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If Torontonians want to protect Toronto's 2018 election, we have to do it ourselves.
Doug Ford is the duly elected premier of Ontario, and will govern with a majority at Queen's Park for at least the next four years, whether we like it or not (I really don’t). But Ford is not satisfied with his electoral victory back in June, and has now decided he’d like to capture Toronto’s ongoing 2018 municipal election as well. On Monday, the first business day after nominations for our local election closed, Ford and his Progressive Conservative colleagues put forward a law to redraw Toronto’s electoral boundaries, and to reduce the number of elected councillors from 47 to 25.
Ford doesn’t mind that such a move in the middle of the campaign would jeopardize the fairness and integrity of Toronto’s vote in October—if I’m honest, he seems delighted by the potential chaos.
This is more bad news for Toronto in the middle of a sweltering summer full of highly publicized violence, the increased militarization of public space, and endless scapegoating of the communities already suffering from government austerity and neglect. We don’t need Ford’s undemocratic, self-serving, mid-election interference right now. It’s an insult to our city’s ability to make our own decisions, and to be consulted about fundamental changes to our politics. But if Torontonians are waiting for some higher power to stop this attack on our city, we’ll wait in vain: we have to stand up for ourselves because no one is coming to save us.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the federal Liberals are not going to save us. Why would they? If we are arguing that politicians in one level of government shouldn’t interfere with the elections of another, there is no incentive for feds to sully themselves in a local election dispute, no matter how egregious it might be. Professor and poet George Elliott Clarke recommends that Trudeau employ the rarely used “federal power of disallowance” to stop Ford, but concedes in the next breath that federal Liberals “have no intention of meddling in provincial politics.”
Try as they might to stall Ford’s autocratic move, Opposition Leader Andrea Horwath and the Ontario New Democratic Party caucus ultimately can’t stop any legislation. On Tuesday Horwath announced her party had managed to add two days to the process of passing Ford’s election-altering law. But Ford’s Progressive Conservatives hold a comfortable majority of seats at Queen's Park, and Horwath herself conceded last week that “we'll fight this with everything we have, but we don't have much.”
Don’t expect any leadership from Toronto’s chief magistrate John Tory. The mayor is too busy agreeing that Toronto needs fewer councillors to forcefully oppose the draconian methods proposed to get it done. Tory first suggested he was surprised to learn of Ford’s plan last week, then admitted the premier told him about it at a meeting in early July. Tory says he didn’t think Ford was serious, but now that the game is on, the mayor is pushing for a referendum. Tory’s idea of toughness is to ask residents what they think of a law Ford plans to implement anyway. It seems Tory will justify any means to get council composition he wants—he’s on the wrong side of this fight.
Of course, we are in the middle of an election campaign, and residents who oppose Tory’s reign, and that of the larger council, have had the opportunity to step forward for office. In fact, some candidates are even using their opposition to provincial election interference to raise money and gain support. Good for them I suppose, but not ultimately helpful for those of us who want to protect the 2018 election. It’s not enough for political candidates to disagree with the electoral process they’ve signed up for. Ford’s gambit threatens the entire political system, not merely the fate of individual politicians.
In lieu of all this, we always have the courts I guess. Both the city and individual residents are threatening legal action against Ford’s government. There’s no guarantee the courts would stop Queen's Park from using its constitutionally-prescribed powers, even if the timing is deceptive and the process mean-spirited. Given the stakes, we can’t gamble that the courts will save us from Ford. Our institutions are designed first and foremost to preserve themselves and one another, and when they fail to defend the public, we have to defend ourselves.
Historically in Toronto, small but powerful groups of people have disrupted business as usual in response to government injustices. In recent years, Black Lives Matter Toronto, Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, and No One is Illegal, and Idle No More, and their many respective supporters have fought for marginalized Torontonians by blocking city streets, interrupting public meetings, occupying government buildings and challenging the notion that on balance, our political institutions are doing more good than harm.
"If Torontonians are waiting for some higher power to stop this attack on our city, we’ll wait in vain: we have to stand up for ourselves because no one is coming to save us," writes @DesmondCole in his first column for @NatObserver #onpoli #topoli
For their bold actions, these groups have been met with overwhelming scorn. Ironically, many who condemn public disruptions and dogmatically call for resolutions within the political system are now recognizing the limitations of reasoning with unreasonable people and institutions. Welcome, we’ve been trying to tell you. But even we troublemakers cannot save you from the system you’ve been rationalizing to us, nor should we have to.
I’ve been one of the most vocal critics of the dysfunction that is Toronto city council. While I’m no hype man for the virtues of our democratic system, I am disgusted to see politicians stripping away the inadequate forms of representation we do have. Many of us have taken to the street to defend ourselves, to fight for what we believe in. For those who sat and critiqued our desperation, I ask you now: what do you believe in? What parts, if any, of this disintegrating social and political reality are worth your time, your energy, your voice, your body, your disruption and your resistance? How much do elections really matter?
A politician isn’t supposed to be the boss in the democratic system, the people are. But Ford tells us he speaks for all the people. Unless people who are used to justifying the system actually show up and show out to defend it, the premier will use his political power to remake the 2018 election as he sees fit. No one is coming to save Torontonians from Ford’s proposed electoral chaos, but if we decide this election is worth fighting for, we can have the vote we were always planning, and push back against a failed mayoral candidate who wants to rule Toronto from Queen's Park.