Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s progressive conservative government operated within its legal powers as it reduced the number of branches in Toronto in the midst of the 2018 local elections, Canada’s Supreme Court has ruled.
In a 5-4 split decision, Canada’s Supreme Court ruled that Ontario did not violate the Constitution as it reduced the number of chambers from a planned system of 47 chambers to 25 chambers that would be geographically consistent with provincial and federal clearings.
The city of Toronto argued that the province violated the Constitution because it restricted the rights of candidates and trampled on the unwritten constitutional principle of democracy by reducing the number of departments in Toronto after the nomination period for city council elections.
“None of these arguments have merit, and we would reject the city’s appeal. In our view, the province acted constitutionally,” Chief Justice Richard Wagner and Justice Russell Brown wrote in their majority decision.
But in a disagreement, Judge Rosalie Silberman Abella wrote that a renewal of the electoral process in the midst of an election was unconstitutional.
In dismissing the City of Toronto appeal, the court said the usefulness of unwritten principles of democracy defended by the Constitution is limited to helping courts interpret the law.
“But it cannot be used in a way that goes beyond this interpretive role. In particular, it cannot be used as an independent basis for invalidating legislation,” Judges Wagner and Brown wrote.
Freedom of speech not compromised: ruling
The court also ruled that cutting the departments did not restrict municipal candidates’ right to freedom of expression during the election because candidates, despite the timing of the changes, had plenty of time to adjust their campaigns.
“The candidates and their supporters had 69 days — longer than most federal and provincial election campaigns — to rearrange their messages and express themselves freely according to the new ward structure.”
The court said that while expanding departments and changing boundaries meant some of the candidates’ campaign literature and policies had to be revised or thrown out, campaigns were given higher spending limits and had time to raise funds for new material.
But on behalf of the minority, Abella disagreed, saying the issue of timing was crucial to the case.
Abella said moving the goal posts when an election was “technically 60 percent complete” hurt candidates’ campaigns and that extending nominations from July 27 to September 14 did not provide enough time to “regret the damage and uncertainty that the change had created for graduates. “
“By radically redrawing electoral boundaries during an active election that was nearly two-thirds complete, the legislation violated all rights of all participants in the electoral process to participate in a meaningful mutual political discourse,” she wrote.
Council members strike the decision
Critics were quick to condemn the court’s ruling Friday morning. On Twitter, Section 14 Coun. Paula Fletcher called it a “sad day,” while Division 8 Coun. Mike Colle said it was a “disgusting day for the local Democratic government.”
Disgusting day for the local Democratic government in a 5 to 4 decision by the Supreme Court that allows the Ford government to dictate to the 3 million people in Toronto. #DarkDayFor Toronto
Similarly, former Toronto mayor David Miller called the decision “disappointing news” that is “incompatible with the modern reality of city governments.”
“By its responsibility, it’s budget and population served, Toronto is bigger and more relevant to people’s daily lives than most provinces,” Miller said.
In a statement issued Friday morning, provincial Liberal leader Steven Del Duca also said he was disappointed with the court’s decision.
“While the ruling comes as a shock to those fighting Ford’s municipal intervention in 2018, the damage had already been done,” he said.
“Millions of people have gone years without the representation they deserved, all because of a prime minister who will do anything to get his will.”
However, Mayor John Tory struck a more conciliatory tone, thanking the court in a statement for considering the city’s appeal.
He said he disagreed with the way the province made its changes, but said the city and the provincial government “will continue our work together to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and many other issues in favor of our city and our province.”
Ford accused at the time of undermining democracy
Ford announced its decision to cut the number of divisions in the middle of the 2018 local election campaign.
At the time, Ford, a former Toronto city council member and unsuccessful mayoral candidate, said the move would improve decision-making and save $ 25 million.
In a column published in the Toronto Sun, he said Toronto has “an inflated and ineffective council where debates can continue for days but decisions are never made.”
Critics accused him of political interference and undermining democracy.
A district court judge found the law unconstitutional, saying it violated candidates’ rights to freedom of expression by affecting their electoral power and those of voters by denying them the right to vote that could result in effective representation.
Ford then announced plans to use the Constitution’s nonetheless clause to proceed with the move. The clause allows provincial legislators and parliament to override provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedom in 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 a temporary stay of the original court decision, and the election took place with 25 divisions and the revised boundaries.
In September 2019, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled in a 3-2 decision that changing the composition of a city council is “undeniably within the legitimate authority of the legislature.”
But the two dissenting judges suggested that there were serious problems with the election process after the Ford government imposed the changes, calling them “comprehensive, in-depth and seemingly unprecedented in Canadian history.”
The following month, the city of Toronto filed an application with the Supreme Court, requesting permission to appeal the province’s decision to reduce the size of the council.
Candidates, voters were disadvantaged: city
In a written submission to the Supreme Court, Toronto said the changes in the department disrupted the election and created confusion among candidates and voters.
Candidates complained that they had made an effort to campaign in parts of the city that were no longer in their congregation and that they did not campaign in areas of the city where they suddenly had to seek votes.
The post said that when ward sizes almost doubled, voters were no longer sure which ward they were in or who was running.
The Ontario government, meanwhile, said in its case to the Supreme Court that voters and candidates had all the necessary information about everyone running in each ward and that the election was free, open and fair.