B.C. versus Toronto

By Shannon Waters February 25, 2021

The B.C. government has involved itself in a Supreme Court of Canada case between the Ontario government and the City of Toronto over Premier Doug Ford’s move to slash the size of the city’s council ahead of the 2018 election.

The case centres around whether the Ontario government acted within its authority when it unilaterally reduced the number of wards in Toronto from 47 to 25.

The city won its initial challenge in Ontario court, but that decision was reversed on appeal and is now before the Supreme Court of Canada, which is set to hear the case next month.

As first reported by The Tyee, B.C. is the only other province to intervene in the case.

Documents filed by the B.C. attorney general’s ministry argue that, under the Constitution Act, local governments are “creatures of provincial governments with no constitutional status” and “no independent autonomy.”

That means each province should have “absolute and unfettered legal power to do with [cities] as it wills” — including intervening in ways that drastically shift the outcome of local elections.

Union of BC Municipalities president Brian Frenkel said the province’s submission seems at odds with the “intent of the Community Charter and Local Government Act, which recognizes B.C.’s local governments collectively as an independent, autonomous and accountable order of government within their jurisdiction.”

“Further explanation by the province is needed,” Frenkel said, adding that he plans to reach out to Municipal Affairs Minister Josie Osborne to “better understand” why B.C. is getting involved.

The Ministry of Attorney General told BC Today the province’s intervention is “about the finer points of legal precedent and constitutional law” and noted that the Attorney General of Canada is also involved in the case.

Province doesn’t want Supreme Court ruling that empowers cities, critic says
Fair Voting BC, a non-profit organization that advocates for electoral reform that is also intervening in the case, is taking up the City of Toronto’s side, arguing the Ontario government’s actions violated residents’ charter rights to effective representation.

The Ontario government’s decision to consolidate Toronto’s ward system had “no clearly articulated reason” and “completely disrupted” the municipal campaign, president Antony Hodgson told BC Today.

“We think that was a violation of Canadians’ right to fair electoral process,” he said.

For Hodgson, B.C.’s arguments aim to dissuade the country’s top court from issuing a ruling that could grant municipalities more expansive powers.

“I think what the B.C. government is trying to do, along with Ontario, is to assert provincial right to manage its own affairs — they don’t want language that somehow empowers municipalities,” he told BC Today. “I don’t think that they’re directly trying to argue that what the Ontario government did was fair, just or proper — I think it all has to do with provincial powers versus municipal powers.”

The province is making “a very political claim,” according to Margot Young, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Allard School of Law, and one she suggested runs counter to the NDP’s supposed political values. Over the past three and a half years, the government has emphasized consultation and cooperation with municipalities on issues ranging from housing to child care.

“People elect social democratic governments to be social democratic not only in their laws and policies but also in what they’re willing to argue and assert before a court,” Young told The Tyee.