If one city’s gain is another city’s loss, Toronto might want to keep an eye on what’s happening in Montreal these days.
North America’s largest French-speaking community is definitely having a moment. Toronto, by contrast, just can’t seem to catch a break.
With its Keystone Cop council, second-rate transit system, crippling congestion, out-of-control police force and most dramatically, its growing income polarization, Toronto’s much-vaunted liveability has taken a serious hit.
Ironically, though, civic success contains the seeds of its destruction.
Decades of growth have left Toronto beyond the means of the middle class, those whose presence makes the city strong and resilient in the first place. The exploding cost of urban life, especially of housing, is turning Toronto, especially downtown Toronto, into an enclave of the rich.
At the same time, the poor and the recently arrived are being pushed out to the post-war suburbs, most notably to the North ends of Etobicoke and Scarborough.
This trend has spread is playing out across the GTA.
A 2017 United Way report, for example, found that for the first time in its history, most neighbourhoods in Peel are low income.
As University of Toronto professor David Hulchanski revealed in his seminal 2007 paper, “The Three Cities within Toronto: Income Polarization among Toronto Neighbourhoods, 1970-2000,” that in the 1970s, two-thirds of Toronto’s population was middle class. By 2000, that had dropped to one-third.
What’s left of the middle class has decamped for the 905 or simply disappeared. In its place, the numbers of both rich and poor have grown across the GTA.
Little wonder some call Toronto “the inequality capital of Canada.”
Though income inequality is also on the rise in Montreal (and all big cities in Canada), it’s growing at a slower rate.
According to a study from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, “In Canada’s three largest cities — Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal — the bottom 90 per cent make less today than they did in 1982. They’ve seen drops in income of $4,300, $1,900, and $224, respectively. The top one per cent in those cities saw pay increases of $189,000, $297,000, and $162,000, respectively.”
Quebec’s wealth redistribution programs, far more progressive than those in any other province, help the poor avoid the worst effects of poverty but not escape it. Still, there’s no question Montreal’s civic governance makes Toronto’s look neanderthal in comparison.
Mere mention of Quebec’s subsidized daycare is enough to make parents of small children in Ontario weep with envy. Though fees have increased, parents’ daily rate remains $7.50. That goes up with income, but even parents earning more than $155,000 yearly pay only $20 a day per child.
Keep in mind that the median cost of daycare in Toronto, if you can find it, is $1,750 a month. That’s almost $20,000 annually.
Little wonder then that the number of homes sold in Montreal has risen for 40 consecutive months.
According to the Greater Montreal Real Estate Board, June sales were up one per cent, compared with the same month last year. The average cost of a single-family home in Montreal and its suburbs has reached $630,000. While the average condo price is $370,000.
In the GTA, on the other hand, new provincial regulations have slowed a market that many worried was closing in on bubble territory.
The average cost of a detached house in Toronto is down by just over seven per cent, but still comes in at $1.36 million. In the 905, it’s $928,560.
Then there’s the vexing problem of the crumbling infrastructure in Canadian cities. Both Montreal and Toronto are good examples.
Indeed, Montreal became the poster city of infrastructural neglect in 2006 when the collapse of the De la Concorde overpass killed five people and injured six. The event resonated across the country. Suddenly the sorry state of civic infrastructure was a national issue.
Despite the talk, little was actually done.
The truth is that spending large amounts of public money on sewers, bridges, roads and the like isn’t very sexy. Municipal politicians avoid it whenever they can.
So Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante’s announcement that her city would spend $6.4 billion over three years on capital projects, made heads turn. That covered everything from roads and highways to bike lanes, parks, and playgrounds. Also included are water mains, sewers, public realm improvements and social housing.
Toronto city council, on the other hand, has either delayed such expenditures or opted instead for supposedly vote-getting schemes such as the discredited $3.5-billion one-stop Scarborough subway and the expansion of the east end of the Gardiner Expressway against the advice of city staff.
For Toronto Mayor John Tory and his allies, the main priorities are low taxes and congestion.
As much as anything, the comparison between Plante and Tory pretty much sums up the differences between the cities they lead.
Plante, a progressive who embraces the future, contrasts starkly with Tory, a conservative who prefers things as they were.
If Plante personifies Montreal’s desire to be a thoroughly modern municipality, Tory is all about a big city’s reluctance to fulfill its urban destiny.
Much has changed since the 1976 election of René Levesque and his Parti Quebecois prompted the exodus of money and anglophones down Highway 401 to Toronto.
Montreal’s loss was Toronto’s gain.
Today, however, La Belle Province has lost its separatist fervour.
Toronto may be the country’s largest and most powerful city, but it has had trouble managing its own success. The election of Rob Ford in 2010 revealed the urban/suburban division that hobbles the city politically almost as much income disparity divides it economically.
If Toronto is a city that had greatness thrust upon it, Montreal is a city that pursues it.