacement process “drive until you qualify” (for a mortgage) and those who stay downtown are greeted by astronomical rents. 

Toronto progressives’ focus on urbanist issues—bike lanes, parks, heritage designations, trash on sidewalks—is well-meaning but superficial in the context of the housing crisis. Whether or not downtown is cleaned up and made bike- and pedestrian-friendly is ultimately immaterial for those who can’t afford to live there. It’s the housing market, stupid.

“There is a John Tory who has lived in the imaginations of progressive Torontonians,” wrote the Toronto Star’s Edward Keenan back in 2018: a responsible Red Tory à la his mentor, former Ontario premier Bill Davis. Not only do these fantasies reflect serious limitations on progressive imaginations in Toronto—Davis himself is famous mostly for being boring (his motto was “bland works”) and any goodwill he has in downtown is a reward for having capitulated to Jane Jacobs and halted construction of the Spadina Expressway—they are also just that: fantasies. This Tory doesn’t exist. He is, as he’s always been, a dyed-in-the-wool conservative. 

In the run-up to this year’s election, the city’s deterioration under Tory’s regime finally began drawing more pointed criticism. 

But it was too late: though all of this would have been excellent fodder for an insurgent progressive campaign, no such thing took place. The three most prominent progressives on city council, Joe Cressy, Mike Layton and Kristyn Wong-Tam, all declined to run. The non-Tory vote, such as it was, largely coalesced around urbanist Gil Penalosa. He ran an amateurish campaign that, even with friendly media coverage, never seriously challenged Tory, who steamrolled his way to victory with over 60 per cent of the vote, much as he did in 2018, when city planner Jennifer Keesmaat was progressives’ avatar-by-default.

Newly-elected Mayor David Miller grabs a broom from supporters prior to his acceptance speech in Toronto, November 10, 2003. Photo: REUTERS/Andrew Wallace

Toward a Torontonian left populism

There is little to learn from these doomed campaigns except in the negative: technocratic urbanism, incoherent policy positioning and amateur campaigning isn’t a winning formula. But investigating the election maps from 2003 onwards reveals patterns that should point the way towards rebuilding a progressive coalition.

2003 municipal election results.

In 2003—against Tory, in his first mayoral run—and 2006, David Miller won not only the downtown core but also poor and ethnically diverse inner suburban areas like Weston, Jane and Finch, Rexdale and Malvern. Miller was unabashedly progressive—outspoken in favour of transit, union rights and the environment—and also a bit of a populist: years before Rob Ford’s “stop the gravy train” rhetoric, Miller’s classic election stance had him holding up a broom to promise he would clean up City Hall after the corruption of the Lastman years. Barbara Hall, the de facto Liberal candidate of the election, also did respectably in the city’s northeast and northwest corners. As late as the 2000s, a progressive could do well in large parts of the suburbs without compromising on an unabashedly left-wing platform—all the better if it came with a bit of populist grandstanding.

In the 2010 municipal election, there was no progressive candidate on the ballot. Adam Giambrone, Miller’s successor, stepped back in the wake of a sex scandal—which may have played a role in Rob Ford’s successful campaign against wooden Liberal George Smitherman. 

In the next year’s federal election, Jack Layton’s Orange Wave swept through not only downtown but also Scarborough—Rouge River and York South—Weston. Layton’s pledge to clean up Ottawa and restore a sense of optimism to politics resonated far beyond the usual progressive bulwarks. In 2015—running, in many ways, as Layton’s successor, employing similar rhetoric and branding—Justin Trudeau brought the Liberals back from the dead and won every riding in the Greater Toronto Area.

In the 2018 election, though her numbers were small, left-wing mayoral candidate Saron Gebresellassi did best in areas that largely map onto Miller’s; much the same goes for 2022 candidate Chloe Brown. 

In this year’s municipal election, even without the galvanizing force of a strong progressive mayoral candidate to focus popular attention, candidates endorsed by Progress Toronto did very well. In the night’s biggest surprise, community health worker Amber Morley won in Etobicoke—Lakeshore, defeating Tory ally Mark Grimes, who was the only incumbent to lose in this election. Jamaal Myers won Scarborough North after the death of incumbent Cynthia Lai. On top of that, Chiara Padovani came heartbreakingly close in York South—Weston, losing by fewer than 100 votes to another Tory ally, Frances Nunziata. Chemi Lhamo also came within striking distance of establishment progressive Gord Perks in Parkdale—High Park.

This electoral history speaks to a latent left-populist coalition joining diverse, working-class suburbs and the ideologically progressive downtown. Constructing this coalition requires disposing of the caricature of the conservative suburbs once and for all. 

The suburban half of the coalition is best thought of not as conservative but as alienated. It is physically alienated from the city through lack of transit. Its ethnic and linguistic diversity contribute to a degree of social alienation from mainstream media and goings-on at and around City Hall. And—most importantly—it is politically alienated: its turnout rate is low and it veers between the left and right. This must be stressed: there are areas that voted for David Miller twice, for the NDP in 2011 and the Liberals in 2015, and also voted for Rob Ford in 2010 and Doug Ford in 2014. This suggests we should be talking about Miller-Ford voters the way we talk about Obama-Trump (and Trump-Sanders) voters—a reflection of populism’s ability to cut across ideological identities.

If Miller, Layton and Trudeau are any indication, a left-wing candidate should be able to reach this latent coalition by playing both the left-populist-a-la-Canadienne—the anti-corruption crusader and people’s champion—and the technocrat, the steady hand. It’s not exactly socialism, or even especially radical, but given the constraints of municipal government in Canada and the social profile of Toronto and its suburbs, it is a prescription for a feasible progressive campaign and government. A Canadian version of Barcelona’s mayor Ada Colau—fighting the housing crisis with rent controls and affordable-housing construction, fighting the climate crisis with largely car-free “superblocks”—may be unthinkable. But a Torontonian Anne Hidalgo (of Paris) or Valérie Plante (of Montreal), who works to expand cycling and public transit infrastructure, introduce a modicum of police reform and fund basic services, surely isn’t.

Ausma Malik, one of the “Progressive Champions” elected to city council in October. Photo: CityNews Youtube

Progressives, get your brooms

The question is: why have prominent, capable, credible progressives declined to run? Outside of 2003, 2006 and 2014, a credible progressive hasn’t even been an option on the ballot. Cressy, Layton and Wong-Tam are just the newest cohort to back out. Keesmaat, for all her imperfections, only decided reluctantly to run at the last minute and mounted a half-hearted campaign. 

In that same election, activist and journalist Desmond Cole was also rumoured to have his sights on the mayoralty; he did not run either. In the leadup to 2014, city councillor Adam Vaughan tested the waters before deciding to run for the federal Liberals instead. 

Cressy and Layton both pled overwork and untenable separations from their families as reasons for abandoning politics. Fair enough—the premier’s shrinking of city council burdened these councillors with the lion’s share of the city’s development proposals as well as large populations to service. 

Vaughan and Wong-Tam, for their part, are rumoured to have done outreach in suburban areas to test their viability. Evidently, whatever they heard dissuaded them from running. Vaughn and Wong-Tam had not responded to queries about potential Mayoral campaigns at publication time.

Without throwing their hat (or broom) into the ring and campaigning, it’s impossible to know how they would have done. John Tory loves to say that in 2003 he started off polling at 3 per cent and ended up at 38 per cent. Campaigns matter.

Still, Toronto is a daunting environment for any challenger. The Local reports that Toronto’s City Council incumbents win well over 90 per cent of their election bids. Only twice in the last 56 years has Toronto failed to re-elect an incumbent mayor. Many reasons have been proposed for this incumbency advantage. Incumbents are better-resourced than challengers. Toronto does not have term limits, allowing incumbents to retain their seats indefinitely. Most importantly, as a recent Spacing op-ed argues, uniquely among Canadian cities, Toronto does not have political parties at the municipal level, making it very difficult for challengers to gain traction against recognized names with local connections and “proven results.” 

Some, like the Star’s Shawn Micallef, have also identified the city’s shadowy political machines—like the one that recruited Tory in 2014 and continues to support him—as reasons that progressives don’t run. These machines, apparently, are so strong that progressive insurgents just don’t stand a chance. 

Though there are obviously behind-the-scenes machinations, it is unclear what exactly to make of them in a context of sub-30-per-cent turnout rates. The success in this election of Progress Toronto—a sort of incipient left-wing machine—shows the limits of this kind of defeatism. Even without a mayoral candidate at the top of the ballot to drive attention and turnout, and lacking official party status to collect and distribute resources and identify candidates ideologically, Progress Toronto-endorsed candidates did very well, largely through supporting the efforts of activists like Chemi Lhamo and Amber Morley with bases in non-traditional territory for progressives. 

There’s a lesson there: you can’t win if you don’t run. 

Decades of uncompetitive Toronto elections have made people apathetic and defeatist. Progressives can organize if they speak clearly to the struggles of their constituents—and experience shows a bit of theatre can make the difference.

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1 comment

I really like this article, otherwise I wouldn’t offer any criticism. The depth of analysis and even a bit of long-windedness given its scope are strengths to a certain point. However, the tone and some of the language sounds like it’s geared more towards policy wonks and political junkies, which feels a bit counter to the idea of “left populism.” Writing accessibly is extremely difficult, but I would be willing to donate much more than I do now to a Breach that writes in voice as accessible to a newcomer to Canada or a young person as to a long-time reader of policy think pieces.

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