Hours before registering to become a candidate for Toronto mayor last week, the city’s former chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat publicly called for the city to break off from Ontario to form Canada’s 11th province.
“Secession,” she wrote in a concise tweet on Friday, later wondering, “Why should a city of 2.8 million not have self governance?”
Torontonians have talked about it before, but actually seceding would be one of the most difficult political maneuvers in Canadian history.
Under the Constitution, the “establishment of new provinces” cannot occur without a constitutional amendment. That amendment would require approval not only from Queen’s Park and Ottawa, but from legislatures in “at least two-thirds of the provinces” representing at least 50 per cent of the population of all ten provinces.
In short, for Toronto to secede it would need majority support from at least nine representative bodies of government: The House of Commons, the Senate, the Ontario Legislative Assembly and at least six other provinces.
And for the proposal to be taken seriously, it’s almost a guarantee it would also need to be approved by Toronto City Council and in a city-wide referendum.
It would be one of the most difficult political challenges since Canada’s creation in 1867.
Even in that case, the Fathers of Confederation needed to obtain approval from just five representative bodies, three of which were colonial legislatures with a vested interest in forming a new country.
The other two, the United Kingdom’s House of Commons and House of Lords, had essentially agreed to rubber stamp whatever proposal Canada sent them.
Toronto secessionists, by contrast, could well face a hostile Queen’s Park, as well as a House of Commons and Senate in Ottawa that would be wary of encouraging secessionist movements elsewhere in the country.
Meanwhile, six other provinces would need to be convinced to back the proposal, despite it offering them no apparent direct benefit. And if Canada’s recent interprovincial trade spats are any indication, Canadian provinces are very reluctant to do anything for each other that doesn’t yield political capital back home.
“The problem would be that the provinces would tack on other demands,” said Philippe Lagassé, an expert in the Westminster system based at Carleton University.
It’s perhaps no surprise that Canada’s two other major attempts to reform the Constitution — the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords — all went down in flames.
In fact, Meech Lake was arguably brought down by a single vote from Manitoba MLA Elijah Harper.
Prior to the patriation of the Constitution in 1982, it used to be way easier to add provinces to Confederation. Saskatchewan and Alberta were created with little more than acts of parliament.
In 1949 it only took a U.K. Act of Parliament to make Newfoundland the 10th province, although in that case Newfoundlanders themselves also approved the decision in a pair of narrowly-won referendums.
Despite the insurmountable odds of achieving provincehood, the idea of Toronto as a province has been raised before by the likes of urban theorist Jane Jacobs and former Toronto mayor Mel Lastman.
In 2000, Toronto city councillor Michael Walker went so far as to campaign for Toronto secession to be made a ballot issue — only to have the proposal swiftly slapped down by Ontario’s then-Progressive Conservative government of Mike Harris.
“We just can’t afford to be in the business of exporting more and more of our hard-earned money out to prop up the rest of province,” Walker said at the time.
If the entire Greater Toronto Area were to break off into a new province, its six million people would instantly become Canada’s largest province by population. Its estimated $304 billion GDP would make it Canada’s fourth-wealthiest province, just behind Alberta.
An independent GTA would also be slightly larger geographically than Prince Edward Island, sparing it the title of smallest province.
Although Canadian or U.S. metropolises are all contained within larger regional governments, it’s not unprecedented for countries to give their largest city its own province or state.
Mexico City is one of Mexico’s 32 autonomous federal entities. In Germany the cites of Berlin and Hamburg are both counted among the country’s 16 constituent states.