Ontario is an odd place to be from. Other than lines on a map, what is it? I could not tell you what the Ontario identity is, despite having lived here my entire life.
Unlike relatives in Nova Scotia, or friends from Alberta, who strongly associate with those places, “Ontarioness,” if there is such a thing, is an elusive notion. Quebec identity, or nationhood as some might say, is another level of identity entirely. The current provincial election is an interesting time to think about all this as the very idea of Ontario, and all of us who are part of it, is suddenly important.
There are more than 13 million people in Ontario but around half of them live in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. That’s an awful lot of people clustered around Lake Ontario in the famed “Golden Horseshoe,” a glittering nickname in the great tradition of civic nickname hubris.
Not without justification, some people who do not live in this great golden land have suggested the current Ontario provincial election seems more like a Toronto election as the issues in these parts dominate the provincial discourse. Whenever you get a cluster of many millions of people living together, they have particular needs that are distinct from less populated areas. Big cities, by their nature, have big city problems that need specific solutions. It’s a tension that’s not unique to Toronto, and big cities like New York, London and Paris all have conflict, real and imagined, with their hinterlands.
Still, I find it useful to try to remember the view of Toronto I had from my hometown, Windsor, a place that is steeped in its own kind of “western alienation” where, down at the end of Highway 401, the phrase “Ontario (and Canada) stops at London” was often repeated. Whether this feeling was justifiable or not was rarely quantified, but it was a persuasive sentiment to buy into, especially when somebody tells you you’ve been left out. Here in Toronto, former mayor Rob Ford was a master at exploiting these kinds of feelings.
Perhaps in the age of social and digital media, local news spreads wider, but even as a student of political science in the 1990s, I don’t remember being overwhelmed by Toronto news and politics. I do, however, remember Toronto’s anti-amalgamation fight was one of the big issues that connected to similar resistance across the province. Especially because of the legendary filibuster orchestrated by the NDP with Liberal co-operation (imagine that!) that saw 12,000 separate amendments debated 24 hours a day, for 10 days, in an effort to oppose the legislation, as well as the massive rally held in Nathan Phillips Square. This kind of political theatre certainly made its way down the 401, but other local Toronto passions were obscured.
Yet what might look like a cohesive political conglomeration from the outside, within it there are yet more divisions: 416 vs. 905 in the Golden Horseshoe or downtown vs. suburb within Toronto itself. North of Bloor, south of Bloor, east of the Don River or west: it’s like a set of Russian dolls but filled with conflict, with more divisions as you get to smaller parcels of geography. It’s almost like politics runs on this kind of fuel.
Certainly there are differences and unique local concerns, but as we’ve seen in previous elections, such divisions can be politically useful and exploited. How many times have you heard the word “downtown elites” tossed about, as if there are no espresso machines making lattes in Etobicoke, Woodbridge or Windsor, for that matter?
So how can we resist sliding into oppositional politics across the province? I’ve found an upside of social media has been following people and publications across Ontario, a good way to hear about what’s going on elsewhere. Though the scale of the problems may differ depending on the size of the city, housing, transit and income disparity are issues across the province. The deindustrialized landscape of Windsor and southwest Ontario has much in common with what happened in south Etobicoke and other parts of the GTA. Common cause is not hard to find if you look for it, just as conflict is easy to spot if that’s what you want.
Still, this is an immense province. Not just that there are more people living in Ontario than in countries like Belgium, Greece or Portugal, but its geography is massive too. Those of who live in the south can have a difficult time understanding how life in the north is different. Indeed, there’s much more land in the north than south. A visit to a place like Timmins can be instructive; a city nestled in the north, with big Francophone and Indigenous populations. Overcrowding at the Yonge and Bloor subway station doesn’t much matter there.
Closer to home the Greenbelt controversy a few weeks ago, when tape of Doug Ford saying he’d “open a big chunk” of it to developers surfaced, was heartening. Though some PCs initially defended his position, Ford quickly retracted his words and said the sanctity of the Greenbelt would be preserved. “The people have spoken,” as it were.
It’s as if the Greenbelt, beloved by a wide swath of people in the 416, 905 and portions of the 705 and 519 area codes, is connective tissue running through a big part of the province.
We need to look for more of that kind of tissue in the vast, disparate and hard to define place, especially during election season.
Shawn Micallef is a Toronto-based writer and a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @shawnmicallef