Toronto the taxed

Cash-strapped Toronto looks for new funding.

Toronto Mayor David Miller has an unenviable job. Despite property tax hikes and cost-cutting, Canada's largest city is running a deficit of over $560 million. Next year's projected shortfall? More than $680 million — 9% of the operating budget. Residents, meanwhile, are bemoaning a declining quality of life, potholed roads and strained infrastructure. What's a guy to do?

Well, in a proposal expected to soon be passed into law, Toronto will become the first municipality in Canada to use new direct taxation powers to implement a land-transfer tax on top of the existing provincial levy on all property sales. With an averagepriced home in Toronto about $399,000, it will mean an extra $4,400 in taxes for homebuyers. Miller says the tax is fairer than an across-the-board increase in property taxes, which would hurt the elderly and the poor. But he would be wise to rethink its impact on an already overtaxed city.

Sure, Toronto has suffered under provincial downloading of social services. The federal and provincial governments are not exactly helping. But business leaders rightly point out that the new levy — along with a $60 registration fee on all cars in Toronto — will be spent on the deficit and not on services, at least in the first year. And about one-third of the $300 million raised by the new transfer taxes will come from commercial real estate. It's hardly a formula for prosperity in a place that has already seen a significant flight of business to the suburbs, where taxes are much lower. According to Carol Wilding, president and CEO of the Toronto Board of Trade, about 100,000 jobs have been lost in Toronto since 1989, while about 800,000 were created in outlying municpalities. A tax on real estate is a bad idea. It will discourage development and encourage more businesses to bail.

Toronto needs to start thinking courageously. Novel publicprivate partnerships would be a great place to start. The tab for road maintenance could be picked up by business, in exchange for collecting tolls. User fees for services and facilities could help offset costs. Even a London-style congestion fee might help reduce traffic and improve transportation. A harder look at the books would surely unearth more areas for cutting — or at least for resisting such indulgences as the purchase, approved in July, of a struggling theatre for more than a million dollars.

Miller's latest plan may be politically expedient — a land-transfer tax will impact far fewer voters than a property tax hike would. But it's time for Toronto's mayor to start showing some innovative and leading-edge thinking — not to mention political courage.

At the start of the Canada Day weekend, Shawn Brant's militant Mohawk protesters were permitted to blockade roads and a railway line in eastern Ontario. Nobody was hurt by the acts, unsanctioned by the Assembly of First Nations. The only real damage done was to thousands of travel schedules, including the shipment of $100-million worth of commercial rail cargo. But the law was not upheld. Laws not enforced cease to be effective, especially when the lawbreakers in question sport military fatigues and threaten gunplay. In that regard, the authorities failed.

Native issues need to be addressed. Living standards on reserves must be improved. Land claims must be fairly settled. But the reality of those problems does not justify disrupting the lives of thousands of fellow citizens. Dealing with Canada's so-called dirty little secret requires all concerned to respect the rights of all Canadians. That's clearly not on Brant's agenda. “We're going to have [an] expression of strength and solidarity across this country,” he told the Canadian Press. “Then we'll step back and say, â??You absorb this.' Because the next time we come out, it's going to be harder, it's going to be longer and it's going to have an impact on this economy that Canada can't imagine at this point.”

Brant is an extremist, not a human rights activist. When he broke the law on June 29, he was already on bail, facing a mischief charge related to a railway blockade in April. Yet authorities “kept the peace” by abiding by advice from sociologists and political strategists to let him and his gang reoffend. That was a mistake, in that it may well lead to an escalation of Brant's acts, and of the chances more people will be put in harm's way.

Nobody wants a repeat of Oka. But police shouldn't change tactics based on the race of lawbreaker. If they botch attempts to prevent a bank robbery, they don't simply look the other way the next time a criminal targets a bank. They use force, if justified.

Brant made more headlines for himself in early July when he turned himself over to police. He now faces another charge of mischief. But he should have been apprehended on June 29 and charged with unlawful assembly — along with any followers who failed to heed a warning to stand down. That doesn't require the War Measures Act. What it requires is tough and consistent policing, which will be needed during the next battle in Brant's selfproclaimed war on peace, order and good government.

In the meantime, the fight for native rights would be better served by a popular leader who knows how to respect the rights of others.