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Toronto's Supreme Court challenge has major ramifications for Canadian democracy

There was not a lot of news out of City Hall this week, other than the daily COVID-19 vaccine updates. It was initially meant to be March Break, and to avoid any quorum issues no committee meetings were scheduled.

There was, however, a discussion that is crucial for every city in this country. It took place in Ottawa, where the Supreme Court of Canada heard arguments for the City of Toronto's appeal against the province re: its 2018 decision to chop the number of Council seats by nearly half.

You may recall that the Ford government enacted Bill 5: the Better Local Government Act, right in the middle of the municipal election campaign, reducing the number of Toronto wards to 25. Make no mistake though, this court case is not just about the number of wards.

Toronto Council's first meeting in December 2018 under the 25-ward model

When Premier Ford announced his bill on July 27, it was the last day to register as a candidate for Toronto councillor or TDSB trustee. Fortunately, the media had leaked the story the night before. The recollections of the already-registered candidates and incumbents to this news are a mixture of shock and horror to this day. Candidates across the city spent a sleepless night trying to decide whether or not to continue campaigns they had started in May. Some had to guess where to run on the new electoral map, not knowing who else might move their registration the next day. Toronto councillors were in a late night Council session when the news broke, and realized they would be forced to run against the very colleagues they were sitting beside. A short recess was called; tears were shed in The Hall. Bill 5 impacted GTA democracy as well. Ford’s predecessor as leader of the Ontario PCs, Patrick Brown, had to scrap a campaign for Chair of Peel Region and jump into the Brampton mayoral race in a matter of hours. This was not just a blow to an old rival. Active citizens in Peel and York region had fought for a decade to have their Regional Chairs democratically elected. They received Provincial permission in time for the 2018 election, only to have the Ford government rip it away before they could cast a ballot. Some may wonder why this legal challenge has continued all the way to the Supreme Court, even though it's been three years since the Act became law. A smaller council has its conveniences, but good governance isn’t about making things perfect for me or other sitting councillors. It’s about making sure the community has the best representation possible.

We deserve public representatives who are well informed and focused on all the potentially life-altering impacts of a decision made with tax dollars. In a thorough review of all Toronto ward boundaries from 2014-2017, the City held many consultations with the community to understand the maximum number of constituents each councillor could serve, and serve well.

You also deserve a fair and properly managed election. Whether you are a voter or an actual candidate, it is only fair to demand the rule book handed out to each municipal candidate when they file their nomination papers is respected. As of May 1st during an election year, candidates can register to run, commence fundraising and start knocking on your door. From that moment on, they are enabling your right to be informed about the local election.

Shelley speaks with a voter during the past election campaign

To restructure an election race once the ‘informing of voters’ has already begun is wrong, several learned Interveners argued at Tuesday's Supreme Court hearing. A quick look at the list of speakers arguing on behalf of Toronto's appeal reveals individuals from across the country. That's because of the possible ramifications of Bill 5 for any local democracy.

Imagine a Canada where anytime a provincial government changes, it could radically redesign the governance of any of its municipalities. Taken to its most literal extreme, any provincial government could simply redesign a municipal or school board election mid-stream if it dislikes the field of candidates or how the campaigns are shaping up.

In Canada, municipalities are often called creatures of the provinces, a reference to the fact municipalities are located under provincial jurisdiction in the Canadian Constitution. Provincial governments have regularly used this idea to justify heavy-handed intervention in municipal affairs.

As our nation matures, it is cities that are often given funds from both federal and provincial governments, and then held accountable for the delivery of key infrastructure on behalf of all three. This makes a growing case to raise the bar to prevent provincial meddling.

Politicos need to start the conversation on how to honour municipal autonomy once that city becomes a mega-metropolis – like Toronto. There are thoughtful ways to serve the legitimate interests of both municipalities and provincial governments.

A decision by the Supreme Court of Canada is expected this summer

Yes, Council meetings are perhaps more easily manageable at 25 members, but this represents just two days of every month. The rest of the calendar is a scramble to meet constituents’ needs and include them in local decision making on a number of important issues like infrastructure, state of good repair and the dozens of service issues my office hears about every day.

Councillors must represent populations between 100,000 and 130,000, practically double that of the old 44-ward model. We need certainty we won't be wasting our time should Toronto take a look at the next Census and decide another review of local representation is necessary to accommodate growth.

The best outcome we could receive from this Supreme Court challenge is a decision that a provincial government needs more than a simple parliamentary majority to redesign any municipal council. At a minimum there must first be thoughtful engagement with citizens and local government.

Let’s all look forward to a decision from the Supreme Court this summer that upholds local democracy.


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