OPN Olivia Chow
Olivia Chow, Toronto Mayoral candidate Image Credit: Bloomberg

Do you know the difference between Toronto and New York, a friend of mine quipped during a flying visit to both cities.

“New York is the city that never sleeps … Toronto is the city that never wakes up.”

A little harsh, perhaps. Having lived there for the best part of two decades, toiling in two of the city’s three main daily newspapers, I do have a deep affinity for the city. In the Greater Toronto Area, more that 11 million people live and work. That’s roughly just under a quarter of Canada’s population.

They are spread in a belt of commuter cities and towns that stretch southwest, east and north of Lake Ontario in places like Oshawa, Barrie, Hamilton, Brampton, Mississauga — all satellites that are in a permanent gravitational pull with the Metro Toronto itself. If you’re a local, it’s pronounced ‘tarranna’ or something akin to that.

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With a population of just under 3 million, Toronto is easily Canada’s largest city, supersedes the populations of most of its provinces other than Ontario, British Columbia, Quebec and Alberta, and has a GDP that would make it a not insignificant member of the European Union.

For those who live in there, they consider Toronto to be Canada — the economic, cultural and sporting axis around which the rest of the world’s second-largest nation revolves. And for the more than 300,000 million immigrants who move to settle in Canada each year, it readily becomes the centre of their new universe.

On Monday (26 June), the people of the city will be electing a new mayor, and while he represents a sizeable part of Canada’s population, he lacks the constitutional powers that are awarded to each of the 11 premiers of the nation’s provinces.

The Prime Minister Canada never had

Chances are, however, it won’t be a ‘he’ that wins. As things stand now, the new mayor will be Olivia Chow, a long-standing councillor and highly respected politician whose late husband, Jack Layton — the leader of the New Democratic Party and the best Prime Minister Canada never had before he lost a hard-fought battle with cancer.

That this election is taking place now speaks to a scandal that toppled the previous incumbent of the office. John Tory was forced to stepaside in February after the admitted having a long-term affair with one of his staffers. Naturally, his wife wasn’t impressed — and neither were the good folks of the city when they found out it had been happening during social distancing rules in a coronavirus lockdown.

But his resignation has opened the door to a wide range of candidates, most of whom have no hope of winning the race in a simple first-past-the-post contest.

Take Faizul Mohee as an example — a candidate whose back story is a prime example of the millions of immigrants who are attracted to a new life and opportunities in Canada and its largest city.

Mohee is a 40-year-old engineer from Bangladesh and has never run for public office before. He has helped out on campaigns as a volunteer but fancies his chances now. “For a better tomorrow, vote for Faizul Mohee,” his flyers read. Like many others, he wants to lower taxes.

A city drowning in red ink

All you needed to enter was the backing and signatures of 25 residents of the city and C$200 (Dh557). In all, 102 are in the running, but there are realistically six who stand any chance of winning — and even they will find it hard to beat Chow.

If Chow does become mayor, she will inherit a city that is drowning in red ink. Its budgetary shortfall is expected to come in at the C$50 billion (Dh139 billion) mark over the next 10 years. There’s no obvious way for it to be cleared, other than service cuts, going cap in hand to the province of Ontario and its government in Queen’s Park in the city, or seeking funds from the federal government in Ottawa.

When he was mayor, Tory managed to hold the annual budget shortfall to around the C$1 billion (Dh2.27 billion) level. Even then, the city’s trams, buses and subway system creaked, roads became more difficult to maintain, and snow-clearing service became poorer. And as someone who lived in the city, I can tell you first-hand that if you mess with snow-clearing, you’re messing with a lot of angry Torontonians.

Toronto has been putting off maintenance spending, new infrastructure projects are frozen, the city has been hitting its reserve funds and asking the province and Ottawa for cash.

But those funding sources have dried up. The federal and Ontario governments have been slow or unwilling to write more cheques. Taxes have risen and homeowners are fed up with potholes, more snow around for longer, and overflowing bins.

How to make the city’s funding sustainable has been the central debate in the election campaign.

The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) runs public transport and has seen its revenues fall during the pandemic — and they haven’t recovered. Passenger levels are only at three-quarters of what they were before Covid, and it’s C$330 million (Dh990 million) in the hole this year.

Tory had a controversial plan to charge the city’s property owners a parking levy — a tax grab that would have generated C$535 million (Dh1.49 billion) in its first year. But many naturally kicked off over the idea of having to pay a parking fee on property that they already owned and were taxed upon. It was sent to council staff for review, and since his resignation, the report from the officials has been lost in red tape. Funny how bureaucracy has a way of smothering files even in Canada, eh?

As things stand heading into Monday’s vote, the NDP’s Chow has 38 per cent support. The next nearest candidate is polling at 14 per cent, with the rest of the contenders at 10 per cent and below.