Following a rare overnight debate punctuated by protests, Ontario Premier Doug Ford is driving ahead with plans to use the notwithstanding clause this week to shrink Toronto’s council. The province’s lawyers are preparing to face a three-judge panel to argue for a stay to a judicial ruling that the government’s move is unconstitutional.
During the early morning session at Queen’s Park on Monday, protesters chanted loudly outside the legislature as parliamentarians debated the Ford government’s bill and planned use of the constitutional clause. The government’s ministers have argued they need to push through changes by Thursday to avoid more chaos as Canada’s largest city is only weeks away from holding its municipal election.
With warnings from Toronto’s clerk that the timeline to hold the Oct. 22 election is closing rapidly, Mr. Ford asserted on Monday that protests by the opposition and in the legislature’s public galleries would not deter his government from making the cut to Toronto city council.
“We will never, ever back down,” Mr. Ford vowed. By debating through the night, the government hopes to have the bill signed by Thursday afternoon. After the bill is passed by the legislature, candidates for city council will have 48 hours to file their nominations with the city.
“If we have to work every single night for the next four years, that’s exactly what we’ll do to turn this province around,” Mr. Ford said during Question Period on Monday as he faced criticism for calling the first overnight debate in decades.
The showdown at the legislature comes after Ontario Superior Court Justice Edward Belobaba ruled last week that a law passed by the Ford government earlier this summer redrawing Toronto’s electoral map and reducing council to 25 wards from 47 violates the city’s residents' rights to free expression and to elect effective representation. The first use of the notwithstanding clause in Ontario’s history will allow Mr. Ford to overrule the judge’s decision.
The Premier has argued that reducing the size of Toronto’s council will save the city money and streamline decision-making. New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath, the leader of the official opposition, has said that Mr. Ford, a onetime city councillor and failed mayoral candidate, is using the office of premier to settle scores with his political adversaries.
“This Premier never disappoints with his pettiness,” said Ms. Horwath, who described Mr. Ford as “a Premier locked in the Legislature in the middle of the night railing against old enemies at his old job.”
As lawyers for the City of Toronto were preparing to argue against the province’s request for a stay of last week’s ruling, Toronto got support from Montreal City Hall. That city’s opposition leader put forward an emergency motion to support Toronto’s fight against the Ford government.
On Tuesday, the Ontario Court of Appeal, with a full panel of three judges, is expected to hear arguments all day. A ruling could come from the bench as early as Tuesday afternoon.
The stay would put Justice Belobaba’s ruling on hold, pending the ultimate result of the province’s bid to overturn it. That would put Mr. Ford’s original legislation, passed on Aug. 14, back in place. The province has asked for a court order that would extend the nomination deadline for candidates two days after the stay is granted.
According to written submissions filed with the court, Toronto’s lawyers will argue that the province has not shown that failing to win a stay would cause “irreparable harm,” one of the legal tests judges apply for granting this kind of order.
The city contends that it’s the city, the candidates registered to run in a 47-ward election and Toronto residents who will suffer “irreparable harm” if the province is allowed to overturn the lower-court ruling.
Toronto Mayor John Tory was forced to explain recent comments that appeared to call for Mr. Ford to pass his new legislation quickly to provide some certainty for the city’s vote – even though just last week, the mayor voted with his council to keep fighting the Premier in court.
Mr. Tory told local TV news channel CP24 in an interview on Friday: “I am glad the Premier has called the MPPs for the weekend because the sooner it can get passed the sooner [city staff] will have that certainty that allows them to proceed [with the election]."
That had his main rival for the mayor’s job, Jennifer Keesmaat, accusing him of flip-flopping.
But on Monday, Mr. Tory told reporters he remains opposed to Mr. Ford’s move and to his “totally inappropriate” use of the notwithstanding clause, and that he supports the city’s court fight. He said that in one interview, he used “language less precise” than he should have.
With files from Victoria Gibson