When the late Rob Ford began wreaking real havoc at Toronto City Hall, many observers hatched bright ideas to ensure it could never happen again. The most severe involved mechanisms whereby a mayor could be literally fired mid-term, by councillors or by voters, instead of almost literally fired: council eventually voted to strip Ford of nearly all his powers, at which point he declared “you guys have just attacked Kuwait” and then barrelled into an elderly female councillor on his way to intervene in what he thought was a fight involving his city councillor brother Doug.
Doug Ford wasn’t in a fight, but he did call people in the public gallery “scumbags,” alleged the proceedings were a “kangaroo court” and told councillor Paul Ainslie he should keep his mouth shut about Rob’s terrible substance abuse problems because he (Ainslie) once had his driver’s licence suspended for three days for blowing over .05. At this point, sitting in his chair, Rob rather brilliantly pantomimed driving drunk.
Never doing this again was a downright unimpeachable goal. But Ford cases make bad laws. Recall powers, for example, are an open invitation for another brand of chaos. And Premier Doug Ford’s decision to use the notwithstanding clause to chop Toronto city council in half with just weeks before the municipal election — Operation Desert Storm, if you will — has produced no shortage of terrible supposed remedies.
In a special meeting on Thursday, City Council voted 29-7 to request the feds “exercise the power of Disallowance with respect to Bill 31,” in order “to preserve respect for fundamental rights and freedoms provided for in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”
Bananas. The notwithstanding clause is in the Charter. Saskatchewan invoked it earlier this year, after a court ruling found the Charter exemption for constitutionally enshrined religious schools does not apply to children at those schools who are not of the faith. With opposition NDP support, the government launched an appeal and used the notwithstanding clause in the meantime — the exact manoeuvre Ontario is performing (albeit far less defensibly).
Disallowance, on the other hand, hasn’t been used since 40 years before the Charter came into force. If Pierre Trudeau wouldn’t use it to take on Quebec’s wholesale assault on minority language rights, you can bet no prime minister of sound mind is going to use it to protect Toronto City Council from its provincial overseer. It should not take heroic prescience for the 29 Yes votes to imagine Disallowance, once normalized, rearing up in future and biting all of their asses clean off.
Councillor Josh Matlow, meanwhile, proposed something superficially reasonable: that the federal government allow Toronto full authority over “municipal issues” including elections, governance structure and — crucially — “local fiscal matters including the ability to determine revenue sources, set tax rates, borrow funds, and allocate monies.”
There are two major problems here. One is that the federal government has no power to do this absent a constitutional amendment — which Matlow effectively conceded at council. The other is that it puts the cart before the horse. Toronto already has something like a city charter. It’s called the City of Toronto Act. It gives the city considerably more powers than other Ontario municipalities, including over revenues. And it’s exactly what the provincial government is amending in order to cut city council in half.
If Canadians believed cities deserve vastly more powers, then it wouldn’t be so easy for premiers to give and rescind them according to their daily whims and crass political calculations. And then you wouldn’t need to crack open the constitution.
It’s not a hard case to make: More than 80 per cent of Canadians live in urban areas; the greater Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver areas combined make up one-third of Canada’s population. Cities are the level of government that face the “highest expectations,” Matlow argued at council, yet they have “the least amount of power.”
Unfortunately, Toronto isn’t making a very good case for it right now, during a mayoral campaign where Ford’s intervention is sucking up all the oxygen. Much of the city’s left has lined up behind former chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat and her allegations that Mayor John Tory didn’t do enough to “stand up for Toronto.” It’s clearer and clearer every day that the only thing pitching a fit would have done would be make his life even more miserable dealing with Ford, but that hardly matters if you convince yourself the federal government will intervene or the constitution can be amended.
The debate has spun off into fantasyland, and a city begging for more power looks all the sillier in fighting for it. A campaign that should now be all the more about how two self-styled city-builders are going to pay for their bold visions has become a campaign about who can mount the most impressive pointless protest against Doug Ford. It’s tough to blame anyone for all this except Ford himself, for his ridiculous intervention. But his opponents needn’t march to his tune.
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