Hogwarts versus Hogtown

Harry Potter proved to be a great summertime elixir. Just when downtown Uxbridge needed an economic and morale boost the most, last Friday night, there were Snape, Dumbledore and Platform 9 and 3/4 to get us downtown into a wild and wonderful mid-summer’s street social. Merchants on main street revelled in the business. Councillors I met applauded the local initiative. Reaction was upbeat and positive.

But the Deathly Hallows weren’t the only thing I heard out on the street. Among other things, I heard some smugness about Toronto’s financial woes. Nobody said it outright, but the sentiment was clear:

“We’re OK. No tears for you, Hogtown.”

During the same week that a fictional child wizard, an author-creator and her publishers grossed about $250 million (in a day), the mayor of Toronto announced that his city has $500 million less than it needs to keep functioning in the coming budget year. That same week, we witnessed Mayor David Miller’s attempt to introduce vehicle and land-transfer taxes – a measure that would have raised about $356 million – to reduce the shortfall. It was voted down. The next day, Miller announced potential service cuts, layoffs, TTC closures and police force cutbacks.

“To defer [the new taxes],” one Toronto councillor told reporters, “is simply to defer the future of this city.”

At the same time, fiscal critics of the current Toronto administration claimed there was lots of fat for the city to trim to meet its obligations. As well, Greg Sorbara, the provincial finance minister, suggested the province wasn’t interested in bailing out Toronto; of course, he’s mindful of the provincial election in October. In the new week, there were calls for city workers to concede wages or at least take unpaid holidays, or “Miller time” off. Nor was there any eagerness from the federal government – virtually unrepresented among Toronto constituencies – to help Hogtown out.

Well, if Queen’s Park doesn’t care and Ottawa doesn’t care, I think it’s time for us to care. I think it’s folly for any town, city or municipality in the GTA not to offer assistance verbally and, if need be, financially. I can think of dozens of reasons why I don’t like Toronto. I can think of 10 times that many why, if we didn’t have Toronto, life would not be as positive or prosperous here.

Do I have to offer examples? OK. We all love our local seasonal farmers’ markets, but without Toronto’s massive food terminals, we’d go a long time without much fresh produce. We’re proud of our artists, but we’re also quick to take in concerts (just an hour away) at Roy Thomson Hall, the Royal Alexandra Theatre or the Molson amphitheatre. And a Friday night Bruins game has lots of allure, but – love’em or hate’em – the Leafs, Blue Jays, Raptors and Rock pull us fans downtown just as often.

Even more to the point, how much farther would our family members seeking MRIs, cancer therapy or other specialized medical treatment have to go without Princess Margaret, Mount Sinai and the Hospital for Sick Children? Oh, and did you want a winter getaway to the sun? Without major airline and railway hubs to serve you, how does a pre-flight road trip through the snow-belt to Buffalo or Montreal sound? Or, if you have to commute (as I admit I do) to work, how much easier do you think it would be, if Toronto’s shortfall closes the Sheppard subway, pushing 40,000 more commuters back into their cars and onto Toronto’s streets and freeways? Good-bye Kyoto too!

Speaking of deathly hallows, we’re all deathly afraid of tax hikes. We claim we’re the most severely taxed society on the planet. It’s not true, but more relevant, if we prefer to operate our global world on a “user-pay” basis, isn’t about time we began to ante up, given all the ways we use the city for free? “Over my dead body,” I hear some of you say. But how much less deadly is a wheel without a hub? A body without a functioning heart? Or try this one: If there’s one global reality in our lives, it’s the region between Niagara and the St. Lawrence. Why do you think it’s called the Golden Horseshoe? It’s Toronto that makes it golden.

It’s not a Harry Potter world out there. Eventually, we have to face reality. And the GTA reality is this: if Toronto is dying, it’s just a matter of time before we start feeling deathly ill.

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