Ontario Premier Doug Ford is pushing through his plan to slash Toronto city council in half, safeguarding new legislation with the Constitution’s nothwithstanding clause and launching an appeal of the judgment that temporarily derailed the downsizing.
The moves were met by many protests on Wednesday, including a disruption by the Official Opposition that resulted in much of the NDP caucus being removed from the chamber before the vote on the new bill.
The new legislation, known as the Efficient Local Government Act, reintroduces a law approved over the summer that reduces Toronto’s council from 47 to 25 wards. The attachment of the “notwithstanding clause” marks the first time the Ontario government has used Section 33, which allows a government to override parts of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms for up to five years. That means the revised bill overrides Monday’s decision by Ontario Superior Court Justice Edward Belobaba, who decided the law would violate the rights of Ontarians to free expression and to elect effective representation.
The government also appealed the decision Wednesday afternoon, marking yet another development in the battle between the province and its capital city. On Thursday, the city will be reconvening for an emergency meeting to figure out its next steps.
Speaking on Wednesday during Question Period, the Premier defended the use of the notwithstanding clause by saying his government is protecting democracy and standing up to a politically appointed judge.
“This is about preserving the will of the people, this is about preserving democracy,” Mr. Ford said. Minutes earlier, protesters were cleared from the public gallery, some in handcuffs. The public was barred from the chamber for the rest of the day.
The new version of the bill cleared its first reading in a vote that followed party lines, despite groups asking government MPPs to break with Mr. Ford after the Premier promised a free vote on the issue.
The major difference between Bill 33 and its earlier incarnation was the introduction of the notwithstanding clause. Critics including former Ontario premier Bill Davis have condemned the move, saying the clause was not designed to deal with this kind of issue.
In an interview with TVO, Mr. Davis – one of the provincial premiers who took part in the 1981 constitutional negotiations – said that the intended purpose of the notwithstanding clause was to allow a province to provide “a specific benefit or program provision for a part of their population – people of a certain age, for example – that might have seemed discriminatory under the Charter.
Mr. Ford defended his decision and told legislators that this issue is part of his party’s mandate to govern, and should be free of judicial interference. While the Premier’s Progressive Conservatives won a majority government on June 7, they did not mention reducing the size of Toronto council during the campaign.
“The will of the people will decide on this legislature in four years, not … one person, a politically appointed judge,” Mr. Ford said, in reference to Justice Belobaba.
New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath accused the Premier of trampling on the rights of Ontarians to pursue a personal vendetta against Toronto. Mr. Ford served one term as a city councillor and ran unsuccessfully for mayor.
“His personal vendetta against his enemies at Toronto city hall is so important that he is compelled to recall this legislature to override the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in order to get that done. If it was so important to this Premier, why did he not mention it a single time during the election campaign?” Ms. Horwath asked.
Toronto city council was poised for a special meeting Thursday on its legal options ahead of the Oct. 22 municipal election, which Mayor John Tory has acknowledged are limited.
“It’s a very difficult challenge in front of us,” Mr. Tory said Wednesday morning, adding that he objects to having the electoral changes “rammed down our throats.”
Mayoral challenger Jennifer Keesmaat issued a statement decrying Mr. Ford’s move: “Premier Ford’s suspension of our rights and freedoms to settle a political grudge is shameful.”
Late Wednesday afternoon, lawyers for the Attorney-General of Ontario filed their notice of appeal to challenge Justice Belobaba’s ruling.
Both sides are now expected before the Ontario Court of Appeal next Tuesday. The government is expected to ask for a stay that would suspend Justice Belobaba’s ruling pending the result of the appeal, arguing that failing to win the stay would cause “irreparable harm,” because the city clerk had stated that she was not confident she could manage changing back to a 47-ward election.
The province argues that Justice Belobaba wrongly concluded that the ward changes in mid-election violated the free-expression section of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The government says the judge wrongly concluded that the Charter guarantees municipal voters a right to “effective representation,” and that he overstepped by imposing a return to the city’s 47-ward system in his ruling.
Addressing confusion over the deadline for candidates to register for Toronto’s election, the government’s bill will allow nominations to remain open until two days after the bill becomes a law. The legislature is expected to approve the legislation in late September.
Downtown Councillor Joe Cressy was among a group of eight Toronto politicians who had refused to sign up under Mr. Ford’s 25-ward system, but were intending to ultimately register before this Friday’s deadline if efforts to fight it failed.
“The shame of all this is … nobody’s talking about the state of the city, housing, transit, affordability. All they are talking about is Doug Ford. … Toronto deserves so much better than that,” said Mr. Cressy.