Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Toronto's wealthy fiddle as the city turns to dust

From his office in Toronto's TD Centre, TD Bank boss Charles Baillie has a sweeping view of urban decay's Ground Zero.

The city's waterfront and the docklands just to the east, probably the most valuable real estate in Canada, are a horrific mess. The views out of the bank's other windows aren't exactly appetizing either. A highway separates the city from Lake Ontario. The downtown core is a small sea of uninspiring towers and endless bland condos with names, like the SoHo, borrowed from famous cities. There is no central park. Toronto's monument to itself and the world is a concrete spindle called the CN Tower.

Canada's cities are deteriorating, Mr. Baillie says, and Toronto is perhaps the prime example of that decline. He wants to do something about it. In a report released this week, the bank called for a new approach that "puts the affairs of cities front and centre on Canada's economic policy radar screens."

Story continues below advertisement

It's a fine idea, of course. Starved by years of underfunding by the federal and provincial governments, some cities are worse for wear. They need more economic and political power to reverse the decay. But there's something else they need: More attention from the wealthiest. Canada has some of the richest families and businessmen and women on the planet. Where are their monuments? Great cities aren't built by governments alone.

Toronto is only now waking up to the reality that it's facing an urban crisis. The city can thank a dead Quebec premier, René Lévesque, for the fact that the rot isn't worse. After the Second World War, Montreal was undoubtedly the country's premier city. It had the biggest population, the best parties -- Expo 67 and the 1976 Olympics -- a lovely historic centre, a vibrant café culture and, most importantly, economic power. With a little effort, it could have buried upstart Toronto.

Then came Mr. Lévesque's Parti Québécois, with its Draconian language laws and rejection of all things national. The anglo population -- the business class -- took the path of least resistance and fled to Toronto. Large companies, led by Sun Life, followed. Dull, constipated Toronto began to thrive and soon replaced Montreal as Canada's economic and cultural centre, all because of the Montreal diaspora. Toronto should erect a 50-metre statue of Mr. Lévesque in gratitude.

Toronto's freebie party ended years ago. The infrastructure is cracking, the public transportation system is wholly inadequate for a city of its size, smog and traffic congestion are huge problems and the waterfront remains a lost opportunity. There is little to lure tourists, let alone locals, downtown. Attractive buildings and parks, fun and interesting museums and galleries, an opera house and other cultural draws are either missing or in short supply. Downtown Toronto is ugly. Is this all the fault of the three levels of government?

By any international standard, Toronto is a rich city with more than its fair share of multimillionaires and billionaires. To be sure, some weave themselves into the local fabric and, overtly or behind the scenes, are Toronto boosters.

Ken Thomson, the outgoing chairman of Thomson Corp., is behind an effort to expand the Art Gallery of Ontario, the probable future home of his Canadian art collection. Toronto General Hospital has the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre.

Many more of the rich, though, are of the fly-by variety. They make their money in Toronto and have fabulous homes in Rosedale and Forest Hill, but never seem to be around. They are not closely associated with the city and have not left their marks on it. They may have big egos, but not so big that they're eager to attach their names to fabulous new civic, educational and cultural projects. Toronto is the poorer for it. Perhaps more importantly, they don't appear to be interested in local politics. With their money and influence, they could push forward leaders and agendas that could revitalize the city. Instead, Toronto gets Mel Lastman, a mayor proven incapable of stopping the province and the feds from looting the city.

Story continues below advertisement

There is some progress. Look at the Royal Ontario Museum. Non-millionaire president William Thorsell has launched ambitious plans to turn the dingy ROM into one of the world's great museums, a project that began recently with a provocative design, called the Crystal, from German-based architect Daniel Libeskind.

Is the ROM expansion all about the ROM? Not entirely. Mr. Thorsell appears to have figured out how to fire up political support for the project without looking like an empire builder. The effort is about civic renewal as much as hauling dusty artifacts out of the basement and putting them under a canted glass roof. It's about reviving a neglected section of the city in the hopes that other neglected bits will follow suit. There's a good chance that the ROM gamble will work. Mr. Thorsell's timing was perfect. He put the museum expansion into motion just as some enlightened few -- a bank chairman, among them -- are saying the civic damage has gone too far. Now if only a few of Toronto's wealthiest got the message.

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author
European Columnist

Eric Reguly is the European columnist for The Globe and Mail and is based in Rome. Since 2007, when he moved to Europe, he has primarily covered economic and financial stories, ranging from the euro zone crisis and the bank bailouts to the rise and fall of Russia's oligarchs and the merger of Fiat and Chrysler. More


The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨