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                                Ontario's Rising Regionalism Beyond The Global City

By Randall White

Two years ago Gordon Nelson, distinguished professor emeritus in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Waterloo, edited a book of essays by various expert hands called Beyond the Global City: Understanding and Planning for the Diversity of Ontario.  The aim of the book, Nelson wrote, was “to look beyond Toronto and give ... a wider and richer view of Ontario.”

The “now well-known view of Toronto as the great economic engine of the province” goes “at least as far back as the 1970s” he writes.

But in the last ten years, the concept “has become so strong” that it “has resulted in a kind of flat-earth view of Ontario.”

To get at their “wider and richer” view, Nelson and his colleagues divided the province into “eleven georegions.” (Theirs is only one of many possible definitions of Ontario regionalism.)

The main point is just that Ontario has always had its own microcosm of the Canadian regional landscape. 

Since the 1970s the preoccupation with one Toronto-centred region has arguably grown into a public policy obsession. We may be approaching a point where the obsession is out of control and even increasingly “dysfunctional,” from various points of view. 

For example, the Ministry of Finance today uses six broad regions in reporting demographic data. And what it calls the Greater Toronto Area (the amalgamated City of Toronto and the four immediately surrounding regional municipalities) was home to 43% of the provincial population in 1996, and 47.6% in 2013. 

The next most populous of these broad regions is so-called Central Ontario, or the 14 “upper-tier municipalities” or “census divisions” that immediately surround the GTA. It had 21.5% of the provincial population in 2013. 

Then there is Eastern Ontario, with its 13.1% of the provincial population in 2013. 

South-western Ontario had 11.8%.

Northeastern Ontario comes in with 4.2%, and Northwestern Ontario 1.8%.

A still popular stereotype also implies that “Toronto” or at least the GTA is getting an increasingly larger share of the provincial population because it is the place where the Ontario economy is most dynamic and jobs are most plentiful. Toronto is getting richer and richer, while the rest of the province is just getting more and more left out of the party. 

There probably is something to this stereotype, especially in the past several decades. Yet even just a quick look at current regional economic statistics raises questions about the future.

Two different sources of regional economic data suggest broadly parallel trends in this respect.  Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey reports numbers for 11 Ontario regions, vaguely similar to the 11 regions in Gordon Nelson’s Beyond the Global City

If you look at the unemployment rates for these regions in August 2014 (3-month moving average, unadjusted for seasonality, to be technically exact) you might be surprised. 

The highest unemployment rate is actually in Toronto (defined as the GTA, as above) — 9.1%!

The lowest rates are in Stratford-Bruce Peninsula (4.3%), Muskoka-Kawarthas (5.8%), Kitchener-Waterloo-Barrie (5.9%), and Northwest Ontario (6.4%).

Similarly, the latest Monthly Seasonal Adjusted Unemployment Rates by Employment Insurance (EI) Economic Region suggest broadly comparable trends.

Toronto — defined in this case as the Toronto Census Metropolitan Area devised by Statistics Canada, somewhat but not vastly different from the GTA — does not have the highest unemployment rate among all 17 regions here, but it is close to the top at 8.3%. 

The lowest rates in this case are Thunder Bay (4.9%), South Central Ontario (5.0%), Hamilton (6.2%), Sudbury (6.4%), Kitchener (6.5%), and Ottawa (6.6%).

It could be that Thunder Bay (and Northwest Ontario in the Labour Force Survey) is doing so well because its Bombardier plant is building streetcars for the City of Toronto.

But that still doesn’t help the Toronto unemployment rate.

The current Ministry of Finance demographic projections predict the GTA will continue to enjoy increasing percentages of the total Ontario population. But the most recent demographic and economic data raise some doubts about this.

The Liberal government elected this past June may find it politically advantageous to listen carefully to the tunes that Gordon Nelson and his colleagues are humming in Beyond the Global City.

The current Liberal caucus, in spite of its majority of seats in the Legislative Assembly, is largely a creature of Ontario’s bigger cities — and of what the Ministry of Finance calls the GTA and Central Ontario combined. If Premier Wynne and her party want another majority government in 2018, they will probably need a few new friends in so-called rural Ontario.

The majority of the people of Ontario may still live outside the GTA a generation from now. Democracy may finally mean that the government at Queen’s Park will have to come to terms with why “a kind of flat-earth view” of the province no longer makes sense.






About Randall White

Randall White is a former senior policy advisor with the Ontario Ministry of Finance, and a former economist with the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. He is the author of Ontario 1610-1985: A Political and Economic History and Ontario Since 1985. He writes frequently about Ontario politics.
Posted date : September 23, 2014

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