Toronto asking feds to stop Ontario council-cutting plan

Ontario Premier Doug Ford attends Question Period at the Ontario Legislature in Toronto, on Wednesday, September 12, 2018.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

TORONTO - The City of Toronto is asking the federal government to stop Ontario legislation that slashes the size of its council, a request that comes as municipal staff say ensuring a fair election next month is becoming virtually impossible.

Councillors voted in favour of the request during an emergency session at city hall a day after Premier Doug Ford reintroduced council-cutting legislation that was quashed by a judge and invoked a rarely used constitutional provision to ensure the bill's implementation.

A provision of the Constitution technically permits the federal government to disallow provincial legislation, but the provision was last used in 1943, raising questions in legal circles about whether it has become obsolete.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made it clear earlier this week he would not block the Ontario government's use of the notwithstanding clause to forge ahead with its council-cutting plans.

Toronto had challenged the province's 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, and also said his government would appeal the decision.

Toronto city clerk Ulli Watkiss said every delay resulting from the battle between the province and the city before the Oct. 22 vote affects her ability to ensure fairness, regardless of whether Toronto's electoral map will retain its current 47 wards, or 25, as the Ontario government wants.

"We have hit a tipping point," Watkiss told Toronto councillors. "Both scenarios are becoming virtually impossible for us to carry out."

Watkiss said delays in passing the legislation and the delivery of regulations to the city concerning Toronto's looming election could further compound the matter.

"Frankly, the uncertainty is making this very difficult," she said.

Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark said Thursday that he still believes the city can head to the polls as scheduled.

"I'm confident that my ministry and the clerk's office will be able to work out any issues and will be able to have an election on Oct. 22," he said at the legislature.

Clark would not say whether the province has a backup plan should the clerk find that the city cannot be ready in time, despite repeated questions on the issue.

The opposition parties have vowed to use procedural tools to delay the province's council-cutting bill as much as possible. The legislation has passed first reading and the Tory house leader has said it is expected to pass final reading on the week of Sept. 24.

Toronto Mayor John Tory, meanwhile, called the province's actions are "wrong and unacceptable."

"This overriding of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms raises very big questions on a matter such as this one and even bigger questions with regard to profoundly important matters that we may not even know about today that will come up in the future," Tory said at city hall.

"We're all here to keep standing up for Toronto and I know we're all prepared to continue to do that because we believe in this city."

As Tory and councillors mulled their options, Canada's big city mayors threw their support behind Toronto in its fight with the Ontario government.

The chair of the Big City Mayors' Caucus at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities said Ford's moves have now placed Canadians in a constitutional debate when the limits of how governments can work together within the document have not been tested.

"To see a Canadian province invoke the notwithstanding Clause to change the size of a city council, in the middle of an election campaign, is unprecedented," Don Iveson said in a statement.

"On behalf of FCM's Big City Mayors' Caucus, I am offering full support to the City of Toronto's efforts to protect local democracy."


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