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opinion

Signage and the Toronto city hall building.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Well, that’s it, then. The highest court in the land has ruled. The Supreme Court of Canada says that the move by the Ontario government to cut the size of Toronto City Council in half in the midst of an election campaign in 2018 can stand. On Friday, in a 5-4 decision, it turned down a challenge by Toronto’s government and decreed that Ontario was acting within its constitutional powers when it brought in its council-slashing legislation.

That doesn’t mean the province was right. Far from it. The decision by the government of freshly elected Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford was hasty, insulting, and unnecessary to boot.

Let’s remember what happened here. The campaign to choose a mayor and a city council was well under way when Mr. Ford won the election in June, 2018. The rules of the game were set. After years of review and consultation, the city had decided to expand the number of wards to 47 from 44 to reflect population changes in the city. Some candidates were already stumping in those wards – handing out pamphlets, knocking on doors, raising money.

Along came Mr. Ford to bust it all up. Announced just weeks after he took office, his government’s legislation cut the number of city councillors to 25, with the new wards matching federal and provincial ones. Trimming council had been a hobby horse of Mr. Ford and his brother Rob when Rob was mayor and Doug was his right-hand man. It was a populist pose aimed to appeal to those who want to cut bloated governments and fat-cat politicians down to size – or “stop the gravy train,” as they memorably put it.

Council wouldn’t let them do it. Now that he was Premier, Mr. Ford was determined to get his way. He would take a knife to what he called the “most dysfunctional political arena” in the country. It looked very much like revenge.

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He made no move to consult Toronto leaders or voters before he acted. He said nothing about slashing council in his own election bid. He gave no reason why he had to make the change during an active campaign rather than wait and set new rules for the next municipal election cycle. As Justice Rosalie Abella wrote on behalf of the four dissenting judges in Friday’s decision: “There was no hint of urgency, nor any overwhelming immediate policy need.”

No policy need at all, in fact. There was never much evidence that cutting the size of council would save heaps of money or make council suddenly more efficient. It was plain from the start that councillors would need more staff to help them handle their bigger wards. Councillors would continue to argue, even if there were half as many of them.

Mr. Ford stormed ahead regardless, even threatening to use the notwithstanding clause – the Constitution’s Get Out of Jail Free card – if unelected judges stood in his way. The result was a thorough mess. Every candidate had to scramble to run for the new wards. Voters had to figure out who was running where. The timing of the move, Justice Abella writes, “breathed instability into the election, undermining the ability of candidates and voters in their wards to meaningfully discuss and inform one another of their views on matters of local concern.”

The Supreme Court’s majority found that the decision was constitutional anyhow. Provinces, it said, have “absolute and unfettered legal power to legislate with respect to municipalities.” In that, the court may be right. Municipalities have no standing in the Constitution. They are, it is often said, mere “creatures” of the provinces.

But Canada is a different place than it was when its constitutional foundation took shape. Most Canadians now live in cities. Municipal governments deliver many of the services that residents rely on most, from water to transit. They command big budgets and undertake giant projects. Toronto’s government is one of the largest in the country, surpassing the size of some provincial governments. It oversees the fourth biggest city in North America.

In their better moments, provinces recognize that and treat cities not as vassals, but as partners. Ontario acknowledged their growing importance when it brought in the 2006 City of Toronto Act giving the city broader powers, including the right to levy new taxes.

Mr. Ford reversed this positive evolution when he stomped into Toronto’s election campaign in his steel-toed boots. Cities and their voters deserve more respect.

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