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.
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.
Dalton McGuinty's party, by contrast, seem to be banking on a big-tent approach, which may in fact be better suited to Toronto's suburbs in flux. The Liberals' appeal to suburban voters has included promises to add trains on the GO regional rail network and reduce post-secondary tuition. Linda Jeffrey, the party's candidate in Brampton-Springdale, sticks entirely to the theme of better services in discussing the strategy for winning ridings like hers. She's also quick to link the rhetoric of cutting waste to the budget cuts of the last Progressive Conservative government.
"My voters still remember what those efficiencies meant," she says. "I remind people in the 905 that, whether it was health care, education or social services, we weren't getting our fair share."
THE NEW FACE OF SUBURBIA
Darrin Wolter grew up in the small Niagara Region town of Winona and, when he first bought a house 12 years ago, chose to avoid the bustle of downtown Toronto. But that didn't mean he wanted a car-dependent, mall-oriented lifestyle.
So he moved to Port Credit, a former lakeshore village swallowed up by Mississauga in the 1970s, where civic-minded residents have worked hard to preserve an historic feel. Thanks to these efforts, its main street looks more Danforth than Dixie, with bars, restaurants and independent shops tucked into two-storey commercial buildings.
Mr. Wolter himself plies the city's streets and trails on his bicycle, whether to take his 10-year-old son to baseball practice or on his commute to work as an analyst at a telecom company. His wife, meanwhile, takes the GO train to her job downtown.
"I know the mindset has changed from the way things were done," says the 44-year-old, referring to the freeway-crossed method of subdivision development. "I think people know that's not the way to build in the 21st century."
This sort of thinking also informs the way he votes: Rather than simply picking a candidate who will offer up the most immediate benefits, he says he looks for people with a vision to make the world a healthier and more ecologically-friendly place.
His attitude is reflected in a strong push for urbanism unfolding across the GTA and encompassing everyone from community leaders to everyday citizens to local politicians.
In Port Credit, for instance, residents are involved in crafting the city's plan for the area. Jim Danahy, who heads the local community association, rattles off ideas that have a decidedly downtown flavour: building office blocks on underused land, establishing a Seattle-esque houseboat community in the harbour, building more GO stations to distribute new development more evenly, putting bike lanes on Lakeshore Road East.
"In infill areas like this, we're not dealing with sprawl. We're dealing with intelligent intensification," he says.
On a city-wide level, Mississauga is constructing a dedicated busway that will transect it from east to west; a north-south light rail line is also in the works. The city also has a 20-year plan to add 30 kilometres of routes and increase the number of riders twentyfold.
These plans also include the province: Mayor Hazel McCallion waded into the Oct. 6 campaign to demand Queen's Park continue uploading costs that former premier Mike Harris handed off to municipalities. The city has also pushed for the abolition of the Ontario Municipal Board, arguing that it too frequently allows developers to build high-rise condominium towers that disregard local planning guidelines designed to ensure new communities fit a mixed-use, mid-rise model.
In Brampton, meanwhile, Mayor Susan Fennell has met with both Mr. McGuinty and Mr. Hudak to call for a second local hospital and a university campus in the booming city of nearly half a million people. Her council, meanwhile, recently approved a city hall expansion that would also create 16,000 feet of street-front retail by 2014.
Don Naylor, who has run a Brampton environmental design firm for 29 years and chairs the downtown redevelopment corporation, says planning in the area has to strike a balance between bringing more offices and condominiums downtown while preserving historic streetscapes. He suggests, for instance, leaving the street intact and putting mid-rise buildings behind.
"It's not reasonable to believe you can do greenfield development forever," he says, referring to the proliferation of tract housing. "We have a lot of room to grow, and intensification has to be a part of it."
North of Toronto, Vaughan has a plan to build a city core from scratch around an extension of the Spadina subway line and Markham has begun a similar project, erecting condominium towers in its south end. In a commitment to slowing sprawl, the town also has rules in place requiring 60 per cent of new development take place in existing neighbourhoods.
Bramalea is some 50 kilometres from Malvern, on the other side of the sprawl north of the city, but you wouldn't know it when walking the streets. Both neighbourhoods grew out of the same era of 1960s and '70s planning, when people still believed urban utopia consisted of wide roads, uniformity and an excess of open space. Inhabitants occupy single-family houses, arranged on identical crescents, or featureless apartment blocks rising from parking lots.
And in many ways, the concerns of Bramalea voters parallel those at the debate in Malvern: better health care, access to education and, of course, transit.
Harpreet Kaur, a 33-year-old civil servant who lives with her aging mother and two young children, talks not of tax cuts but of social programs when discussing the election.
"We want politicians that can make those policies that, in the sandwich generation, can help us support our seniors and our kids," she says.
Local NDP candidate Jagmeet Singh, a 32-year-old lawyer and human=rights advocate who tools around on a fixed-gear bicycle, seems more like a Parkdale scenster than a Peel Region denizen. And he insists that the issues transcend the distance between the city and the 'burbs.
"The things people care about are the same: People want good jobs, people want health care, people want good services," he says. "We have far more in common with downtown than we have differences."