Kalsang Dolma was knocking on doors speaking to potential voters in Toronto’s Parkdale-High Park neighbourhood on a Thursday evening when her lead campaign organizer called to deliver some bad news. Dolma, a Tibetan refugee turned settlement worker and community leader, took the call and learned that Ontario Premier Doug Ford wanted to cut the number of wards in the city from 47 to 25, with less than three months to go before the Oct. 22 municipal election.

She stopped campaigning that weekend—discouraged just days after she registered.

If the Ford government's new legislation, introduced in the Ontario Legislature on July 30, passes, it would amend the City of Toronto Act to increase the sizes of the wards, doubling the work and competition for first-time candidates like Dolma. It was completely unexpected.

“What's the point of making an effort when you know that you're not going to make it?” the first-time candidate told National Observer a few days after hearing the news. If the legislation passes, she’d be up against not one but two incumbent councillors.

Kalsang Dolma, candidate for ward 18, and Kyle Ashley, candidate for ward 27, photographed outside Toronto CIty Hall on August 1, 2018. Photos by Michelle Siu

Kyle Ashley resigned from the Toronto Police Service four days before Ford’s announcement and registered as a candidate for the Toronto Centre-Rosedale neighbourhood. The former parking officer, popular for ticketing drivers in cycling lanes and posting about doing so on social media, had raised thousands of dollars, signed contracts with printing companies for campaign literature and started knocking on doors.

Ford never mentioned his detailed plans to shake up the city's governance during the last Ontario election campaign which ended on June 7 as the province voted to give him a majority government. However, he did speak about reducing taxes and waste, and the importance of creating a more efficient government.

In recent days, Ford and Ontario Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark have said the new legislation would create a more "streamlined" local government that aligns the number of municipal wards with the number and configuration of the current 25 provincial and federal electoral districts in the city. The legislation would also cancel democratic elections for regional chairs in Peel, York, Niagara and Muskoka.

Both Clark and Ford have municipal government experience: Ford served four years as councillor at Toronto City Hall and Clark was mayor of Brockville for nine years.

“People are incredibly fired up and they are ready to take on this fight because this is not just a fight for Toronto,” local city organizer Nick Tsergas told @fatimabsyed #Toronto #FordNation #thesix

"The current size of council is unwieldy and a hindrance to decision-making and getting things done at city hall," Clark told the legislature last week.​ "This is another example of the province getting out of the way and making local government work harder, smarter and more efficiently to make life better for everyone."​

Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark at his swearing in ceremony at Queen's Park on June 28th 2018. Photo by Alex Tétreault

When the news of Ford’s decision came to him via a Toronto Star report, Ashley was aghast. “That's when everything descended into chaos,” he recalled in an interview outside Toronto’s City Hall two days later, where he was taking photos for new campaign flyers.

The announcement by Ontario’s month-old conservative government to change the landscape of the electoral boundaries of Canada’s largest city has threatened to upend a core democratic process already in full swing, say experts and candidates, new and old. The question on everyone’s minds now is what checks are in place to thwart such a reconstruction and what Toronto’s democracy could look like on the other side, whether the bill passes or is challenged in court.

“(Everyone was) excited. Now they feel half as excited,” Dolma said. “How do I encourage them? How do I encourage my volunteers, my supporters? How do I encourage myself for a more difficult fight?”

“I thought I was running in one race and now to know that I have to double my campaigning efforts, double my door knocking efforts…” Ashley trails off. “I haven’t slept very much. I’m going to run but I don’t know what happens next.”

How Ford's decision could disrupt Toronto’s democracy

Ford’s decision to reduce the number of wards in the City of Toronto follows a complex four-year process that led to the addition of three additional ward seats and a redrawing of certain boundaries. The process began in 2013, when independent consultants were tasked with reviewing Toronto’s ward limits to keep up with changing demographics and allow for fair voter access.

“(The ward review process) matters because cities are taking on more and more responsibility and have a much larger voice on that the things that matter to us as residents,” said Alexandra Flynn, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough who specializes in urban governance.

“We increasingly care who our mayor is. We expect them to be intervening and stepping in when there are problems. We rely on them sometimes even more than we rely on the province or the federal government to be our voice to represent us.”

The legislation Ford has tabled—Bill 5: The Better Local Government Act—could disrupt the local civic process entirely.

“What's shocking about the bill is the timing and the lack of consultation or indeed any announcement that preceded it,” said Bruce Ryder, a constitutional legal scholar at York University. “And that to me is a grievous, grievous lack of political decency... It’s an egregious bill.”

Toronto Mayor John Tory has said the Ford government's bill is interfering in the municipal election, and has joined a majority of city councillors who voted to explore their legal options. On the day the bill was announced, Tory said he would seek a referendum to counter any changes. A special city council session is set for Aug. 20 to vote on any possible legal action.

National Observer spoke to six experts who noted that it is a challenging and rare task for municipalities to review the boundaries of their wards on their own, both because of the amount of work required to conduct a review of a city as large as Toronto and the number of stakeholders—including residents, business owners, politicians and many others, each with a differing view of the process—that need to be factored in, and unified behind a review decision.

There is no legal requirement for a Canadian city to conduct an internal review; the decision to do so is almost always political, and almost always challenged by concerned residents, experts and opposing council members.

The boundary review before this occurred in 2000, and the populations of Toronto’s wards now vary significantly, ranging from 45,000 90,000 residents, according to Flynn’s 2017 paper, “(Re)creating Boundary Lines: Assessing Toronto’s Ward Boundary Review Process.”

The 2017 review was taken to the Ontario Municipal Board by two Toronto councillors, and rejected in a legally-binding verdict, which noted, "The 47-ward structure does not achieve 'perfect' voter parity for each election cycle. However, none of the alternative options achieve perfect voter parity either.”

Andrew Sancton, a retired Western University political science professor and former director of its Local Government Program, spoke against the 47-ward decision at the OMB last year. Sancton supports the 25-ward option proposed by the Ford government for the same reasons: it would create a more effective council that matches federal and provincial boundaries and would allow for newer candidates to be elected every election, he says.

Still, he too was “shocked and surprised” by the announcement. “I think the process is terrible,” he said. “I don't think the government should have intervened at all if they wanted to change it,” he said in an interview last week. “They could have changed it for the next election in 2022.”

“I don't have any problem with changing the boundaries every four years,” Sancton said. He also noted that it may ensure a fairer voting process and that the federal boundaries are more equal as they’re based on the country’s 2018 population levels, as opposed to the 47 ward divisions in Toronto, which are based on 2026 demographic projections. “After every election you could check to make sure that you know that the wards are roughly equal.”

For Ford, the reduction in the number of wards is a step towards making city council more efficient. "Nothing is getting done except wasting taxpayers’ money and getting into more debt," he said at Queen's Park last week. "They’re going to start taking care of their own house with a smaller government. Good governance in any corporation is seven to nine because you can’t get anything done if you have 20 people around the table..."

"We made it very clear during the campaign that we were going to reduce the size and the cost of government, that we were going to make government work more accountable with more trust," added Clark, the municipal affairs minister

But Ford’s decision to intervene into that OMB decision “should not have happened in the middle of the election campaign,” said Sancton. “He didn't even mention this during the campaign or in any public stance. It shouldn’t have happened at this late stage.

“It’s petty,” Flynn said. “It’s not a mature reaction to the situation. And it’s not a mature government-to-government reaction.”

'What is public engagement going to look like if these changes go through?'

When Tiffany Ford, a candidate for Toronto District School Board trustee from the city’s Jane and Finch area, heard the premier’s announcement, she laughed out loud, believing the news to be “ludicrous.”

It’s only been a week but the conversation on the ground for first-time candidates and their campaigns has changed drastically. Candidates like Tiffany Ford explain that the challenge has shifted from listening to and conveying solutions for the day-to-day issues across the city to explaining the details of the the new wards.

Tiffany Ford, candidate for TDSB trustee in ward 4, seen at a protest at Toronto City Hall on July 27, 2018. Photo by Jessica Laforet

“A lot of Torontonians aren’t following city council regularly, especially if they’re raising kids, working multiple jobs,” Tiffany Ford told National Observer by email. “I already worry about who isn’t being adequately engaged. What is public engagement going to look like if these changes go through?”

Nahum Mann, a candidate for Ward 16, a central-east Toronto neighbourhood, registered the day before the news of Ford’s legislation became public. It was an emotional decision for the single father of a six-year-old who quit his job and spent his own capital to pursue his candidacy. He believed “it was a fight worth fighting and that the reasons I wanted to get involved were worthwhile.”

In the days since, his canvassing has had to shift to focus a little from speaking about the issues to some advocacy work: collecting signatures for petitions and educating people in his riding about what the changes mean for the upcoming voting process. It’s not the political campaign he imagined.

Tiffany Ford and Mann are running on the belief that cities like Toronto are models for the kind of civic behaviour they want to see in their communities. At the municipal level, different models of public participation are allowed, whether it's participatory budgeting or town halls or online feedback. The public cares more about housing, streets, parks and, increasingly, security — all managed wholly by municipal governments.

Nahum Mann, candidate for ward 16, and his six-year-old daughter Kezia at Toronto City Hall on August 1, 2018, just days after Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced plans to slash council seats from 47 to 25 ahead of the October municipal elections. Photo by Michelle Siu

“City councillors' offices are overrun with constituents' requests,” said Trish Hennessy, director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. “...whether it’s you know people protesting a new condo development or reporting a dangerous intersection, city councillors perform a vital role in local democracy.”

Peter Clutterbuck, the interim executive director of Social Planning Toronto, believes the legislation is confusing and will raise uncertainty. “I think it could possibly lead to decreased voter participation,” he said. “People don’t even know anymore the ward they’re in or who the candidates are that they can vote for.”

“It’s a very unsettling thing to do at the very outset of an important election.”

It bodes ill for municipalities across Ontario too, said Hennessy. “If you’re a mayor of a municipality, you may be wondering, ‘if we cross our premier, what are they going to do to us?’” she said.

“For most people, it's the city councillor’s office that is democracy. It's where they hold government to account,” she said. “It can have a ripple effect in terms of people’s confidence to speak truth to power.”

A city bands together to challenge Premier Ford

Amber Morley, a community leader and first time candidate in Etobicoke-Lakeshore neighbourhood in west Toronto, has been planning her campaign since October 2017, and perceives Ford’s decision to cut the number of wards as “a direct threat” to her campaign and her community.

“The parameters, the rules of the game have completely changed,” she said in an interview. “The community that I'm now potentially putting myself forward to represent, it’s not the community that I signed on for nor the community as I as I know it to be.”

Morley has spent hundreds of hours with volunteers who have spent time away from their families. She has invested a few thousand dollars of her own money and has taken some side jobs to pay the bills.

“There was no indication prior to or throughout the course of the election or even prior to the announcement last Friday that this was coming,” she said. “I can't stand by and let that happen.”

Morley, along with Mann, Ashley and Dolma are working with a movement called #ResistFord that has gathered 200-300 council candidates to seek possible legal challenges. Together, they are in consultation with lawyers across the city to seek justice for what Nick Tsergas, the lead organizer of the movement, describes as “screwing over hundreds of people who completely derailed their lives in order to serve their communities.”

“People are incredibly fired up and they are ready to take on this fight because this is not just a fight for Toronto,” said Tsergas. “Doug Ford’s rampage begins here and if we stand up and fight this and we come out of this with the government feeling like it's been severely punished, they'll think twice before doing this again in another city.”

Nick Tsergas, lead organizer of the #resistford legal movement, is helping candidates find possible legal challenges against Doug Ford's decision to change the scope of the municipal elections. Photo by Michelle Siu

Ford's Tories shutting down debate

At Queen’s Park, New Democratic MPPs have been trying to resist Bill 5 by every legislative tool available to them as the opposition party, including reasoned amendments, new bills and the amplification of public participation to slow the debate process and apply pressure.

“What we're trying to do is to force the government to remember that we are all elected by the people,” said Gilles Bisson, MPP for Timmins and NDP House Leader. Bisson notes that every bill put forward by the Ford government so far has bypassed the committee process, which allows for public participation in debate over an issue. “This legislature is a legislature of the people and as such they have a right to be able to come before committees and say ‘I like your legislation’ or ‘I don't like your legislation’ and this is the way it should be changed. That's the way this place operates normally.”

But on Wednesday, the Ford government passed a time allocation motion on Bill 5, which limited the debate to one hour instead of the usual six and a half hours. No public hearings or committee meetings were allowed.

“King Ford has spoken,” wrote veteran NDP MPP for Toronto-Danforth Peter Tabuns in a tweet.

Possible 'hallmark' legal challenges are 'uncertain terrain'

The question being asked all round is what role do municipalities have in defining their democratic processes in Canada? Everyone from experts to candidates foresee a legal challenge on the immediate horizon but no one knows what it will look like quite yet, as even city staff work to investigate the different legal avenues available to the city council.

Municipalities in Canada don’t have constitutional status. Provincial legislatures have the power to create and change city governments through legislation, as evidenced over 20 years ago when the Mike Harris government forced amalgamation of the six municipalities into the City of Toronto as a cost-saving measure, despite over three-quarters of voters rejecting the decision in a municipal referendum in 1997.

When the City of Toronto Act was first implemented, it was done so “within the spirit of co-operative federalism,” Flynn said, which established the status of the City of Toronto as a large municipal government — the fifth largest in Canada — that required a special relationship with the Province of Ontario. The relationship has evolved over the years, but at its core is “mutual respect and the importance of consultation” between the two governing bodies.

"(The) City of Toronto Act is full of lofty language about the importance of local government but also the importance of a respectful relationship between Toronto and Queen's Park. The need for cooperation and dialogue and all of those principles are still in the act," explains Ryder.

The Act, which came into effect in 2006, gives the municipal government a wide berth to make decisions for itself, "setting out a broad, permissive legislative framework for the city that gives it more tools commensurate with its size, responsibilities and significance."

The cooperation and dialogue that were required and went into the City of Toronto’s 2017 decision to change the number of wards isn’t “repealed by Bill 5. And yet Bill 5 runs roughshod over (those practices) and I'm not sure what that means,” Ryder notes. “This all just strikes me as reckless and vindictive.”

Flynn, too, is aghast at the turn of events and struggles to think of a historical precedent for Ford’s decision, other than the decision to amalgamate Toronto twenty years ago, which she describes as “a whiplash decision.” The only other parallel she is able to think is the decision by the state of Michigan to bail out the City of Detroit when it declared bankruptcy.

“But, I mean, that’s the sort of magnitude where you would see a state or province step in,” she said.

“Here, it's like a teenager who's had a great relationship with their parents that kind of done everything like they were supposed to and has met curfew and spent their allowance smartly,” explains Flynn. “And then the parents steps in and says you know what forget it, I'm just going to hire a babysitter and watch over you as I did when you were a toddler.”

The absence of any reasoning for this bill to be proposed, the timing of it and the lack of consultation will all make for a legal challenge that is entirely “unexplored terrain,” Ryder said. He believes that much of what happens next hinges on a 1998 Supreme Court Decision that found the Canadian Constitution consists not just of the written text but includes unwritten fundamental principles that are assumed part of the Canadian states. The court found that democracy is one such unwritten principle.

“It’s a broad and ill-defined principle,” Ryder said, “but this case is going to require it to be explored, because... well it’ll be argued that this bill violates (democracy).”

It’s not comfortable ground for the government, Ryder purports, whose lawyers will have to defend the legislation in court. “There’s no precedent that seals of the argument,” he said, “and there’s no precedent that supports it.”

Flynn agrees. “(The province) is stepping in after the fact to challenge a decision that has withstood not just political scrutiny but it has withstood legal scrutiny,” she said. “I definitely think this is one of those hallmark decisions that is testing the role that municipalities play in Canada.”

“Nobody can predict for sure what will happen I think people are saying that this legal action is doomed or wrong. I think people are saying this legal action is doomed or wrong. I think people are saying this legal action will surely succeed,” he said. “We don’t know. It's uncertain terrain.”

'How do we move forward?'

Megann Willson, a first-time candidate running in the central riding of Toronto-Centre Rosedale, believes that three things can happen: “Either the whole deal blows up and goes away or the rules of the game changes or they pass their legislation, lock their doors and we’re done.”

If the legislation passes, Willson says she will be running against Kristyn Wong-Tam, a beloved Toronto councillor, who is one of her personal and political mentors.

Megann Willson, Toronto City Council candidate for ward 23, poses for a photo at Toronto City Hall on August 1, 2018. Photo by Michelle Siu

There are “plenty of dark clouds,” she said. “But I have to keep working.”

“Us first time candidates, we’re all confident in making sure we’re following the rules of the election,” Willson said. “What can possibly be fair about changing the rules of the game in the middle of the game?”

There’s a distinct fear about what legislation will be thrust out of Queen’s Park after this and what the Toronto community will have the capacity to do. As protests gather outside Queen’s Park on a daily basis, exhibiting signs “Ford’s Democracy Stinks” and “Hands off our City Hall,” more emerge across the province against the closure of the White Pines Wind Farm and the cancellation of the Basic Income Program.

The #ResistFord movement has even turned to archaic and lesser known tactics, including a letter-writing campaign directed to Ontario's Lieutenant-Governor to intervene and halt the bill's passage.

“You know this is the first month since Ford being in office,” Mann said. “What's around the bend and do we put all of our energy here? How do we move forward?”

With files from Steph Wechsler

Fatima Syed is an investigative reporter based in Toronto. Don't miss her next story: use the promo code FATIMA today and save 20% on your annual subscription to National Observer.

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You know, to heck with legal options. They should just ignore him. Run the elections the way they're supposed to be and let's see if he's got the guts to arrest the mayor, city council, the candidates, municipal workers etc. to try and stop them.

I'm sorry to hear about this, but glad there are people like Fatima willing and able to explain it so well. Thankful too for the people who are standing up to "King Ford."

I'm sorry to hear about this, but glad there are people like Fatima willing and able to explain it so well. Thankful too for the people who are standing up to "King Ford."