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July 18, 2012
It's funny, the differences that stick out for people.
After a panel on the 14 years since Toronto's amalgamation, participants in the Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange (which we wrote about last issue), which brought 100 Philly leaders here on a fact- and insight-finding mission, were encouraged to post their thoughts on easels at the back of the Westin Harbour Castle conference room.
Featuring the Hon. David Crombie, former mayor of Toronto, Enid Slack, director of the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance at the Munk School of Global Affairs, and city councillor Michael Thompson, the discussion was a wonk's delight, with reference to the Canadian Constitution, the virtues of the old Metropolitan Toronto government and the late 1990s downloading of provincial services to Ontario municipalities, the last of which, according to the panelists, did little to cut costs or increase efficiencies.
But the first few notes up on the boards were about language. Specifically, the Canadian use of the word "harmonize." As in "harmonized services" among the six former municipalities that now make up Toronto and "harmonized labour agreements" among municipal workers.
"I was impressed by the holistic nature of the conversation," said Julie Hawkins, an assistant professor of arts administration at Philadelphia's Drexel University. "We talk a lot about the word equality, but we don't talk about harmony."
It does make you think that "harmonization" is a much lovely word than its ugly twin, "standardization," especially when you're talking about, say, sales tax.
Under the heading "Let's Try to Do X in Philadelphia," the first note up was: "How about letting neighbourhoods differentiate to attract immigration," a possible reference to Toronto's Business Improvement Area program that allows neighbourhoods to adopt a distinct and often ethnically specific look and feel. Distinct and colourful neighbourhoods and main streets are so much a part of Toronto life, it's easy to forget they're a novel showcase for our diverse population.
As for the "Aha Moments" board, there was this note: "Comforting to know that we US people aren't the only ones who can't add when it comes to wanting services and not wanting to pay."
With a wall of cranes and high-rises just outside the host hotel, there was genuine puzzlement that Toronto's property tax revenue base wasn't growing fast enough for the city to balance its budget or even expand services.
"You have to remember Toronto is a large city. All the building in the core, that's a small percentage of the city's coffers," said Thompson. "It's not enough."
When a delegate wondered whether Canadians shared the American distrust of government, Crombie said that decreasing confidence in elected officials is an issue. But certain US hot buttons—like whether government should be involved in initiatives that free-market types believe should be left to the marketplace—are non-issues here.
"There's always been an organic connection between public, private and community," said Crombie. If someone was to characterize general government involvement in a project as a problem: "We wouldn't know what the hell they're talking about."
During a break, Philadelphia city councillor Bill Green seemed a little jealous of how Canada's immigration policies have fueled Toronto's growth and diversity. "That's a huge competitive advantage that doesn't exist in the rest of the English-speaking world."
The buzz and vitality of Toronto's core also caught the attention of delegates. Originally from Waterloo, Ontario, Amy Wilson left Canada for the US in 1995 and hasn't been to Toronto for a while. The associate vice president of university development for Widener University said the city has become much more dynamic.
"I always thought Toronto was low key," says Wilson. "Now there's so much growth here, but they're not suffering from the same polarization we have in the US. That's great to see."