Top court expected to rule today on whether Premier Doug Ford had the right to cut number of Toronto wards

The Supreme Court of Canada will rule today whether Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government was operating within its legal powers when it cut the number of wards in Toronto in the middle of the 2018 municipal election.

In 2018, Ford announced his decision to chop the number of wards from a planned 47-ward system to 25 wards that would align geographically with provincial and federal ridings. Bill 5, the Better Local Government Act, came into force in the middle of the municipal election campaign.

At the time, Ford, a former Toronto city councillor and failed mayoral candidate, said the move would improve decision-making and save $25 million.

In a column published in the Toronto Sun, Ford said Toronto has “a bloated and inefficient council where debates can go on for days but no decisions ever get made.”

Critics accused him of political interference and undermining democracy.

A provincial judge found the law unconstitutional, saying it infringed on the free-expression rights of candidates by affecting their ability to campaign, and those of voters by denying them the right to cast a ballot that could result in effective representation.

Ford then announced plans to use the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause to forge ahead with the move. The clause gives provincial legislatures and Parliament the ability to override provisions in the Charter of Rights and Freedom when implementing legislation, but only for a five-year period.

In the end, Ford did not have to use the clause. The Ontario Court of Appeal issued an interim stay of the initial court decision and the election took place with 25 wards and the revised boundaries.

Cities are creatures of provinces: court

In a 3-2 decision, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled in September 2019 that changing the composition of a city council is “undeniably within the legitimate authority of the legislature” because cities are “creature[s] of provincial legislation.”

But the two dissenting judges suggested there were serious issues with the election process after the Ford government imposed the changes, calling them “extensive, profound, and seemingly without precedent in Canadian history.”

“By extinguishing almost half of the city’s existing wards midway through an active election, Ontario blew up the efforts, aspirations and campaign materials of hundreds of aspiring candidates, and the reciprocal engagement of many informed voters,” the judges wrote.

The following month, the City of Toronto filed an application with the top court asking it for leave to appeal the province’s decision to slash the size of council.

Candidates, voters were disadvantaged: city

In a written submission to the Supreme Court, Toronto said the ward changes disrupted the election and created confusion among candidates and voters.

Candidates complained that they had made efforts to campaign in parts of the city that were no longer in their ward and that they did not campaign in areas of the city where they suddenly had to seek votes.

The submission says that when ward sizes almost doubled, voters were no longer sure which ward they were in or who was running.

The Ontario government said in its filing to the Supreme Court that during the run-up to the 2018 election, voters and candidates had all the necessary information on everyone who was running in each ward.

“There is no evidence of any interference with the ability of candidates or voters to understand the rules of the election or to receive any information concerning the election or any candidate’s campaign,” the province’s submission said.

“The city’s website was promptly and fully updated with detailed information on the transition to 25 wards and answers to questions on the new rules.”

The October 2018 election proceeded freely, openly and fairly, the province’s submission says.

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