Its economic and political clout reverberates throughout the rest of the province, and indeed Canada
THUNDER BAY – POLITICS – Having gone through a spring provincial election, Ontario is once again in election mode – this time at the municipal level – with a lot of attention focusing on Toronto. The election for Toronto’s mayor and council is about more than just the personal drama surrounding the Ford brothers and the international media attention it has garnered. Given Toronto’s provincial and national economic importance, what happens in Toronto cannot just stay in Toronto.
Toronto and the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) are Ontario and Canada’s largest urban area, an important economic driver for Ontario and Canada, an international financial centre, a major address for corporate head offices and the core of Ontario’s knowledge based economy. More to the point, since Toronto dominates Ontario economically and politically, all roads must lead to Toronto.
In terms of population, the GTA now accounts for over six million people and represents almost one-fifth of Canada’s population and nearly half of Ontario’s population. Of these six million people, approximately half are in the City of Toronto itself whose name is synonymous with the region. The GTA is Ontario’s fastest growing region in terms of population and economic activity.
Between 1996 and 2013, Ontario’s population grew 22 per cent but the GTA grew 35 per cent. The Ontario Ministry of Finance demographic projections anticipate that, over the next quarter century, the GTA will continue to grow its share of Ontario’s population – meaning that the rest of the province will further decline in importance. Its economic opportunities have become a magnet not just for international migration but also internal migration as young people in smaller Ontario centres move to the GTA.
The GTA now accounts for about half of both GDP and total employment in Ontario. About 40 per cent of Ontario’s construction employment is in the GTA along with 44 per cent of its manufacturing employment and 60 per cent of its finance, professional and management employment. The Toronto region is an extraordinary concentration of professional and service sector expertise.
Toronto is Ontario’s largest market and its private and public sector demands are an important driver influencing the production of transit cars in far off Thunder Bay, fruit growing in the Niagara region as well as quarries and asphalt plants across the province. A slowdown in its economic productivity, housing market and infrastructure projects would quickly spill out into provincial and national economic indicators. Indeed, Toronto’s economic productivity has been lagging compared to other major internationally ranked metropolitan areas.
The situation in the GTA is a curious one. On the one hand the municipal election in Toronto is like all the others – focused on local issues. And yet, the Toronto region economically and demographically, is larger than most Canadian provinces and its mayor rivals the provincial premier in terms of political profile within the province.
Moreover, important decision-making power also lies in the hands of Toronto’s municipal councillors who are selected by residents of places like Scarborough and North York, making them the ultimate arbiters of decisions affecting the province.
In some sense, the only important municipal election in Ontario this fall is Toronto because it is not just about Toronto. Toronto’s modern role is as an international city with important regional and national effects and yet its institutional apparatus dates from the 19th century. There is no fully coherent regional economic or governance vision in the GTA when it comes to transportation, energy and infrastructure planning, nor is there a full grasp of Toronto’s spillover effects on the rest of the province or country for that matter.
The popular focus on the Fords may make for entertaining politics but the stakes in Toronto’s municipal election are much bigger. When Toronto voters go to the polls in October, their decisions will ultimately impact on all residents of Ontario but Ontarians outside Toronto are relegated to the role of spectators in the contest. Given that the GTA has an economic and political impact well beyond Toronto, its voters must choose wisely by selecting leaders who can see beyond the GTA.
Livio Di Matteo is Professor of Economics at Lakehead University.