In 2013, Toronto began a process to figure out whether it needed to increase the number of council seats in the fast-growing city, to ensure effective representation. There were 44 wards at the time.
Officials held more than 100 meetings, consulted the voting public 24 times, produced seven preliminary reports that analyzed eight options and, in 2016, released a final recommendation to increase the number of wards to 47.
Council voted in favour of the proposal. As of the 2018 municipal election, Toronto would have three additional councilors. And then Doug Ford happened.
Elected Ontario premier in June of 2018, he immediately enacted a bill that cut Toronto’s council to just 25 seats – and he did it smack in the middle of the municipal election.
Orchestrated by a man who had made a career railing against Toronto “elites,” and who had unsuccessfully run for mayor, it was a petty act of political revenge.
It was also a perfectly legal petty act of political revenge. As the Supreme Court of Canada underlined in a ruling this month that upheld Mr. Ford’s right to rejig Toronto’s ward boundaries at his whim, the Constitution gives provinces the “absolute and unfettered legal power to legislate with respect to municipalities.”
Municipalities exist at the statutory pleasure of their provincial masters. Almost everything they can do is determined by another legislative body. Most can only raise revenues through property taxes and a few other tools such as parking fees, making them dependent on Ottawa and the provinces when it comes to big infrastructure spending.
This state of extreme fiscal and legislative dependency can be less of a problem if the party in power at the provincial level is aligned with voters in big cities. But in Ontario and Quebec, Canada’s two biggest cities have repeatedly found themselves the targets of right-leaning premiers whose voting base lies elsewhere.
In Quebec, the clash between the biggest city and the rest of the province is even more pronounced than in Ontario.
The ruling Coalition Avenir Québec, led by Premier François Legault, was almost completely shut out of the Island of Montreal in the 2018 provincial election.
Its majority in the National Assembly comes thanks to suburban and rural Quebec, where voters are mostly unilingual francophones. Montreal, home to most of the province’s immigrants, and most of its anglophones, is far more bilingual and diverse than the rest of Quebec.
It has always been the place where the tension between the need to protect the French language and the fact the international language of business is English is most pronounced.
If Montreal didn’t exist, Mr. Legault’s government would probably not have felt the need to introduce Bill 96, a sweeping toughening of the province’s language laws that is expected to come into force this fall. When politicians encourage Quebec voters to fret about a decline in the French language in the province, the bogeyman is usually Montreal.
Last week, Michel Leblanc, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal, told a National Assembly committee hearing on Bill 96 that making it more difficult to hold meetings in English, to write contracts in English, or to require that job candidates be bilingual, could scare away companies and talent – a consequence that would be mostly felt in Montreal.
Similar concerns about Bill 96 prompted one longshot candidate in Montreal’s current mayoral race to promise that, if elected, he might even hold a referendum on whether the city should be declared bilingual. Language aside, the province often treats Montreal’s government like it isn’t even there. A massive public transit project, the proposed REM de l’est, is a complete non-subject in Montreal’s mayoral elections – because the province announced it with no municipal input, and intends to build it that way, too.
Greater Montreal and Greater Toronto are together home to 11 million Canadians. Along with other big cities, they are the country’s economic engines and the place where nearly all of Canada’s population growth is happening.
Under Canada’s Constitution, however, they have a precarious say over their own fates. Provinces shouldn’t be making things worse by using their powers to undermine local democracies, or by pitting the interests of city voters against those of other regions.
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