Referendums—regular, city-wide votes on whether or not to do things—helped build Toronto. Here are four reasons to bring them back.
They’ve worked before.
Before voters said yes to building the Prince Edward Viaduct, they said no, three times.
On January 1, 1910, when asked to approve a by-law that would have let the city raise the $759,000 needed to pay for extending Bloor Street eastward across the Don Valley, voters refused, 7,555 to 11,959. The next year, on January 2, 1911, they said no again, this time by 8,127 to 9,694. On January 1, 1912, the margin was even smaller, with 9,707 in favour and 9,866 against.
As Mark Osbaldeston explains in his book Unbuilt Toronto, the problem wasn’t the need for the bridge itself—“with the growth of suburban development east of the Don in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,” he writes, “it became ever more apparent that a new connection across the Don Valley would be needed north of Gerrard.” The problem was the plan. The original idea, Osbaldeston writes, came from city engineer C.H. Rust, and was for a “single, mile-long bridge crossing the Don” that ran straight east from Sherbourne Street, where Bloor ended at that time. Such a plan, though, would not only be costly, but also require large-scale expropriation of homes in its path, and, some argued, destroy the natural beauty of the Rosedale Valley. As it kept appearing on the ballot, voters kept saying no.
Then, from architect John Lyle, came what Osbaldeston calls an “ingenious solution,” to build the viaduct in three parts. The first would be a raised bank made from fill, following the path of the Rosedale Valley southeastward until hitting Parliament Street, that then became a short bridge bending back up northeastward over the valley, and then, finally, after another bend, transformed once more into a half-kilometre-long bridge across the Don. (Like this.) On January 1, 1913, voters finally said yes, approving the $2.5 million need for Lyle’s plan—more than $50 million today—by a landslide, 14,665 votes to 5,333. C.H. Rust was succeeded by R.C. Harris, who convinced council to make the bridge over the Don out of steel rather than concrete. By October 1918, all of it was finished.
Back then, Toronto held elections once a year, both for candidates and for the large, sometimes-expensive things those candidates, if elected, needed the permission of the public to build, as well as the things that would fundamentally change the way the city worked. Often, those things were approved the first time they came to the public for a vote, as letting married women vote did in 1915. Other times, voters only needed to say no once, as they did to a 1907 ballot question that would have authorized $125,000 to cleave Fort York in two and run a streetcar line heading to the CNE through the middle. Others, it took voters years to finally say yes to something, often only after the original proposals they’d initially voted down changed, as they did with the Bloor Street Viaduct.
Other times, voters approved a project in theory, then said no when its shape became clearer. In 1910, voters approved, by 19,268 to 10,697, formally asking the provincial government for money to create “a system of underground railways for the carriage and transportation of passengers and freight”—in other words, subways. (Unbuilt Toronto 2 has more about the plan.) It became clear by 1912, though, that a subway wasn’t yet needed, and that the below-ground system would compete with the privately run streetcar system that ran above-ground—this being in the years before the TTC, which was created by referendums in 1918 and 1920. The voting public rejected paying the $5.4 million it would have cost at the time to build a line that would have gone from Front Street to St. Clair Avenue, and construction on Toronto’s first subway didn’t start until nearly 40 years later.
The Toronto we have today is in no small part made up of things voters have specifically said yes to. Referendums are how we got the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant (1925), and agreed to fluoridate our drinking water (1962). They’re how we built Regent Park (1947), took over the land that would become Nathan Phillips Square and New City Hall, then built them, too (1947 and 1956, respectively). They’re the reason that on Sundays, the Lord’s Day, our sports teams are allowed to play (1950), or you’re allowed to go to a concert or see a movie (1960), if that’s more of your thing instead.
We need them, bad.
It’s not true that nothing big gets built in Toronto anymore, but with all the projects that have been started and then cancelled, or discussed for decades but never started, or started and then cancelled and then re-started, or proposed but never followed through on, it can certainly feel that way.
Take Transit City, announced in 2007, killed with what was nearly Rob Ford’s first mayoral breath in 2010, then miraculously resuscitated in 2012, but not without losses in the tens of millions of dollars. Or the vehicle registration fee, the ending of which cost us the money that could have paid for those Transit City losses had Rob Ford not gotten rid of it, too. Or take the Eglinton subway line. Or the Downtown Relief Line. Or OneCity. Or the Toronto Bikeway Plan, or even Jarvis Street’s bike lanes. Or take the Gardiner Expressway, about which next to nothing has been done for 30 years in spite of year after year of serious proposals to do otherwise.
The problem is that, right now, we vote on politicians rather than ideas. Or rather, we vote on politicians whose platforms include ideas, but never get to have a say in which individual ones we like or don’t like. Referendums give ideas, not people, mandates, and the greater the margin of victory the clearer that mandate. Would Rob Ford, regardless of his own margin of victory, have tried to kill Transit City if three-quarters of the public had approved it three years before, or the vehicle registration fee if voters had themselves approved it as, say, a means to fund road construction and maintenance?
When I ask Patrick Boyer about this, he lights up. The conservative member of parliament for Etobicoke–Lakeshore from 1984 to 1993, he’s since written three books about referendums.
“The magic of the ballot question,” he says, “is it segregates the issue from all of the other political elements that come into an election, such as the personality of the candidates, their prior history, their future potential, or the partisan differences that often set people against one-another. All of that is kept out of a ballot question because it’s a focus on one idea, and the clarity of it is you’re voting yes or no.”
In other words, forget Rob Ford.
We can handle them.
In politics, a good idea doesn’t go far if people don’t believe it’s a good idea. People hate paying taxes, for instance, until you make it clear what paying taxes will get them. People love subways and hate LRTs until you show them what each is good for. The way to win a referendum is simple: make your case the better one. Local politicians already have to sell their best ideas to us—it’s part of the job description—and already, if they proceed without popular support for them anyway, those are the ideas that’ll likely get stopped before they’ve started, eventually stall, or, worse, get altogether reversed, often at the expense of both money and time. Single-issue referendums don’t just prevent plans that voters dislike from proceeding; they cement the plans that voters do like, regardless of who’s mayor or who’s on council years later.
Are we smart enough to make those kinds of big decisions ourselves?
On the one hand, it doesn’t matter. If we aren’t, the popularity or unpopularity of the things we like or don’t like will still determine the odds of those things ever happening. If we all dislike something blindly, that doesn’t make it any less disliked, and waiting a few years and voting in someone who promises to get rid of it is awfully inefficient.
On the other hand—aren’t we, you know, smart enough? And isn’t insisting that an issue’s too complicated to be decided on by the public just an excuse for not explaining it to them in a way that would make it less so?
Or, as Patrick Boyer puts it to me, “The term ‘self-government,’ which we pride ourselves on using, really has to mean what it says—democractic self-government. This is not a position from on high by people who know better…even if it is the case that people in leadership positions have a fine idea that would be great for the country or the city and its people, unless they’re able to persuade the majority of the people of that and bring them along with it, they might get it through legally, they may pass [it] formally, but they won’t have the people with them.”
Appropriately enough, the reason we don’t have elections every year anymore is that we eventually decided we didn’t want them. On December 5, 1955, voters were asked whether to to extend the terms of those serving on council to two years, the eighth time since 1912 they’d been posed the question. This time, they voted yes, by 47,958 to 33,742. (The term was raised again in 1966, this time to three years, then back to two in 1972, then back up to three in 1982, then, finally, four in 2006. The Fourth Wall, an exhibit about political engagement at City Hall led by Dave Meslin, has more about all that in this PDF—see page 15.)
Referendums, meanwhile, have fallen out of favour in large part because they haven’t been necessary before any big expenditures of the public’s money for more than a half-century—there were a third as many referendums in the second half of the 20th century as there were in the first half [PDF, see pages 64–65].
There’s nothing stopping city council from putting any question they want answered by voters to them directly, though, as it looks like they might do with the proposed mega-casino. If councillors wanted to, they could start holding referendums regularly again, and formalize a new set of criteria for doing so. Maybe for any new capital project that would cost more than a certain amount of money, and for anything else that would significantly add money to or remove money from the city’s budget, like creating new taxes and abolishing or changing existing ones. Add in anything that would represent a fundamental change to the way our electoral system works, like having more councillors or switching to a ranked-ballot voting system. And why not consider any issue brought by the public, provided that a petition garnered more than a certain number of signatures? It could still be city council’s job to approve all of the questions that ended up on a ballot, as well as the precise wording of those questions, which is the kind of quality control we elect our councillors for in the first place.
Some decisions, of course, aren’t the city’s alone to make—the casino is ultimately the province’s. But even then, the votes would still determine the mandate, and the political cost of overruling it. Toronto’s March 1997 referendum on amalgamating into a “megacity” was trounced in every municipality it was voted on, with a total of 123,448 voters (24.4%) in favour and 381,657 (75.6%) against. The referendum wasn’t binding, though, and premier Mike Harris’s conservative government proceeded with amalgamation in spite of it; “It doesn’t matter, really,” he said at the time, according to the Toronto Star. When the next provincial election was held in June 1999, with Toronto newly amalgamated against its wishes, the Progressive-Conservative party went from holding half of this city’s ridings to holding a third. They don’t hold a single one now, from one end of the megacity to the other. Which goes to show that even when referendums don’t work, they still kind of do.