Ontario Premier Doug Ford has been hard at work since taking office, finding “efficiencies” where he and his cabinet see fit. One of the most recent proposed changes involves the size of Toronto city council. The provincial government tabled legislation July 30th to shrink the size of Toronto’s government from 47 councillors plus a mayor, to just 25 councillors. Ford’s announcement cited a need for a smaller government in that city to make things run more smoothly.
While the opposition accuses Ford of “settling scores with the council” the fact is he is well within his right to enact this change.
The right for municipalities, and school boards, to exist is not part of the Canadian constitution. When the original British North America Act was drafted in 1866, the Fathers of Confederation envisioned a strong federal state, with the provinces having a weaker role in government. The intent was to prevent the issues emerging in the United States where quarrels over the rights of individual states versus the federal government led to a civil war.
In Canada, cities and other municipalities were left to the provinces to set up. Over the past 151 years, subsequent rulings by the Supreme Court of Canada and the Privy Council in the UK gave the provinces more power through interpretation of the BNA Act. This was not changed after the constitution’s repatriation in 1982.
Municipal governance in Ontario can be changed or even wiped out at the whim of the government of the day. Municipalities and school boards can be changed by an act of provincial parliament: in some cases by an order-in-council from the Premier’s office. Ford’s actions last week, in fact, are constitutional.
Municipalities have changed in the past. South Dundas is celebrating 20 years after amalgamation, where four municipalities decided to move forward together before being pushed by the Harris government.
People may not like the changes being made by Ford. However voters opted for change in June: now they have to deal with it. Toronto voters will have a different looking political landscape a few weeks from now. What we all can learn from events in Toronto is that no established way of doing things maybe immune from change by Ford’s government. Time will tell whether this is for the better or for worse.