Queen's park in Toronto
Adobe Stock / Warasit

This article appears in the Mid-November 2022 issue of Investment Executive. Subscribe to the print edition, read the digital edition or read the articles online.

No one was surprised when John Tory strolled to his third consecutive term as mayor of Canada’s largest city on Oct. 24. Few citizens could name any other candidate, and voter turnout was just 29%. Of those voters who did cast a ballot, two-thirds voted for the incumbent.

Yet, the importance of this election was underplayed. Toronto faces an affordable housing shortage and homelessness is on the rise. The city’s deficit has soared to a staggering $857 million while construction crews work on a “hybrid” refurbishment of the Gardiner Expressway — the cost of which has risen to $1.5 billion. Other construction projects bring traffic to a standstill daily and the transit system struggles to pay for routine equipment maintenance.

Gil Penalosa, the urbanist and international parks expert who was Tory’s closest competitor in the election, argued that abandoning the Gardiner Expressway project — and absorbing the cost of work done and cancelled contracts — would save the city more than the value of its budget shortfall. But Tory insisted the project, agreed upon in 2015, was a “done deal.”

And maybe that’s why so few voters bothered to cast ballots. Other “done deals” have weakened voters’ voices in the city. In 2018, Ontario Premier Doug Ford reduced the number of Toronto city council seats by almost half. Conservatives applauded the cost-cutting measure while democracy advocates lamented the erosion of voter representation at the crucial local level. Neither residents nor councillors were consulted; the provincial government foisted the legislation on the city unilaterally, as was its legal right.

This year, Ford passed “strong mayor” legislation — again without consultation — that would give the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa the power to write and table city budgets, as well as to veto proposals deemed to be not in line with “provincial priorities.” Ford said the bill’s goal was to get housing built in the province. But critics wondered if the legislation wasn’t another part of a larger plan to weaken city councils on other issues.

Housing — particularly affordable housing — was the election’s top issue, and Tory’s record on affordable housing is far from sterling. As the CBC reported, the city has approved 18,480 affordable and supportive rental homes since 2015, but only 2,940 have been built.

During the 2022 campaign, Tory addressed the housing shortage by proposing a loosening of bylaws that prevent homeowners from converting portions of their homes into rental properties. Penalosa suggested that housing be built on public lands, and that unused portions of municipal buildings, such as libraries, be converted to residential units.

Meanwhile, pollsters noted voters’ complaints about the mundanities of urban life: overflowing garbage cans and locked washrooms in public parks; traffic jams; potholes; deteriorating transit service. Considering all that is wrong with the city, you’d think the guy who’d been running it for the past eight years would be at a disadvantage in an election.

When Tory first ran for mayor in 2014, his main opponent was Doug Ford. Ford was filling in for his brother, the late Rob Ford, who, following his scandal-ridden term as mayor, had stepped aside due to his illness. As Rob’s apologist and enabler, Doug Ford had racked up his own repertoire of blunders and embarrassments. There was the time he was filmed peeling off crisp $20 bills and dealing them to residents of a social housing project in Etobicoke (he didn’t have time to go to Tim Hortons and buy gift cards, he said).

Tory was the sober, responsible alternative to the Ford legacy of crack tapes and glove-compartment vodka bottles. Voters turned up in droves to elect Tory in 2014. And four years later, they re-elected him.

John Tory was made for Toronto: bland, unassuming and conservative. And now, after eight years of his leadership, voters seemed to shrug and accept more of the same.