Run This Town: Is Toronto’s Democracy Nothing More Than an Illusion?
One of Torontonians’ most cherished illusions is that their city’s government is democratic.
True, every four years we vote for a new mayor and council, but not even that most sacrosanct of political processes is democratic. Like every other city in Canada, Toronto is — in that oddest of phrases — a “creature of the province.” That makes it sound as if the city is an animal kept in a cage the province opens and closes at its whim. But perhaps that is the best way to put it. Simply put, what it means is that every decision the city makes as a city stands only if Queen’s Park allows.
Torontonians were rudely reminded of their civic impotence mid-way through the last civic election in October 2018 when Premier Doug Ford decided to cut council from 47 members to 25. That the campaign was in full swing and candidates had their brochures and lawn signs ready to go counted for naught. Suddenly, half of Toronto’s wards were wiped off the map and voters had only a vague idea who was on which ballot.
As Justice J.C.MacPherson of the Ontario Court of Appeal would write, “…the actions taken by Ontario… left a trail of devastation of basic democratic principles…. This infringement… was extensive, profound, and seemingly without precedent in Canadian history.”
The judge was one of two who ruled against the province’s intervention into the Toronto election. But three other judges upheld Ontario’s right to do as it pleased and so the city’s appeal is now before the Supreme Court of Canada whose ruling is expected within weeks or months.
No one will be shocked if the high court rules in Ford’s favour. If successful, his move will be upheld on the narrowest of legal grounds. The truth is that Canadian provinces can have their way with Canadian cities regardless of democratic niceties. For his part, Ford, a former Toronto city councillor, apparently has strong feelings about the body and isn’t shy about acting out his feelings.
Ford’s petulance isn’t without precedents. Back in 1998, an earlier Progressive Conservative Premier, Mike Harris, decided to amalgamate towns and cities across the province. The outcry could be heard across Ontario. Again, there was nothing local governments and the millions they represent could do. They were powerless; Canadian law ensured it.
But Harris didn’t come close to Ford in his disregard for municipal decision-making. The latter’s gleeful use of MZOs – Ministry Zoning Orders – has effectively rendered local (and even provincial) planning irrelevant. Considering the generally poor quality of city planning, some might be inclined to cheer Ford on. But given the premier’s close ties to the development industry, it’s unlikely anyone really expects his regime will do better. The recent Duffins Creek fiasco was a revealing example of an administration in full thrall to corporate interests. In this case, Ford was willing to sacrifice provincial as well as municipal rules and regulations protecting it to allow an Amazon warehouse to be built on designated wetland. How telling that it was Amazon – not Queen’s Park – that pulled out of the project. One of the largest businesses on the planet proved to be more sensitive to public concerns than the provincial government.
Certainly, few would disagree that local governance, especially in Toronto, leaves much to be desired. But that’s not the point. The question is who gets to decide. In a democracy, of course, the people do. At the least, they decide who decides.
In Canada, we vote federally, provincially and municipally. Presumably, in each case we make our choices for different reasons. Toronto voters don’t choose their mayor for his or her foreign policy. We don’t need the prime minister to weigh in on municipal noise bylaws. But neither do we vote for the premier to run the city.
That provinces possess such powers is a relic of an earlier age. At a time when 80 percent of Canadians live in cities, towns and suburbs, local government looms larger than ever. Or it should. If it fails to conduct itself accordingly it’s up to voters to toss it from office, just as they do when so-called “senior” levels of government fail to live up to their responsibilities.
Which brings us back to the Ontario Premier Doug Ford. In addition to his heavy-handed intervention into Toronto politics, his mishandling of the pandemic has made it clear that no level of government has a monopoly on incompetence. Having one Ford in the mayor’s chair left the city in chaos. A second is more than we should have to endure.
Just ask the people.