Toronto asking feds to stop Ontario council-cutting plan
TORONTO — The City of Toronto asked the federal government Thursday to stop Ontario legislation slashing the size of its council, an appeal issued after staff warned that holding a fair municipal election next month was becoming virtually impossible.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made it clear, however, that Ottawa would not block the Ontario government’s unprecedented use of a constitutional provision to push through with its plan to reduce Toronto’s electoral map to 25 wards from 47.
The request for the federal government to use its disallowance powers came during an emergency session at city hall a day after Premier Doug Ford reintroduced council-cutting legislation that was found unconstitutional.
“I would say at this time Mr. Prime Minister, Toronto needs you,” said Coun. Joe Mihevc, who brought forward the resolution to ask for Ottawa’s assistance. “We need you at this time to enforce that principle in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that says we are all created equal within the law and we are all subject to due process.”
A provision of the Constitution technically permits the federal government to disallow provincial legislation, but it was last used in 1943, raising questions in legal circles about whether it has become obsolete.
Trudeau, speaking in Saskatchewan as the Toronto meeting took place, stressed he would not change his position on the Ford government’s decision to invoke the notwithstanding clause to forge ahead with its council-slashing plan.
“I’m disappointed that the provincial government chose to take this decision to override people’s rights and freedoms but at the same time, I’m not going to weigh in on the actual debate over the size of the municipal governments in Ontario, in Toronto,” he said. “I don’t think that’s a role that the federal government needs to take on.”
Meanwhile, the city official responsible for running Toronto’s Oct. 22 election said every delay resulting from the battle between the province and the city affects her ability to ensure fairness in the vote, regardless of whether it involves 47 or 25 wards.
“We have hit a tipping point,” said Ulli Watkiss. “Both scenarios are becoming virtually impossible for us to carry out.”
Toronto had challenged the province’s council-cutting legislation in court and a judge agreed that passing the bill in the middle of municipal election campaign violated the freedom of expression rights for voters and candidates.
But Ford quickly announced he’d use the notwithstanding clause to override the ruling. His government is also appealing the decision.
Toronto councillors decided Thursday to continue to fight the province’s legislation in the courts, with Toronto Mayor John Tory saying the city had to pursue all legal options regardless of the odds.
“I firmly believe you don’t make a bad law better by overriding the Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” he said. “We’re all here to keep standing up for Toronto.”
Ford, a former city councillor and failed mayoral candidate, has said his plan will save $25 million and improve decision making on council.
But Coun. Gord Perks said the premier’s portrayal of Toronto’s municipal government was wrong.
“The dysfunction isn’t here,” Perks said. “The dysfunction follows a certain individual around wherever he happens to be elected. The dysfunction is Doug Ford.”
Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark said he still believes the city can head to the polls as scheduled. He wouldn’t say, however, if the province has a backup plan should Toronto’s clerk find that the city cannot be ready for the vote in time.
The opposition parties have vowed to use procedural tools to delay the province’s council-cutting bill as much as possible.
The NDP said Thursday that it will challenge the bill under rules that preclude legislators from introducing substantially the same bill twice in one session, and that bar the legislature from debating an item currently before the courts.
Doug Ford attends Question Period at the Ontario Legislature in Toronto on Wednesday.