Ford government had the right to reduce number of Toronto wards in 2018 election, Supreme Court says

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The Progressive Conservative government of Ontario Premier Doug Ford was operating within its legal powers when it reduced the number of neighborhoods in Toronto in the middle of the 2018 municipal election, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled.

In a decision split 5 to 4, Canada’s highest court said Ontario had not violated the Constitution by reducing the number of wards in a planned system of 47 wards to 25 wards that would align geographically on provincial and federal ridings.

The city of Toronto argued that by reducing the number of wards in Toronto after the nomination period for city council elections, the province violated the Constitution because it limited the rights of candidates and violated unwritten constitutional principle. of democracy.

“None of these arguments have any merit and we would dismiss the city’s appeal. In our opinion, the province has acted in accordance with the Constitution,” Chief Justice Richard Wagner and Justice Russell Brown wrote in their decision. majority.

But in a dissenting opinion, Judge Rosalie Silberman Abella wrote that on whether “the complete overhaul of the electoral process in the middle of an election” was unconstitutional: “In my humble opinion, it was.”

In dismissing the City of Toronto’s appeal, the court said that the usefulness of the unwritten principles of democracy defended by the Constitution is limited to helping the courts interpret the law.

“But it cannot be used in a way that goes beyond this role of interpretation. In particular, it cannot be used as an independent basis to invalidate legislation,” wrote Justices Wagner and Brown.

Freedom of expression not compromised: judgment

The court also ruled that the removal of the wards did not limit the right of municipal candidates to free speech during the elections because, despite the timetable for changes, candidates had plenty of time to adjust their campaigns.

“Candidates and their supporters have had 69 days, longer than most federal and provincial election campaigns, to redirect their messages and express themselves freely according to the new neighborhood structure.

The court said that while the enlargement of constituencies and changing the boundaries meant that certain candidate campaign documents and policies needed to be revised or rejected, campaigns had higher spending limits and had time to raise funds for new documents.

But writing on behalf of the minority, Abella disagreed, saying the issue of timing was crucial to the case.

A matter of timing: Abella

Abella said moving the goalposts after an election “was technically 60 percent over” was hurting candidates’ campaigns and the extension of nominations from July 27 to September 14 did not leave enough time “to fix the problems. damage and uncertainty that the change had created for the candidates. “

“By radically redrawing the electoral boundaries in an active election that was about two-thirds over, the legislation hampered the rights of all participants in the electoral process to engage in meaningful reciprocal political discourse,” he said. she writes.

Ford accused of undermining democracy

In 2018, Ford announced its decision to reduce the number of wards from a planned system of 47 wards to 25 wards that would geographically align with provincial and federal ridings. Bill 5, the Better Local Government Act, came into effect in the midst of the municipal election campaign.

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

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

Critics accused him of political interference and undermining democracy.

A provincial judge found the law unconstitutional, saying it violated the free expression rights of candidates by affecting their ability to campaign, and those of voters by denying them the right to vote which could result in effective representation.

Ford then announced its intention to use the notwithstanding clause in the Constitution to move forward. The clause gives provincial legislatures and Parliament the ability to override the provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms when implementing a law, but only for a period of five years.

In the end, Ford didn’t have to use the clause. The Ontario Court of Appeal granted an interim stay of the tribunal’s original decision and the election was held with 25 wards and revised boundaries.

Cities are creatures of the provinces: the 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 ” creatures[s] of provincial legislation.

But the two dissenting judges suggested there were serious problems with the electoral process after the Ford government imposed the changes, calling them “vast, profound and seemingly unprecedented in Canadian history.”

“By shutting down nearly half of the city’s existing neighborhoods midway through an active election, Ontario has exploded the efforts, aspirations and campaign materials of hundreds of aspiring candidates, as well as the reciprocal commitment of many informed voters, ”wrote the judges.

The following month, the city of Toronto filed an application with the highest court asking for leave to appeal the province’s decision to reduce the size of the council.

Candidates, disadvantaged voters: city

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

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

The submission says when neighborhood sizes nearly doubled, voters no longer knew which neighborhood they were in or who was running.

The Ontario government said in its Supreme Court file that in the run-up to the 2018 election, voters and candidates had all the information they needed about everyone running in every neighborhood.

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

“The city’s website was quickly and fully updated with detailed information on the transition to 25 neighborhoods and answers to questions about the new rules. “

The October 2018 elections were held freely, openly and fairly, according to the province’s brief.


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