TORONTO, ONTARIO - So, let me get this straight. One major Canadian city this month had an election based almost entirely on the discussion of progressive-minded local issues, resulting in a wide-open race of quality candidates that ended with the election of a fresh figure who happened to be Muslim, but nearly nobody cared about that. Another major Canadian city this month had an election based almost entirely on anger that attracted an underwhelming pool of candidates, none of them with any sort of positive vision to take the city forward, and resulted in the election of a candidate who makes racist comments and would like to end immigration to the city. The first city was Calgary, and the second was Toronto?
Even before this month, I was not particularly inclined to knock Calgary. Despite the fact that it consistently elects Conservatives to the Federal parliament (as did the entire province of Alberta except for one Edmonton riding), it was in many ways much more progressive than Toronto as a municipality. Perhaps because it is the headquarters of many companies operating in the contentious tar/oil sands, it has probably provided more leadership in renewable energy than any other major city, even if the claim that its light rail system runs entirely on clean energy is somewhat overblown. The fact remains that it has been building a light rail system and seems serious about continuous improvement of its public transit infrastructure.
This month may have marked the moment when Calgary took the mantle from Toronto as the most attractive Canadian city to the outside world. (Montreal and Vancouver would dispute the duopoly, but I'll leave that for another time.) As Rob Ford made the case that Toronto has no more room for immigrants and still won election as mayor in a city where half the population was not born in Canada, Calgary did the unthinkable in North America and elected Naheed Nenshi, a Muslim, attracting worldwide attention. Furthermore, in quintessential Canadian fashion, the world took more notice of Nenshi's religion than the people of Calgary, who just wanted someone to move the city forward, of any background.
The people of Toronto, by electing Ford, have sent the immigrants of the world a message that they are not welcome here. While it is doubtful how much of Ford's agenda will actually be realized in what initially appears to be a very divided city council, he wants (among other things) to cut social services, arts funding, and end streetcar service. Facing such a climate, why would an immigrant not choose, if at all possible, to head instead for a city with a lower unemployment rate, an apparently more stable (if resource-based) economy, and which at least symbolically accepts them rather than rejecting them.
Toronto often seems to be hand-wringing about whether it is a world class city. Its residents just voted not to be, and I expect that it will not recover from that for a generation, if ever. In contrast, the residents of Calgary decided to behave like they lived in a world-class city. In a decade, the nation and the world may wonder what happened for Calgary to overtake Toronto, much as Toronto once surpassed Montreal. They'll look back, and say the real transition started with these two elections.