Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie says it’s high time her city of 720,000 was granted its long-standing wish: a Mississ-exit from Peel Region.
Now the third-largest city in the province, Mississauga is a long way from the sleepy suburb it was a generation ago. It is growing up instead of out, with 25 high-rise towers under construction. And it is certainly no bedroom community, Ms. Crombie says: More people commute into Mississauga each day – to work in industries that range from life sciences to logistics – than commute out.
But unlike Toronto to the east, or an even long list of much smaller Ontario cities – Sarnia, Sudbury, Thunder Bay, Windsor among them – Mississauga remains subservient to another tier of local government and tethered to its smaller neighbours, Brampton and Caledon, in Peel Region.
Speaking to The Globe and Mail in a recent interview, Ms. Crombie says her desire for Mississauga to go it alone is more than a quest to reduce duplication and waste in local government. It’s about allowing her city to set its own tax rate and decide its own priorities: “To be honest with you, it’s about more than the cost savings … it’s about controlling your own destiny.”
This move toward Mississauga separatism is nothing new. Political leaders here have been looking to get out from under the Region of Peel almost ever since this umbrella-level of government was created in 1974. Hazel McCallion, who just turned 98 and ruled as the city’s mayor for 36 years until retiring in 2014, has long argued that Mississauga’s future, and its finances, would be brighter without having to subsidize its smaller neighbours.
But it is her endorsed successor as mayor, Ms. Crombie – now in her second term – who could have a shot at seeing the dream of an independent Mississauga become a reality, thanks to Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s potentially sweeping review of regional governance, now under way.
The three municipal governments that make up Peel Region – which handles garbage collection, policing, water and sewers, and some social services – have a history of squabbling. Under Ms. McCallion, who recently turned down a job advising Mr. Ford, Mississauga made a public push for independence in the early 2000s, producing a study suggesting Mississauga taxpayers could save $31-million if the city went solo. Ms. Crombie says city staff are now busy updating those numbers.
She argues that Mississauga, with its larger industrial tax base, should not have to subsidize the new infrastructure needed for growth in more suburban Brampton and largely rural Caledon. Her more mature city has its own needs, such as larger investments in public transit.
“We have paid for the growth of both Brampton and Caledon," Ms. Crombie said in her office, where a framed photo of her and Ms. McCallion is given pride of place. “We believe that the money should be invested in the city in which it’s raised. We should be paying for our own growth.”
She insists the breakup needn’t be too disruptive: Chopping up the region’s shared water and sewer systems would be impractical, so they could be run instead by a utility board made up of representatives of the local municipalities. She also says Peel Regional Police could remain in place, governed by its police services board, on which she and other local politicians sit.
Ms. Crombie has already made her case in a preliminary meeting with the two men chosen to steer the Ontario government’s review: former senior bureaucrat and Metrolinx CEO Michael Fenn, and former Waterloo Region chairman Ken Seiling.
Public consultations are also planned, but s unclear how much of the final report will be made public. Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark has said he has no predetermined outcome, and plans to announce his decision on any reforms in August. Mr. Seiling would say little about the review, saying the work was still in the “listening phase." Mr. Fenn did not respond to e-mails requesting comment.
The review was first pledged last summer, after the Ford government both slashed Toronto’s city council almost in half – threatening to invoke the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause to do so – and cancelled elections for regional chair in Peel, Muskoka and York.
Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown, the former Ontario PC Leader forced to resign amid sexual misconduct allegations he denies, had intended to run for chair of Peel Region. But he switched to the mayor’s race after Mr. Ford’s move.
While he believes Peel is working well, he argues that growing Brampton deserves more than seven of the regional council’s 25 votes. He has also met with Mr. Seiling and Mr. Fenn.
But Mr. Brown also said he is concerned that the consultation exercise is “window-dressing" for a decision Mr. Ford has already made.
“The larger question I have right now is will any of this exercise be part of the decision making, or has the decision already been made," Mr. Brown said. “Trying to predict what Doug Ford is going to do is not a skill set that I have or many people have. And frankly, it can change quickly.”
Caledon Mayor Allan Thompson says he suspects the review is aimed at trying to save money by creating new large single-tier municipalities, with Ottawa or Chatham-Kent as the model. But he doubts this would save any money, saying Peel is already a tight ship as a result of Mississauga’s complaints about waste over the years.
He also says it would be short-sighted for Mississauga to leave, even as the Greater Toronto Area increasingly needs to act as a region on transit and other issues.
“Let’s say Bonnie gets her separate nation. To me, maybe that works today. But does that work for all of Peel, for all of the GTA and for all of Ontario 50 years from now, for our children and our grandchildren?" Mr. Thompson said. “It’s not good planning and it’s not good thinking.”
Peel Region’s appointed chairman, former Mississauga councillor Nando Iannicca, says the whole reason the region was created was to allow its member municipalities to share resources – such as sewer pipes that must cross boundaries – to pay for growth. Brampton and Caledon helped pay for Mississauga’s growth in the past he said, and Mississauga should return the favour.
“What’s broken and what’s on fire?" Mr. Iannicca said. "Because we are not certain that anything is broken or anything is on fire as it relates to the Region of Peel.”