As Premier Doug Ford’s decision to cut council almost in half reignites talk of the urban-suburban divide, the Star finds the old differences aren’t what they used to be. In a new occasional series, One Toronto, we take a look at what divides us and what we share, no matter where the ward lines fall.
Kwesi Johnson is uninspired.
The 33-year-old Scarborough resident is looking for a mayoral candidate who is “solution-focused” and forward-thinking beyond the next election.
Someone who will listen to people in his neighbourhood on issues like transit and affordable housing.
“Honestly, I’m not really fired up,” Johnson said of his choices, adding he’s considering non-mainstream candidates Saron Gebresellassi and Knia Singh — because he knows them and the work they’ve done in the community — as well as John Tory and Jennifer Keesmaat.
He sometimes feels like people in Scarborough are the “forgotten cousins” of Toronto. He wants someone who is about action, not just talk.
“And I’m not so sure who’s going to be that person.”
As the city heads to the polls in October, tensions between downtown and Toronto’s post-amalgamation inner suburbs have arguably never been higher. This municipal election — amid chaos at Queen’s Park, it’s also the first to allow third-party advertisers to run U.S.-style social media attack ads — is set to be the most divisive in years.
Premier Doug Ford’s move to chop council almost in half has left many downtowners fearing right-leaning suburban politicians will take control of council and the more left-leaning, bicycle-riding, condo-renting folks will be shut out.
There is truth to the old stereotype of more conservative suburbs and a more left-wing downtown core, experts say — but it’s not set in stone, especially in the suburbs. Voters there make up more of a swing vote, and, like Johnson, change their minds based on the issues, candidates and campaign.
And it would be a mistake for politicians of any stripe to disregard geographic blocks of potential voters just because they haven’t traditionally held their support.
In the 2018 provincial election, some Toronto ridings were won by large margins that support the urban/suburban stereotype. For example, the NDP won Davenport with 60.3 per cent of the vote to 16.1 per cent for the PCs. And Doug Ford handily won suburban Etobicoke North with 52.5 per cent, leaving the NDP in a distant second at 25.4.
But most of the ridings — at least in that election — were won without a majority: In 17 of the 25 Toronto ridings the winning party had less than 50 per cent of the vote. A closer look shows many tight races in the suburbs, especially in blue ridings of Scarborough—Rouge Park, where the difference between the PCs and NDP was only 2.3 per cent, and Scarborough Centre, where the NDP finished 5.1 per cent behind the Tories.
Western University politics professor Zack Taylor has studied and mapped voting patterns in Toronto municipal elections since 1997, the first one held for offices in the amalgamated city.
Several fell along the urban left, suburban conservative divide, he said, particularly that first Mel Lastman and Barbara Hall matchup and Rob Ford’s win in 2010.
But, he cautions, it’s “too simplistic” to think geography tells the whole story.
In 2014, for example, John Tory’s support “didn’t split on city/suburb, it split on well-off and less well-off parts of the city and those zones cross cut this idea of the city/suburb divide.” That year, Doug Ford’s mayoral support also did not have the same suburban heft as Rob’s, Taylor said.
Likewise, David Miller had strong support in both the suburbs and downtown in 2003 and 2006.
Divisions between the suburbs and downtown always exist, but it depends what gets “activated through the electoral process,” through the campaign and its rhetoric, Taylor said.
Political parties and municipal candidates ignore potential voting blocks at their own peril, he added, pointing to the counter-example of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign.
That year, Democratic leadership gave him some flak for wanting to put resources into red states and counties they thought they couldn’t win, said Taylor. But “when they actually put out a shingle and said, ‘hey we’re here,’ they found that there were people willing to listen.”
Johnson describes himself as a “middle-of-the-road-type guy” who sometimes has fiscally conservative ideas, but can also “bleed orange.” He said he voted Liberal in the last provincial election as he knows MPP Mitzie Hunter and respects her.
His provincial riding of Scarborough-Guildwood was the sole red spot outside the old city of Toronto in the spring race, but all three parties were close. The Liberals nabbed a narrow victory over the PCs, with 33.3 per cent of the vote compared to 33.1, and the NDP, which took most downtown ridings, was not far behind with 27.6 per cent.
“I think it’s really important not to presume there’s some kind of monolithic entrenched big- or small-C conservative orientation out in the suburbs,” said Ryerson politics professor Myer Siemiatycki, noting Justin Trudeau’s Liberals took all of the 416 and much of the 905 in the 2015 federal election.
While “there are differences of inclination, outlook, priorities, values” between people — such as between homeowners and renters, car drivers and cyclists, and even different lifestyles — they’re “not as fixed and entrenched” as the stereotypes would suggest, he said.
But, said Siemiatycki, it’s the suburbs that are “more flexible or variable,” while the downtown core is more locked into a left-leaning pattern.
This dynamic could come into play in the 2018 mayoral election, if some of the suburban people who voted to shake things up with Ford in 2010 get fed up with Tory and pivot to Keesmaat, said York University professor Roger Keil.
“If people want that kind of change, it is really not predictable what will happen in October,” he said.
“That could actually swing the suburbs.”
A 2015 article in the Canadian Political Science Review did find more right-wing voters in the suburbs, and that they can be even more right-leaning than rural areas.
But it’s not as simple as ideology, said co-author Andrea Perrella, associate professor at Wilfrid Laurier University.
“It must be something else and what that is is not overly clear,” he said, adding people in the suburbs may “experience life differently” than those downtown, spending more time in cars and less time, for example, interacting with the homeless, and this could influence how they vote.
But suburban voters have greater potential to change than rural ones, he said, in part because the suburban way of life is shifting, especially in Toronto, as more people move into suburban areas, driven out of the core by high housing prices.
A dramatic divide, or the perception of one, is not healthy for the city and leads to tension and conflict, not the solutions and compromises needed for governing, said Perrella.
“You almost see the other person as an enemy,” he said.
If you hate the mayor and see him or her as “having a preference for people on the other side of some imaginary border, then that cleavage is just fed.”
One measure that could help, said Taylor, would be electoral reform that shifts away from a winner-take-all system. London, Ont., where he lives, will become the first municipality in the province to use a ranked ballot system for the October election, something Toronto city council voted against in December 2016.
Voters will mark their first, second and third choice. If no candidate gets a majority, the person with the fewest first-place votes is dropped, then second place votes are counted. The process continues until someone gets a majority.
“At the margins, I think what you could have is maybe a change in tone because candidates want to (also) be the second choice,” said Taylor, who’s also the director of the Centre for Urban Policy and Local Governance at Western.
“It might restrain some of the more slash-and-burn kind of rhetoric.”
But, said Siemiatycki, the city has missed an opportunity to “get a whole new host of faces elected” and encourage voter engagement that could have boosted turnout in the inner suburbs.
Siemiatycki has studied voter turnout in the city and found “in election after election” a pattern of higher turnout in downtown and midtown and less in the inner suburbs — sometimes a spread of up to 15 per cent.
This is correlated, he said with higher immigrant and visible minority populations who perhaps don’t see themselves reflected in an “overwhelmingly” white council.
Under the 47-ward model there would have been several races without an incumbent, something that upped the chances of getting new blood and more diverse candidates on council.
“This was an election that was going to be a game changer,” he said.
“The 25-seat configuration is going to throw all that overboard.”
The One Toronto series
May Warren is a breaking news reporter based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @maywarren11