Doug Ford, the brother of the late and disgraced former mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford, has thrown a local election into chaos.
It didn’t take long at all for newly-elected Ontario premier Doug Ford to plunge Canada’s largest city into a political and constitutional crisis.
Since winning a majority for the Progressive Conservative party just over three months ago, ousting the long-time incumbent Liberals, Ford has been squarely focused on practically just one thing: halving the size of Toronto’s city council.
That itself is not entirely surprising. Though he didn’t campaign on the issue, Ford believes in small government and, in a very, very small way, reducing the number of councillors from 47 to 25 could potentially save the City of Toronto a little bit of money.
The timing of Ford’s decision is what’s most problematic. Ford announced his plan to slash council after a 47-ward election had already begun. Candidates for mayor and city council had already put their name on the ballot and started campaigning. In an instant, Ford threw an election in Canada’s largest city into chaos.
For a brief moment it seemed as though cooler heads would prevail. His government’s Bill 5, named the “Better Local Government Act,” became law August 14, but it was struck down as unconstitutional by a judge September 10. Instead of backing down, Ford chose the nuclear option, invoking a controversial and seldom-used provision in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms—the “notwithstanding” clause—that allows a government to temporarily circumvent some rights protected by the charter. That Ford would spend the early weeks of his fledgling premiership battling to reduce the size of one local government against the wishes of the city’s bureaucrats, political experts, and even the basic rights of its people says a lot about Ontario’s new right wing populist leader.
So how exactly did many in Toronto find themselves once again battling a member of the Ford family?
Doug Ford is the older brother of the late Toronto mayor, Rob Ford. When Rob became mayor in 2010, Doug was elected a city councillor in Rob's old Etobicoke constituency in the suburban west end of Toronto.
Throughout his brother's tempestuous mayoralty, which was dominated by the infamous crack cocaine scandal, Doug was Rob's chief defender, but he also became ensnared in drug controversy himself. In May 2013, the Globe and Mail published a story that detailed Doug Ford's years as a hash dealer in the 1980s. Though he vigorously denied the allegations, calling the story “an outright lie,” he didn’t formally challenge the reporting.
As city councillor and mayor, the Ford brothers fought against what they saw as government waste and overspending. Their tenure was marked by widespread budget and service cuts, in addition to the cancellation of a major light rail network for the city. They had little regard for convention and caused numerous council meetings to descend into utter disarray.
When Rob was diagnosed with cancer in the lead-up to the 2014 election, Doug took his place on the ballot, but ultimately lost to incumbent mayor John Tory. Following the defeat, Doug returned to run the family business, Deco Labels, with his brother, who died in March 2016.
It would take three years for Doug Ford to mount his political comeback. In January, a window opened when PC leader Patrick Brown resigned in the wake of accusations by two women of sexual misconduct. In the resulting leadership contest, Ford narrowly and controversially beat lawyer and two-time PC leadership candidate Christine Elliott to victory. Ford rescinded much of Brown's prepared election platform but did not publish one of his own. On the campaign trail, he pledged to reduce the cost of gasoline by 10 cents a liter, scrap a carbon cap-and-trade program introduced by the Liberals, privatize the legal sale of cannabis, and reduce the minimum price of a beer from $1.25 to $1.00. (By reducing the legal minimum price of a beer to $1, Ford expected to increase competition in the market and gee-up his supporters. Many brewers, however, say the price doesn’t make business sense.)
At no point did he discuss slashing the size of Toronto’s city council, which had just been set following an exhaustive review at 47 councillors, an increase of three from the previous election. The new wards—three downtown and one in the city’s north end (one ward was also removed)—were added to ensure the average ward population didn’t creep above 61,000 people.
Under the 25-seat model, the average Toronto city ward would have a population of more than 110,000 people—larger than the Ontario cities of Thunder Bay, Guelph, Kingston, and Waterloo, which have between 7 and 12 councillors in their local governments. Toronto, which has a population of *2.8 million people, has only one level of municipal government. Under Ford’s plan, a single person would be responsible for representing the interests and addressing the day-to-day concerns of the population of a mid-size city.
In his decision to overturn the Ford government’s original bill last Monday, Ontario Superior Court Justice Edward Belobaba cited the potential lack of effective political representation in Toronto. "If there was a concern about the large size of some of the city’s wards," he wrote, "why impose a solution (increasing all ward sizes to 111,000) that is far worse, in terms of achieving effective representation, than the original problem? And, again, why do so in the middle of the city’s election? Crickets.”
Belobaba also found Bill 5 "undermine[d] an otherwise fair election and substantially interfere[d] with the candidates’ freedom of expression.”
At this point, Ford could have taken a step back and waited for the next election in 2022. Instead, he invoked the “notwithstanding” clause and suspended the people of Toronto's charter right to freedom of expression in municipal elections. Until last week, the clause had never been used in Ontario and it had only been used a handful of times since the charter was introduced in 1982.
Ford's decision drew widespread condemnation from former prime ministers, both Liberal and Conservative, former Ontario premiers, big city mayors nationwide, even Amnesty International. Yet still his government continues to push the bill through because a 25-ward council would likely lean conservative. Ford has expressed a desire to weigh in on the development of Toronto’s waterfront and transportation issues, like construction of the controversial subway to Scarborough and the rebuilding of a section of elevated expressway.
During the first reading of the new “notwithstanding” version of the bill, several people, including an elderly woman, were hauled from the public gallery of the Ontario legislature for protesting. Almost all of the opposition MPPs from the New Democratic Party were removed from the floor by the Sergeant-at-Arms for banging on their desks and yelling “No!” in an effort to delay proceedings.
The legislature briefly sat on Saturday and convened again at midnight last night to hold a vote on the bill. "We are proving that we are here for the people, that we will do whatever it takes to get the job done," Ford said in the small hours of this morning. "Tonight we stood up against the people who said this couldn't be done.”
Amid all of this, Toronto is still—supposedly—holding a 47-ward election. Nominations have closed and the city clerk is working to make sure people can vote on October 22. However, should Ford get his notwithstanding version of the bill passed Thursday, the shape of the election could would change in an instant. Toronto city clerk Ulli Watkiss, whose job it is to administer the election, has already warned a free and fair vote of any kind is now in jeopardy and has retained her own legal counsel. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has already suggested his government will not use its powers to invalidate Ford’s bill when it passes.
From here on out, Toronto, Ontario, and Canada are in uncharted territory.
*Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the total population of Toronto.