City of Toronto election was ‘free and fair’ despite council seat slash, Ford government tells top court

Doug Ford

OTTAWA – The Doug Ford government’s legal team told the Supreme Court of Canada on Tuesday that Toronto’s last election was “free and fair,” despite allegations from the city that the province trampled democracy when it slashed the size of city council.

Ontario passed legislation partway through the 2018 municipal campaign, cutting the number of Toronto council seats from 45 to 27.

Critics, councillors and candidates pushed back on Premier Doug Ford’s decision, which has been winding its way through the legal system ever since.

During a Supreme Court hearing on Tuesday, lawyers representing the city and other intervenors suggested Ontario’s Bill 5 was “profoundly undemocratic” — a move that pulled the rug out from under candidates trying to run.

In a submission to the top court on March 10, the city said the move three years ago violated the constitutional rights of Toronto’s electoral candidates and voters.

But in its filing with the Supreme Court, Ontario said in the run-up to the 2018 election, voters and candidates had all the necessary information on everyone who was running in each ward.

At the time, Ford said the move would improve decision-making and save $25 million. Critics accused him of political interference and flouting democracy.

A provincial judge found the law unconstitutional, saying it infringed on the free-expression rights of candidates by affecting their ability to campaign, and those of voters by denying them the right to cast a ballot that could result in effective representation.

Ford then announced plans to use the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause to forge ahead with the move. The clause gives provincial legislatures and Parliament the ability to usher in legislation that effectively overrides provisions in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but only for a five-year period.

However, Ford did not have to resort to the rarely used step.

The Ontario Court of Appeal for Ontario issued an interim stay of the initial court decision and the election took place with 25 wards and the revised boundaries.

The appeal court overturned the initial ruling in 2019, saying the frustration of candidates in facing altered electoral circumstances — unanticipated rivals, losing allies and needing to reach new voters — did not prevent them from saying anything they wished to say about matters at issue in the election or in promoting their candidacies.

Only one out of more than a dozen candidates from the Caribbean community won a seat in  the election.

Jamaica-born Michael Thompson who was first elected to Toronto City Council in 2003, was re-elected for a fifth term.

Thompson , a  well-known supporter of former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, was  the only incumbent councillor  who ran in the  new Scarborough  Centre ward which has 70  per cent  visible minorities.

He ran against nine candidates, many of them visible  minorities.

Political  observers say that slashing of  Toronto City Council from 47 to 25  seats in  the  middle of  the  election campaign “affected the chances” of  many candidates from the Caribbean community.

“In some cases, you had two or  three Black candidates running in the same ward, leaving some voters confused and many just didn’t bother to vote,”  one observer  noted.

In Etobicoke North where Michael Ford, the nephew of Premier Doug Ford was the  winning candidate, there were three candidates  from the  Caribbean community – Michelle  Garcia, Carol Royer and Christopher Noor.

After the election,  Royer and Garcia promised to continue to fight for the people in their ward and their community.

It is unclear when the Supreme Court will make a decision on the case.