The Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) has ruled in favour of the Ontario government’s decision to cut the size of Toronto’s city council, ending a three-year battle over legislation introduced in the middle of its 2018 municipal election.
In a 5-4 split, the majority of Supreme Court justices agreed with the provincial government and ruled the city’s appeal should be dismissed.
The SCC’s ruling comes years after the Ford government plunged Toronto’s electoral process into turmoil. In August of 2018, more than two weeks after nominations closed for its Oct. 22 election, the Ontario government passed legislation to redraw the city’s electoral map.
The Better Local Government Act, better known as Bill 5, reduced the number of city councillors from 47 to 25, and realigned the city’s wards to match the federal and provincial electoral boundaries.
Premier Doug Ford — a former Toronto city councillor and failed mayoral candidate — said the legislation would improve decision-making and save $25 million. Critics, however, accused him of political interference and flouting democracy.
Lawyers representing the city, argued the provincial legislation violated constitutional rights to freedom of expression. While split in its decision, the majority of Supreme Court justices disagreed with the argument. Ruling that no one was prevented from speaking, raising money, or campaigning.
The introduction of Bill 5 came after years of consultations which concluded the City needed to add three additional wards to its 44 ward system, to better serve residents. The Supreme Court also ruled against the City’s argument, that Bill 5 violated voters’ rights to effective representation. That constitutional provision, it said, only applies to federal and provincial governments.
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The SCC ruling ends a turbulent period for Toronto politics, much of which occurred in the days following the introduction of Bill 5 and continuing up to election day. More than 500 candidates were required to re-register in the reduced structure. A rushed Superior Court hearing saw an initial rebuke of the Ford government, where the premier threatened to override the court’s decision using the notwithstanding clause.
The Ontario Court of Appeal granted an initial stay in ruling, allowing the election to proceed with 25 wards. The following September the court ruled in favour of the province with a 3-2 split decision, setting the stage for City of Toronto lawyers to take the case to Canada’s highest court, where the case was heard last March.
Ahead of the Supreme Court of Canada’s hearing, Ford stood by the decision to cut Toronto’s council.
“It’s the best present I’ve ever given the mayor,” he said. Despite Ford’s initial claims Bill 5 would cut costs, City Council voted in favour of doubling its staffing budget following the 2018 election.
While frosty relations between the city and Ford have eased in the three years since the election, many progressive city councillors harbour negative feelings toward the council cut.
Shortly after the ruling, Toronto Mayor John Tory thanked the court for its “careful and thorough consideration.”
“I disagreed with the way the province went about changing the size of City Council in the middle of the 2018 election and as Mayor together with City Council we have made that very clear all the way to our highest court,” he continued.
Tory said the City will continue to work with the Ford government on responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and other issues “for the good of our city and our province.”