“We neglect our cities at our peril,” began Councillor Josh Matlow, drawing on the words of former U.S. president John F. Kennedy, at a packed meeting Tuesday to discuss how to free Toronto from provincial big-footing.
“Doug Ford could change the name of Toronto to “Ford Nation” … or even dissolve the city of Toronto as an institution,” Matlow (Ward 12 Toronto-St. Paul’s) told the crowd at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church on St. Clair Ave. W., noting the sudden changes by the premier’s Progressive Conservative government to Toronto’s elections, land use planning and more. “What levers do we have? What tools do we have to defend Toronto and pursue our goals?”
Making Toronto a “charter city,” he suggested, could see a municipality have constitutional authority over its own “destiny” for the first time ever in Canada.
The panel discussion, moderated by TVO’s Steve Paikin, drew a capacity crowd of more than 1,000 people, which at times enthusiastically applauded and cheered for the idea of more autonomy as the city grapples with existence in the political shadow of Ford’s government.
“It’s not working,” Cherise Burda, executive director of the Ryerson City Building Institute, said of the current powers bestowed on the city. She said decisions made by the province display “selective oversight” because they have disproportionately disadvantaged Toronto.
“I’m more fearful that people are going to leave Toronto because of our lack of services and lack of funding,” Burda said.
A “charter city” is an long-standing global concept that involves providing specific legal jurisdiction to cities under the constitution, allowing them to manage their own affairs free from interference by a state or province.
That status is commonly seen in the U.S., where it is referred to as “home rule” in the 10 states that have instituted it. It has never been done in Canada.
One of the organizers behind the push for a charter status is former Toronto mayor John Sewell. He said a charter must include greater cost sharing from other levels of government, which he said would be a difficult conversation.
The meeting followed a series of changes and cuts imposed on Toronto by the Ford government. They include reducing the size of city council to 25 wards while an election campaign was underway, threatening to cut funding to public health and other services after budgets had already been set, and announcing a new transit plan that ignores priorities already approved by council.
In order to make Toronto a charter city, constitutional law experts say, the federal and Ontario governments would need to agree on an Ontario-specific amendment to the constitution.
“It’s a high threshold but it’s been done before,” Liberal MPP Nathalie Des Rosiers, a constitutional law expert, told the crowd.
While Des Rosiers noted it is unlikely to work with the current provincial government, she said that “if an idea becomes popular and responds to a problem, it can evolve.”
Sewell said there’s a plan to present draft ideas about what the charter could say to the public for consideration in several months, and hopes to have a robust public debate about it.
It would be difficult but not impossible to achieve charter status in several years, the panellists agreed Tuesday.
Difficult also was one question, passed up from the audience: in the meantime, “What is the plan to survive this provincial government?”
The panellists agreed on that too: Resist.