Toronto vs Montreal: An Age Old Debate

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Avenue du Parc shines through the darkening November evening. Montreal

In Canada the old Toronto or Montreal debate is about as old as hockey sticks and maple syrup. Having lived in both of these wonderful cities, I’m in a position to accurately compare them and offer insights in what both metropolises offer and what they lack. I even wrote about this for The Montreal Gazette once in an article about the pros and cons of living in Montreal, but the Gazette takes down content once it’s more than a year old so the link is no longer active and I can’t share it with you here (thanks, Gazette).

But I digress. The big question is this: which city is better, Montreal or Toronto? I can answer that query in one word: neither.

That’s right. Neither Montreal nor Toronto is better than the other. They are equal but different cities. Each has it’s own charms and advantages, and each has its own ugliness and deficiencies.  Montreal has an old-world, almost European charm, when Toronto is new and glossy with glass condo towers and spotless sidewalks. Montreal is ostensibly bilingual and filled with people from all over the world, while Toronto is primarily english speaking but it too is filled with people from every culture under the sun. Walking the streets of downtown TO I frequently catch people speaking french, spanish, polish, mandarin,  and all sorts of other foreign tongues I don’t understand.

Both cities are replete with gastronomic delights. In Toronto and also in Montreal you can find just about any type of ethnic food you could be craving. You want Mexican? We’ve got it. Feel like Ethiopian tonight? We’ve got that too. Maybe you just want a burger and fries? Ha! Choose from a plethora of burger joints and shake shacks ranging from international franchises to local artisanal eateries. The choice is yours and it might take a while.

Now let’s look at the economic differences. There are several, and this is where the divergence between these two cities becomes prevalent. First of all, in Quebec you pay a lot more in income tax; about 10% more than in Ontario. La Belle Province has, in fact, the highest income tax rate in the country. That can be a pretty good reason for freelancers like myself to set up shop in Toronto instead.

However, a lot of things in Montreal really are cheaper, and a lot those things are major budget items. Rent, public transit, hydro, daycare, car insurance, and school tuition are all much more affordable in Montreal. Toronto, on the other hand, has some of the highest rents in the country and hydro rates in the province of Ontario are astronomical in 2017, especially in rural communities, thanks to the bungling administration of Premier Kathleen Wynne and our fair nation’s grievous underinvestment in infrastructure. The TTC is notoriously overpriced and it’s the most expensive transit system Canada by far. My monthly transit expenses have more than doubled since moving back here, and they just raised fares again for the sixth consecutive year.

I don’t have kids, but if I did I would also be paying an arm and a leg for daycare in Ontario. My sister actually figured out that if you have two kids in daycare it’s cheaper to hire a full time nanny! Quebec, on the other hand, has a public daycare program which costs $7/day, and the privatized day care is also more affordable than in Ontario. Bear in mind though, the waiting list for public daycare stretches into infinity. A friend of mine has been on the waiting list for nearly two years and still hasn’t gotten on.

If you’re a student, Montreal is better than Toronto for the simple fact that tuition and fees are less than half of what you would pay in Toronto and the schools are just as good. For example, a BSc at McGill would cost a little over $4000 a year for tuition and fees. A BSc at U of T would cost over $10,000 per year, taxes and fees. In 2012, tuition fees in Quebec were going to go up and that sparked fierce student protests which made national headlines for weeks. Things got ugly, but in the end the students won and tuition stayed where it was. Montreal also has a huge student community because of how many schools it has.

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The Toronto skyline as seen from Toronto Island at dusk. 

If you’re a working professional, however, Toronto is better than Montreal. I say this not only because income tax is lower, but also because overall salaries are higher in Toronto and there are more employment opportunities with no language barrier to overcome. Toronto is the economic center of Canada, after all. And of course, getting a good job in Montreal is virtually impossible if you aren’t fully bilingual. I had several job interviews in the city but was turned down because, at that time, I only spoke french at an intermediate level. I’ve gotten much better since then, but I would still wager my employment opportunities are better in Toronto.

For public transit, Montreal’s STM  beats Toronto’s TTC. It isn’t even debatable. In Montreal you pay far less and get better service, and there is a much more extensive metro system that covers more of the city. Montreal is also better for cycling than Toronto, and during the Spring and Summer months it’s easy to use your bike to get around just about anywhere within the city. Toronto has some bike lanes, but nowhere near what Montreal has, and it’s always such a contentious issue at City Hall whenever new lanes are proposed.

When it comes to driving though, I would have to say that Toronto is better for drivers just because Montreal has some of the most insanely designed roadways I’ve ever seen, and the city has a huge backlog of road repairs to catch up on. Some roads are in such rough shape it’s as though they were bombed in a war. Right now there is so much construction going on with Montreal’s highways it makes Toronto traffic look like a Sunday drive.

It’s hard to ignore the fact that rents in Montreal are still so cheap, and rents in Toronto are insane. I had a huge 1 bedroom apartment with a balcony, hardwood floors, linen closet, and big windows for just $650 a month plus hydro. An apartment like that would cost at least $1200 in Toronto. Real estate is also much cheaper. Considering this fact, it’s apparent that when you’re spending so much less on rent, hydro, car insurance, transit, etc, you will have more left over for savings and discretionary spending.

Both cities have vibrate art and culture scenes and excellent nightlife. Montreal, however, is famed for having a world-class nightlife scene, and I can attest to that.

So where should you live? Well, most people who move to Montreal from other areas of the country end up leaving eventually due to the language barrier, and greater employment opportunities elsewhere. I will always love Montreal, and I’m glad I lived there for a time, but I know that I can’t live there again. Toronto, despite its exorbitant living costs, is a better place to propel my writing career forward because it’s the center of the publishing and media industry in Canada.

That being said, I do miss Montreal sometimes and my huge apartment, but I can always visit to see old friends. C’est certain.

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