Councillor Josh Matlow

Making Toronto a ‘charter city’ a longshot. But longshots have to start somewhere

By Edward Keenan

Making Toronto a ‘charter city’ a longshot. But longshots have to start somewhere

Premier Doug Ford shuffled his cabinet Thursday morning — new finance minister, new transportation minister, new attorney-general, new minister of social services, new minister of education — hoping for a “reset” of his government after a year of lighting fire to dumpsters and seeing his approval ratings immolated in the resulting blaze.

You know who else would like a reset to save them from Ford’s many missteps (or, in his case, maybe misstomps is the word)? Toronto’s city government.

Massive budget cuts. A slashed council and government structure. Housing laws rewritten by decree. A transit plan rewritten and now up in the air. And so on. But it’s unlikely any cabinet overhaul will calm the mayhem or undo that damage — and even unlikley that Ford, still head of the cabinet after all, wants it to. The civic policies are accomplishing what the premier wants them to, whether the civic government likes it or not.

Which is not a new problem, even if it is particularly vividly felt with a premier like this. The province has been imposing its will on the city for as long as the province has existed. The rules allow it to. As I’ve said before, a premier with a majority government could turn the council chamber into a go-kart track with a simple voice-vote in the legislature and the mayor could do nothing in response except buy a helmet.

Or as Councillor Josh Matlow put it at a meeting on Tuesday night, “Doug Ford could change the name of Toronto to ‘Ford Nation’ … or even dissolve the city of Toronto as an institution.”


That’s why Matlow was holding the meeting, exploring the idea of demanding a “City Charter” for Toronto. It’s an idea picking up steam — I see the Defend Toronto group partly organized by former Mayor John Sewell in response to Ford’s government has developed a subgroup called “Charter City Toronto” to try to make it happen.

A charter city — also known as a “home rule” city in some places in the world — is one that has some formal constitutional authority over its own municipal affairs. Big cities like New York and Paris, and San Francisco and London have this kind of revenue and legal authority. Toronto does not.

The City of Toronto Act was supposed to accomplish much the same thing, without all the constitutional baggage. At first, after Premier Dalton McGuinty enacted it, the city was sometimes criticized for not taking advatage of the powers it delegated to council. But when John Tory actually tried to do so, under Premier Kathleen Wynne, by imposing road tolls, the provincial government demonstrated exactly how valuable any merely legislated “protection” for Toronto’s authority is. She vetoed the request by fiat, making Tory feel like a “boy in short pants.” That’s an example of how, as Cherise Burda of Ryerson University reportedly put it at the Tuesday meeting, Toronto’s still sitting at the kids’ table.

Here’s the thing about a city charter for Toronto: it’s a good idea, urgently needed, long overdue, and very unlikely to happen.

Two sort-of side notes:

First, a city charter isn’t some cure-all. The cowardice and indecisiveness sometimes shown by our city council would still be problems even with more authority. A bad mayor and bad council would still do bad things. But at least local decisions would be made locally, and would stay made when, often after years of discussion, debate, and consultation, they finally got resolved. Too many of Toronto’s problems recently (and not-so-recently) are exacerbated by interference and outright bigfooting from the province at the eleventh hour — and too many more are made worse by a city impulse to defer responsibility by making more and further appeals to the province to save the day. It isn’t a cure for all that ails us, but it would be a key part of the treatment.

Second, there’s some degree of wailing and moaning whenever the topic comes up from other Ontario cities about Toronto wanting special treatment. And sure, we do. But it doesn’t have to just be something for the biggest most important city in Canada, your NBA Champion Centre of the Universe. Similar authority seems obviously due to most large cities (Mississauga, Hamilton, London, Ottawa, Kingston…) So they can ask for that if they want, and I’d certainly support it. But Toronto residents are trying to sort out Toronto’s problems, so they’re asking on behalf of themselves.

Which brings us back around to the catch: that request is unlikely to be granted. Any consitutional recognition of civic governments would require the cooperation of both the provincial and federal governments. The antagonism of the current provincial government is the reason this request surfaces now. They’re unlikley to agree to the proposed solution.

But as I said, Premier Ford may have caused the realization this is needed, but it was needed long before he came along, and will be needed long after he’s gone. Sooner would be better, but later would be better than never.

And unlikely things happen — if they do — because someone starts talking about them, and planning for them, and defining what they want, and building support for the ideas. That’s what Matlow and Sewell appear to be doing. It’s a start.

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