Is it legal for Ontario premier Doug Ford to cut council seats?

Ontario Premier Doug Ford is pictured as he speaks during his unofficial swearing in ceremony in Toronto, on June 29. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
Ontario premier Doug Ford has wasted little time implementing a new agenda

As the brand-new leader of Canada’s largest province, Premier Doug Ford obviously isn’t afraid to make a few enemies to get what he wants.

One of the Progressive Conservative government’s most controversial moves (at least inside the City of Toronto) happened when Ford promised to slash the number of municipal representatives from 47 to 25, which would mirror the number of provincial ridings in the city.

But can the provincial government simply introduce a bill and make it so?

The answer is clear: yes, but there are some past practices that seem to indicate it might not be so cut and dry.

Rocco Achampong, lawyer and candidate for the Oct. 22 election, filed a motion with the province’s Superior Court of Justice to block the move, arguing what the PCs plan to do was against several laws and past precedents.

“This is government by fiat. This is not a publicity stunt. These are live issues. I’m standing up for the people of Toronto. I’m a lone-man army,” said Achampong.

But what the government proposed to do is perfectly legal and well within the purview of its powers, according to one constitutional expert who spoke with the Toronto Star.

The provincial government has “complete and exclusive power over municipalities,” said Joseph Magnet, who is a lawyer as well as a professor at the University of Ottawa.

“In each Province the Legislature may exclusively make Laws in relation to Matters coming within the Classes of Subjects,” begins section 92 of the Constitution Act, 1867, (which is how the federal government refers to it on its Justice Laws Website).

Under section eight, one of the powers provinces have jurisdiction over is: “Municipal Institutions in the Province.”

It’s simple and straightforward, but the City of Toronto is clearly a municipal institution in the province.

The term “creatures of the province” has been bandied about often and it effectively describes the relationship between the province and the cities, towns and small municipalities across Ontario, but it says so much. Each place was effectively created with the province’s blessing, so it can make all the rules.

But Alexandra Flynn, a lawyer writing for Spacing.ca makes the case that backed by previous Supreme Court of Canada decisions, the city may be able to launch a fight against Ford’s unilateral actions.

“Municipalities may well be creatures of the province, but Ford cannot unilaterally ignore the Supreme Court of Canada. Toronto used its legal power to fix its outdated wards — a pressing, unglamorous process that took years. The upcoming election is not the equivalent of voting for a middle school president; it is a complex operation with thousands of candidates that takes city staff a year to execute. The location of the new wards has already set in motion other city decisions, such as the boundaries of community councils.”

Flynn’s main argument is that cities’ decisions are based on local democracy and these must be respected: the province cannot simply ignore them and thus the provincial government can be stopped in its actions.

Toronto mayor John Tory can only hope this is true.

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