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E-BLAST: After the Supreme Court: Making 25 Wards Work for You

I shared my thoughts on the ramifications of the Supreme Court's ruling on CityNews.

I didn’t write about this right away because it seemed that only a small group was continuing to follow this news, and that most readers would prefer to move on. After all, three years have elapsed while this case worked its way through our court system. However, this decision has major ramifications for our democracy and what my fellow Councillors and I have to do to make sure residents feel a strong connection to their local government, so let’s dive into it.


I believe that this is the most important ruling the Supreme Court has made for any municipality in Canada. To give a quick recap, the City of Toronto asked the Court to review whether or not it was constitutionally sound for a Provincial Government to dramatically alter a municipal electoral map three months into an election period, when almost 500 candidates were already registered.


It’s important to note here that the City wasn’t asking the Supreme Court to determine the number of wards our city should have. We believe strongly that the conversation about ward sizes needs to be solely between the municipality and its residents. In 2018, the 47-ward map had already received Provincial blessing. The question was specifically, should the Province be able to rip that blessing away halfway through an election period?

This was a very tight ruling at 5-4. Five justices took the question of constitutionality very literally. Very simply speaking, they determined that municipalities are creatures of their provinces and that constitutionally, Ontario had the right to act. The four dissenting justices, on the other hand, saw the complexity of the question and its ramifications for democracy across our country. Here are some comments from the dissenting justices in the Supreme Court ruling that particularly struck me:

“A stable election period is crucial to electoral fairness and meaningful political discourse. As such, state interference with individual and collective political expression in the context of an election strikes at the heart of the democratic values that freedom of expression seeks to protect, including participation in social and political decision-making… The limitation on s. 2(b) rights in this case was the timing of the legislative changes. Ontario offered no explanation, let alone a pressing and substantial one, for why the changes were made in the middle of an ongoing election. In the absence of any evidence or explanation for the timing of the Act, no pressing and substantial objective exists for this limitation and it cannot, therefore, be justified in a free and democratic society.” (Per Abella J. (Karakatsanis, Martin and Kasirer JJ. concurring))

For those of us who are deeply disappointed with the Court’s ruling, we can only hope that the infamy of the Ontario Government’s actions will deter future provincial governments from disrupting democracy mid-election.


Going forward, there are big changes that need to happen to maintain a fair election process in a city with such large wards. I’ve already written about some of these measures in detail, like the need for ranked ballots and campaign finance reform that prioritizes small, local contributions over big donors. These changes are absolutely necessary if we want to give first-time candidates a shot at election, particularly women and racialized candidates who face greater barriers to entering politics.


Some of these changes could have already happened through the Mayor’s Special Committee on Governance that I joined at the beginning of the term. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been the political will from the Committee Chair, Councillor Holyday, or the Mayor’s office to enact changes that would level the election playing field. I will continue to pursue these changes in the name of fairness and democracy for as long as it takes.

At Council this past June, I urged my fellow Councillors to consider pursuing campaign finance reform.


What I want to focus on now is making sure your voice continues to be heard after you’ve cast your ballot. There’s a lot of work that my fellow Councillors and I need to do to make sure residents feel just as engaged with their local government in the 25-ward model. The connection between yourself and your local elected representative is crucial, and making those connections got harder in 2018 when our wards doubled in size. Learning all of the ongoing issues in new neighbourhoods, connecting with residents, and keeping citywide commitments is a new kind of juggling act for Councillors, made even more challenging by the pandemic. The Supreme Court decision means that we must redouble our efforts to master it.

Initiatives like participatory budgeting are a great way to give residents direct power over the decisions made in their communities, and it’s something I want to see my fellow Councillors embrace. With development affecting every corner of our city, residents should get to decide how the community benefit money is spent in their neighbourhood.

My team and I facilitated a participatory budgeting process with the Henry Farm neighbourhood this past summer.


My firm belief in hearing from the community is also why I held over two dozen Park Pop-Ups across our ward this summer, and a number of virtual town halls over the past year on topics that ranged from vaccine rollout to rooming houses. I will keep working on new ways to connect with residents in every corner of our ward, from the 401 up to Steeles, Bayview across to Victoria Park.

Many Torontonians didn’t get the Supreme Court ruling they wanted, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t get the Council they deserve. It’s my job as your Councillor to make sure your voice is heard. I take this job very seriously, and will keep fighting for healthy changes to our democracy for as long as it takes.

 

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