Ontario’s highest court paves way for major cuts to size of Toronto city council

Ontario’s highest court has paved the way for a considerable cut to the size of Toronto’s city council just weeks from a municipal election.

This morning, a panel of three Court of Appeal justices stayed a lower court’s Sept. 10 ruling that struck down a provincial bill that would cut the council from 47 to 25 members.

The decision — which basically freezes the lower court’s decision — means city staff will immediately begin preparing for a 25-ward election Oct. 22.

In its arguments earlier this week, the province’s legal team said the stay was necessary to provide certainty to the city clerk, who is responsible for upholding a fair election.

The timing and circumstances of the election were thrown into chaos when the Progressive Conservatives unexpectedly introduced the council-cutting legislation, Bill 5, after the campaign period had already begun. The city challenged it in Ontario Superior Court, and Judge Edward Belobaba ruled against the province, saying the legislation was unconstitutional.

The Court of Appeal, however, disagreed with his assessment of the legislation.

“Unquestionably, Ontario’s announcement of its intention to introduce Bill 5 disrupted the campaigns that were already underway. However, Bill 5 does not limit or restrict any message the candidates wish to convey to voters,” says the ruling released Wednesday.

“While the change brought about by Bill 5 is undoubtedly frustrating for candidates who started campaigning in May 2018, we are not persuaded that their frustration amounts to a substantial interference with their freedom of expression,” it continues.

“Candidates had a reasonable expectation that they would be operating under a 47-ward platform … However, neither that platform nor that expectation was constitutionally guaranteed.”

In addition to its successful request for a stay, the province responded to Belobaba’s ruling by filing an appeal and introducing a second, nearly identical bill to circumvent his decision. Bill 31 includes a rarely used and controversial constitutional provision known as the notwithstanding clause.

The province’s legal team said in court this week that if a stay were granted, the government would not move to pass Bill 31.

The decision released Wednesday means Premier Doug Ford is one step closer to slashing the size of Toronto council, while his government will avoid using the notwithstanding clause —a move that has drawn ire from legal scholars and activists.

The outcome of the province’s appeal remains uncertain, and is unlikely to be heard by a court before the first week of November.

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