Written by: Michael McGregor
As anyone who wasn’t living under a metaphorical municipal rock in the period leading up to last month’s election in Toronto knows, much of the campaign was dominated by the high-profile battle over the ward boundaries to be used in the city council elections. In one corner stood the premier of Ontario, Doug Ford, who, the day before the candidate nomination deadline, announced that the size of Toronto city council was to be reduced from 47 seats to 25. In the other corner, opposing the move, stood most municipal politicians, an agitated media class, an array of scholars and community activists, and the opposition parties at Queen’s Park.
The primary goal of the provincial government’s Better Local Government Act was to unilaterally impose new city council ward boundaries on Toronto (to match existing federal and provincial boundaries). This decision was made without consultation with the city and was, in fact, against the wishes of most local politicians (incumbents and hopefuls alike). The province was able to foist this change on Toronto because the Canadian Constitution famously dictates that municipalities are a matter of provincial jurisdiction. As the widespread municipal amalgamations in Ontario and Quebec of the 1990s and 2000s illustrate, provinces have not always shied away from using their power over cities, in spite of vocal opposition from municipalities themselves.
Despite the constitutional power bestowed upon Ford, the provincial law was quickly challenged in court. In early September, it was found to be unconstitutional and a judge ordered the election to proceed under a 47 ward system. The basis of this decision was the argument that decreasing the number of wards in the city, so near to the election, would infringe upon the right to freedom of expression for both candidates and voters. In response to this judicial setback, Ford announced that he would invoke the seldom used, and highly controversial, notwithstanding clause of the Charter (S. 33), which allows federal or provincial governments to override some Charter rights if they should see fit to do so. In the end, however, the original court ruling was stayed by the Court of Appeal for Ontario. The Ford government never actually used S. 33, and the election went forward under a 25 ward system.
Through all of this, it was never exactly clear how the public felt about either the reduction in the size of Toronto city council, or the fact that the province can unilaterally make such changes to the structure of a municipality’s government. Aside from the PC government and a smattering of city councillors, there were few vocal proponents of the change. Both of the leading mayoral candidates (Tory and Keesmaat) came out against the change. At one point, Keesmaat publicly mused about the possibility of Toronto seceding from the province of Ontario to avoid precisely this type of provincial interference.
Using survey data from the Canadian Municipal Election Study (CMES), we can determine how Torontonians viewed the decision to reduce the size of council, as well as their opinion of the province’s constitutional supremacy over municipalities more generally. During the course of the 2018 campaign, CMES respondents were asked whether they agree or disagree (and how strongly) with the following statements: (1) It is a good thing that Toronto City Council has been reduced from 47 to 25 councillors and (2) The government of Ontario should have the power to unilaterally make changes to Toronto’s municipal government.
In addition to considering how the population as a whole feels towards these matters, we can divide the sample on the basis of provincial partisanship. Certainly, we should expect to see some motivated reasoning here, such that supporters of the provincial party in power might be expected to be relatively likely to support the policy change, simply due to the fact that their party has taken the stance that it has. By the same logic, we should expect opposition partisans to be relatively opposed to the change.
The figures below show the breakdown of attitudes towards the two measures noted above. Results are presented for the sample as a whole, as well as on the basis of partisanship. CMES data are weighted for age and gender to match the most recent census.
Figure 1: “It is a good thing that Toronto City Council has been reduced from 47 to 25 councillors” (by partisanship)
Figure 2: “The government of Ontario should have the power to unilaterally make changes to Toronto’s municipal government” (by partisanship)
The figures reveal several findings of note. First, the aggregate data suggest that, on the whole, Torontonians are not fond of either the reduction of the size of council or provincial supremacy over municipalities.
Figure 1 shows that a sizable majority (59.6%) of Torontonians were opposed to the reduction in the size of council. We see a similar result in Figure 2, with substantial opposition to provincial supremacy over municipalities (69.9%). On the whole, therefore, there seems to be relatively little support for the Better Local Government Act, at least in this city.
However, these attitudes are heavily dependent upon the partisanship of respondents. Conservative partisans were overwhelmingly supportive of the reduction in city council size – only 11.6% opposed the change. The comparable figures for opposition partisans and non-partisans were 77.2% and 57.3%, respectively. We see the same pattern with respect to attitudes towards the province’s right to unilaterally impose changes upon municipalities. Conservatives have by far the lowest rate of opposition to this (25.3%) while opposition partisans are at the other end of the spectrum in this regard, with 83.9% opposition. Non-partisans are in the middle, with 71.3% disapproving. Thus while the majority of the population is seemingly opposed to the changes made to city council, and the manner in which they were made, the provincial government may take solace in the fact that their base is with them on this matter.
The third and final finding worthy of discussion here is that Torontonians are less strongly opposed to this particular act of provincial meddling in municipal affairs than they are towards meddling more generally. That is, though most Torontonians are opposed to the redistricting forced upon Toronto, an even greater share of the population is opposed to the fact that the province can impose their will on municipalities in such a manner (this pattern holds among all partisan groups). This is perhaps another silver lining for the Ford government (as far as electoral considerations are concerned). There is a substantial proportion of the population who are opposed to the fact that province can impose its will upon municipalities, but are not upset that such an imposition occurred in this instance.
 Chi-square results show that all groups are different at p<0.01.