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EDITORIAL: We care Mr. Tory (Jan. 2023)

January 24th, 2023 · No Comments

In 2018, and during our last municipal election, Doug Ford’s Conservatives slashed the size of city council in half to 26. This created outsized wards that are too big to manage and a population that feels disconnected from elected representatives. Burned out councillors are also a symptom, and we’ve seen a few—Joe Cressy and Mike Layton, for example, just walked away. Voter turnout is down to 30 per cent of eligible voters casting ballots, and the province under Doug Ford continues to further erode the power and relevance of local government in Ontario.

Most recently, with Bill 3 and Bill 39, the province handed some mayors super powers to veto council decisions and enact new bylaws with the support of just eight sitting councillors (a minority of the council). The fact that the mayor, acting with just one third of councillors, has the power to overrule the majority of the elected representatives makes a mockery of our democracy. City Solicitor Wendy Walberg told councillors recently that she knows of no other democracy in the world with a similar minority-rule provision. 

In a representative democracy, we elect people to advocate for our interests and neighbourhoods, and to maintain our sense of community. When their authority is eroded, without debate or consultation, our power is eroded too. We have had two recent elections, one provincial and one municipal, and neither Mr. Ford nor Mr. Tory mentioned the plans they had up their sleeves. 

When the provincial government announced its plan to confer “strong mayor” powers on Toronto and Ottawa, it handed Tory veto power over some housing legislation which city council could overrule with enough votes. Ottawa’s mayor said he did not need the powers and would refuse to use them. Our mayor quietly went to Queen’s Park and asked for more. He did not consult his colleagues on council whose power he sought for himself. He did not tell the public. Neither did Mr. Ford. Politics can make unlikely bedfellows.

It’s a rather unfamiliar look for our mayor, who for eight years, appeared to be a reasonable consensus builder: Mr. Moderation. Something has changed. He still says he will seek consensus and would like not to use his “big stick.” But the whole dynamic had changed: a police officer may not have to unholster their firearm, but the fact that they could, changes the interaction; the threat it could be used is always there. He is already using those powers, even while not invoking them.

Tory seems shocked at the uproar over this unbridled grab for power at the expense of a majority of city councillors. He says, “nobody cares.” All five of Toronto’s former living mayors have come out in opposition to the change. City council voted to ask the province to repeal the bill. Councillors clearly care, but Tory dismissed this as nothing but “political theatre.” Some new councillors spoke eloquently during the debate. Ausma Malik said the “fundamentally undemocratic new power flies in the face of what so many of [us] came here to do.” 

Lily Cheng said it is “easier, perhaps faster, to impose your will on people than to listen and lead by winning people with your vision,” but “democracy is messy, because we as people are messy. It forces us to debate, to wrestle and sometimes compromise. This keeps us humble.”

There are no checks on the power the province has bequeathed to the mayor. Tory says he plans to retire in four years, and if so, he may never have to face the electorate again. The “strong mayor” powers are billed as a response to the housing crisis, but unlike measures already in place, such as our pandemic response, there’s no end date or plan to limit the scope of its application. The housing crisis is a Trojan horse within which the power grab enters the arena. According to Ford, this is a model for municipalities across Ontario. It’s of little comfort that Tory says he will use his power sparingly; that may be true, but what about the next mayor, or the one after that? Laws should be evaluated on how they may be used, not on how elected officials tell us they will use them. 

This one-third rule is glaringly undemocratic – and needs to be repealed.


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