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Traffic on Toronto's Don Valley Parkway on Nov. 12, 2020.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

A rainbow appeared over Toronto Harbour, gumdrops rained down on the sidewalks of Yonge Street and unicorns cantered through Nathan Phillips Square when Mayor Olivia Chow appeared with Ontario Premier Doug Ford this week to announce a bailout deal for Canada’s biggest city. Toronto was saved! The Jabberwock of financial ruin had been slain. O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!

Taking the podium to proclaim the good news, Mr. Ford called it “a historic new deal,” then upped that to “a game-changing, historic new deal.” Ms. Chow, struggling to outdo him, called it “historic,” “huge,” and a “big, big” deal. At a time when many Torotonians are struggling to get by and the city’s books are in disarray, she said, it has been “hard to find hope – until today.”

Now hang on just a minute.

It’s true there was lots for Toronto to welcome in the Ford-Chow agreement. The provincial government is taking custody of two big city highways, the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway. That will save city hall billions over the years – money that, as Ms. Chow says, can now be used on things like housing, parks and public transit.

Toronto dropping Ontario Place opposition in exchange for province takeover of Gardiner and DVP costs

Queen’s Park is also helping city hall fill its yawning postpandemic budget hole. The province will contribute up to $1.2-billion for homeless shelters, transit and other needs.

But all of this comes with a bunch of footnotes, caveats and asterisks. The help for Toronto’s operating budget lasts for just three years. Though the two governments will keep talking about a more lasting solution to the city’s money troubles, nothing is guaranteed. There is no hint of a truly lasting fix like giving the city the right to raise sales or income taxes.

Even this time-limited largesse does not come for free. In return for all those millions and billions, Ms. Chow has agreed to more or less button-up about Mr. Ford’s plan to redevelop Ontario Place, the artificial islands on the waterfront. Critics of the plan say it would surrender much of the prime public property to a private company for the construction of a gleaming new waterpark and spa. Only a few months ago, when she was running for mayor, Ms. Chow took to the water on a paddleboard to proclaim that she would never back down on her vow to keep Ontario Place public.

Well, she has stowed her paddle now. This week she conceded that while Toronto will still speak up on some things, like where to put all the parking for the redeveloped project, from now on the real discussion about Ontario Place will happen not at city council but in the provincial legislature.

That’s hardly the end of the world. The redevelopment is nowhere near the calamity its critics claim. But it was still a significant concession for the city.

There was more small print on the Gardiner and DVP deal, too. Uploading them to the province, says the Ford-Chow agreement, will ensure they are preserved and maintained “as untolled highways.” To make things perfectly clear, it further states that the province “will not explore tolling” the roadways.

That may seem like a little thing. Tolling more highways hasn’t been high on anyone’s agenda lately. But it should be. Tolls help relieve traffic congestion, lower greenhouse-gas emissions and pay for city services. They are common in Europe, the United States and parts of Asia.

Ms. Chow’s predecessor, John Tory, once proposed placing tolls on the Gardiner and DVP to help raise money for their upkeep and fund transit projects. It was one of his best and boldest acts. The Liberal premier at the time, Kathleen Wynne, vetoed the idea, fearing a backlash from motorists and suburban voters. Now the veto has effectively been made permanent.

So look closely at this big, big, really big deal and it doesn’t look big at all; or new, for that matter. The peace-in-our-time dual announcement from Mr. Ford and Ms. Chow re-enacted a very old play in Canadian politics.

Politician takes office and finds that, horrors, the preceding politician left him/her a fiscal mess. Politician appeals to higher level of government for help. Higher government says it will need to think it over; it has been awfully generous with the junior government already. Then, after a period of haggling, quarrelling and pleading, politician and higher government announce they have struck a deal that will open up the gumdrop clouds and make everyone happy. The politician gets to pose as a champion negotiator, the higher government as a wise benefactor.

What is often forgotten is that it’s not really their money. As Mr. Ford and his brother Rob never tired of saying when they ruled the roost in Toronto, there is only one taxpayer. Whether it is the city or province that pays to fill the potholes on the Gardiner, the bill will always find its way to you and me.

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