Righteous on transit

Olivia Chow calls on province and feds to fund TTC because “it's just” – and somehow that doesn't come across as eye-rollingly absurd

Asked by a skeptical reporter why she thinks she could persuade the province to chip in for TTC operating funds, mayoral candidate Olivia Chow said, “Well, because it’s right. It’s just, and the people of Toronto deserve no less.”

Indeed, when it comes to transit funding, the simplest solution – having the provincial and federal governments pay their fair share – is almost certainly the correct one.

But it’s also deeply unsatisfying, since making an appeal to Queen’s Park and Ottawa’s sense of moral responsibility toward Toronto is not an especially reliable source of anything.

Far more intriguing, however, is that Chow looks to be laying the foundation for a future in which such an explanation does not come across as eye-rollingly absurd.

In a speech to the Toronto Region Board of Trade on Tuesday, April 29, Chow repeated a statistic so striking that it properly calls into question Toronto’s masochistic relationship with the other levels of government. The TTC’s daily ridership, she observed, is greater than the populations of nine of Canada’s provinces and territories. Only British Columbia, Alberta, Quebec and, of course, Ontario are larger.

“We and our fellow urban dwellers are the face of Canada,” Chow said. “And we – in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Winnipeg and Montreal, Halifax, Mississauga – deserve to be heard when we speak about an urban agenda. Because an urban agenda is a Canadian agenda, too.”

She continued by listing various projects (“a highway in Manitoba … a harbour in Atlantic Canada”) that taxes from large cities help fund. She then turned it around and stated the plain fact that the money we pay to the federal government should be available to assist our own needs as well.

This much isn’t new. Canada’s stronger big-city mayors have been hammering at the same points for years. What distinguishes Chow’s approach is that she refashions this story of anti-urban inequity into a message aimed largely at the working class, and immigrants in particular.

“Our city alone has more people than Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and the territories combined. More people pass by Valerie’s bakery every day than visit our most beautiful mountains,” she said, referring to an anecdote she’d shared about a woman working in a bakery near Jane and Wilson who was dismayed by the quality of the local bus service.

Much as she’s playing for the same authenticity-seeking voters who threw in with Rob Ford last time – those who support candidates they believe care about their interests, whether it’s Ford or Jack Layton – she’s trying to redirect their resentment toward more productive goals. That is: there are things that are unfair. There are people screwing you over and not giving you what you deserve, but the injustice isn’t rooted in an internal struggle between factions of Torontonians, it’s a hegemony enforced from the outside.

If the history of Canada is a history of convoluted, overlapping regional grievances, perhaps it’s no surprise that there’s a situation where cities are both powerful and ignored, influential and marginalized.

Stoking a constituency’s sense of entitlement is hardly a risky move in politics, but empowerment is important. Cultivating an urban pride that stretches across landscapes, neighbourhoods and economic brackets is a key step in building a movement that achieves meaningful recognition and results.

“So as your new mayor, in my first meeting with the premier, I will ask this,” Chow said: “‘Why does the province help pay GO Transit operating costs, but not TTC operating costs?'”

To which we can easily imagine PC leader Tim Hudak laughing in her face. But even Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne and NDP leader Andrea Horwath would let out a nervous chuckle, since, like Chow, they’re on a constant quest for the exact balance of populism and intellectualism that will win the most votes. Their populism, however, is often counter to Toronto’s interests.

“No one in London or Sudbury is going to be expected to pay for specific projects in Toronto,” Wynne emphasized in her own Board of Trade speech two weeks earlier. She didn’t feel the need to explicate the opposite – but no one in Toronto would ask her to.

Contrast with Chow: “When the Arctic needs a highway, our taxes and those generated by cities like us help build it. As we should.”

It’s not a complaint. It’s an awareness of a shared obligation.

jonathang@nowtoronto.com | @goldsbie

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