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Darrin Wolter, a Citizen Member of the Mississauga Cycling Advisory Committee riding his bike in the Port Credit area of Mississauga (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
Darrin Wolter, a Citizen Member of the Mississauga Cycling Advisory Committee riding his bike in the Port Credit area of Mississauga (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

ontario election

Think you know the 'burbs, politicos? Think again Add to ...

It's a Thursday evening at a community centre in the Malvern neighbourhood of Scarborough. A debate between local provincial election candidates has just finished. About 100 people mingle amid plastic chairs and cinder-block walls, chattering about the ballot questions that will sway their vote.

Holly Laws, 50, wants wait times in the health-care system shortened. She's also hoping for improvements to the public-transit network to shorten the two-hour commute to her desk job at Mount Sinai hospital downtown.

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Ryerson University student Acsana Fernando, 31, suggests attracting office jobs to the area would help.

“Transit is the big issue, it takes so long to get downtown, to all the universities and corporate offices,” she says.

There is also talk about the parties' poverty-reduction plans, access to community health centres and schools. Hardly anyone seems interested in the issues that are supposed to matter most to suburban voters: taxes, roads or the price of gasoline.

Since Rob Ford's mayoral victory last year, downtowners have been apt to trot out the old myths about the 905. Beyond Toronto's pre-amalgamation borders, they will tell you, the only things people care about are acquiring a larger house, filling up the SUV and avoiding traffic on the drive to the mall. This week, city councillor Paula Fletcher even proposed de-amalgamating the city, claiming urban priorities had been hijacked by those of outlying areas.

And in the run-up to the Oct. 6 provincial vote, both the Progressive Conservatives and the NDP seem to be playing to these stereotypes, busting out Ford-like rhetoric promising lower taxes and a crackdown on wasteful spending. The strategy makes sense, to a point: with left and right firmly entrenched in inner cities and small towns, respectively, it is the suburbs that will decide the election. And how better to break the eight-year Liberal stranglehold on Queen's Park than with the types of pocket-book pledges that helped an Etobicoke councillor defeat the established order at city hall?

But such simplistic messaging may be missing the mark. The 905 and outer 416 are more complicated places than they're often given credit for, where citizen groups are increasingly pushing for urbane city planning and environmental protection, and voters express collective desires similar to those of their downtown brethren, demanding better health care, upgraded transit and more education opportunities. Could it be that Toronto's 'burbs are being misread?

MYTHS OF DIFFERENCE

The subdivisions ringing Toronto have long eschewed the white-dominated, upper-class, monster-home stereotypes. As havens for immigrants, they are far more multicultural places than the city centre and, with cheaper rents than downtown, many contain large pockets of low-income residents.

The median household income in the riding of Etobicoke North, for instance, is virtually identical to that in Toronto Centre. There are proportionally roughly as many renters in Mississauga East-Cooksville as there are in Beaches-East York; on this measure, Don Valley East is ahead of Toronto Danforth and only slightly behind Trinity-Spadina.

While Mr. Ford rode a wave of anger in peripheral neighbourhoods that have long felt left out of the wealth of Canada's economic capital, the simplistic slogans of his campaign hid the underlying complexities in those areas' political culture.

Oversimplified or no, the opposition parties in this election seem to be taking a similar tack. While the Tories have made some promises related to improving transit and other services, their messaging has focused overwhelmingly on shaving the HST off some expenses and making electricity cheaper. In Brampton last week, leader Tim Hudak announced a written pledge to Elections Ontario not to raise taxes if elected and promised to fight car-insurance fraud to bring rates down for drivers.

Andrea Horwath, meanwhile, in a controversial gesture apparently intended to woo motorists, pledges to bring down the price of petroleum. She also says she could find the province savings by cutting the salaries of government CEOs.

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