The 25 Liberal MPs who represent ridings in the city of Toronto have unanimously called on Ontario MPPs to “defeat” Premier Doug Ford’s bill to cut the size of Toronto city council because of its “unprecedented use” of the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause.
In a statement made public on Thursday, the group of Toronto MPs, which includes several federal cabinet ministers, said they “stand united” against Ford’s decision to use that clause, describing the premier’s move as “heavy-handed and disrespectful.”
The notwithstanding clause allows provincial legislatures and Parliament to pass legislation that overrides provisions enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Before this week, no Ontario government had ever invoked the clause.
“We believe MPPs elected in Toronto have a responsibility to defend the city, its democratic institutions, and the rights of citizens to a free and fair municipal election,” the statement says. “The people of Toronto deserve nothing less.”
“As elected representatives of the City, we want to assure the people of Toronto that we understand and respect the critical role that City Hall and local democracy play in building the communities in which we live.”
Earlier this summer, the Progressive Conservative government tabled and passed a bill seeking to slash the number of seats on Toronto city council seats to 25 from 47. The reduction came even though a municipal election campaign is already underway. Municipalities throughout Ontario, including Toronto, go to the polls Oct. 22.
The bill was challenged in court and in a ruling issued Monday morning, Ontario Superior Court Justice Edward Belobaba found that the move to do away with 22 city wards in the middle of an election campaign substantially interfered with municipal voters’ freedom of expression and the “right to cast a vote that can result in effective representation.”
“It is only when a democratically elected government has clearly crossed the line that the ‘judicial umpire’ should intervene. The Province has clearly crossed the line,” Belobaba wrote in his decision.
Displeased with the ruling, Ford gave notice he would re-table the legislation cutting Toronto city council seats and invoke the notwithstanding clause to override the Ontario court’s ruling. The re-introduced bill had its first reading in the provincial legislature on Wednesday afternoon.
Speaking with Global News from Saskatoon, where the Liberal caucus met for the last two days, Spadina-Fort York MP Adam Vaughan argued Ford’s decision to use the clause is “beyond the norm” in Canada and represents “an abuse of power.” That’s why Vaughan said he’s calling on Progressive Conservative MPPs — particularly those in Toronto — to vote against the re-introduced legislation.
“At this stage in the dispute, all we can do is appeal to their conscience and appeal to their principles,” Vaughan said in a phone interview. “I do know a number of them and they should give their heads a shake. They should know better.”
“This kind of abuse of principle and practice and law is a slippery slope to all laws and all rules and all regulations being disobeyed. And that is not democratic, and that is not an acceptable practice in this day and age in any democracy, let alone Ontario.”
Despite this being a municipal and provincial issue, Vaughan said concerned constituents have been coming to him “by the score.” Toronto-Danforth MP Julie Dabrusin also told Global News she’s had “a lot” of constituents express worries about the Ontario government’s efforts to reduce the number of elected municipal representatives in Toronto.
Ford did say on Monday he would appeal the Superior Court ruling. A majority of Toronto city council on Thursday afternoon voted to head back to court to fight the bill.
In their statement, the Liberal MPs said the issue at hand is not partisan.
Asked about the Toronto MPs’ statement during a press conference in Saskatoon on Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he expects all Liberal MPs “to be strong voices for their communities in Ottawa.”
Trudeau, however, has indicated he won’t intervene in the controversy, beyond expressing his disappointment in the Ontario government’s decision to invoke the notwithstanding clause.
The prime minister said on Thursday he’s a “staunch believer and defender” of the Charter and takes Ford’s move “very seriously,” but he’s not going to weigh in on “the actual debate over the size of the municipal governments in Ontario (or) Toronto.”
“I don’t think that’s a role the federal government needs to take on,” Trudeau said.
Meanwhile, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer told The Canadian Press on Wednesday that the Ontario government is well within its legal rights to use the notwithstanding clause in this circumstance.
Scheer, however, did not say whether he thinks it is a good move.
— With files from David Akin, David Shum and The Canadian Press