City council ranks as the least-trusted institution among Toronto residents. Giving it more power may actually fix that problem


At this point in the COVID-19 pandemic, there probably isn’t a single Canadian who hasn’t questioned the competence of our leaders. Securing vaccines and borders, protecting essential workers, responding to the carnage in our long-term-care facilities — there have been many places where the response hasn’t met expectations.

But tellingly, very little of the criticism has been aimed at our municipal leaders in the GTA.

Not because we haven’t had issues — we’ve actually been ground zero for the pandemic. We’ve had warehouses remain open despite repeated outbreaks, we’ve witnessed the virus disproportionately impact our most vulnerable neighbourhoods and watched in dismay as we’ve been cut off from outside recreation facilities.

But as we’ve confronted these challenges, we also saw how little power our mayors and city councils actually have. Our municipal leaders have had to plead with the province for everything from prompt action on lockdowns to increased vaccine supply for high-need communities to a financial bailout to save us from bankruptcy or making draconian cuts.

When you step back, this arrangement seems a bit ridiculous. Toronto is the fourth-largest city in North America. Our region has more people in it than half of Canada’s provinces. The GTA is responsible for 20 per cent of our national economy and if it were a province, its economy would be approximately that of Alberta or Quebec.

Yet as the Federation of Canadian Municipalities noted in November, “Long before this pandemic, it was clear the tools and authorities available to municipal leaders do not match their modern role in supporting Canadians and our economy.” For Toronto, this is doubly true.

Melissa Bayon, interim executive director of Progress Toronto, a social justice advocacy group, had this to say about the city’s COVID response: “If the city had more financial resources and decision-making powers, we could have responded to the homelessness crisis by providing enough safe and dignified housing for everyone living outside. Public health measures like distancing in busy bus routes could have been implemented quickly. Vital services — affordable housing, child care, student nutrition programs — could have all seen massive financial supports in order to better serve racialized communities experiencing the brunt of the pandemic.”

With more powers Toronto could even have handled the hot button issue of paid sick days. In the United States cities like Chicago, L.A., New York and Dallas all have their own laws that require employers to provide paid sick days.