Jordan: It’s fair to say there’s not usually a good reason for a national news podcast to report on a little community meeting. This one, though, was different, and it wasn’t that little. Last week, after a year of restructuring, and cuts, and orders and frustration, and anger, a group of concerned Torontonians got together to discuss what to do about it. While there is no municipal provincial relationship in Canada that’s quite as bad as the one between Toronto City Hall, and Ontario Premier Doug Ford right now, the problem they were attempting to address at that Toronto meeting has implications for cities across the country. In all these relationships the province holds the cards, cities have almost no real power in Canada, and there’s no easy way to fix that. But there is a hard way, and that’s what they were meeting about in Toronto. And the room was packed, and the questions on the table with ease. What would it take for Toronto to gain control of its own governance? How can cities fight back when they are subject to the winds of the provincial legislature, and what if Toronto just wrote up its own charter?
Jordan: I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. Jennifer Pagliaro is a City Hall reporter for the Toronto Star, and she was at that meeting. Hi, Jennifer.
Jennifer: Hey, how you doing?
Jordan: I’m doing really well. Why don’t you start by telling me about this meeting you went to last week?
Jennifer: So the panel was really focusing on the idea of getting Toronto more power, and that really just means power out from under other government masters, and the city has been having this problem whereby we aren’t really in control of our own destiny, just the way all of the rules in this country are written, and the idea was to have this group come together and talk about the idea of creating a charter city. And it’s a concept that a lot of people maybe haven’t heard of. It’s actually a really old concept, and the idea was to get people sort of acclimatized to the fact that there maybe is a solution to the way we are feeling sort of under the jurisdiction of this provincial government. I’ve been to so many different public meetings in my job from, you know, the kinds of meetings where people are arguing about a condo tower that’s going up in their neighborhood, to, you know, consultations on new transit lines, and depending on, you know, how much media attention these issues get, or just how involved the communities are in those, like little neighborhoods, you can get, and I’ve seen, you know, 100-200 people, and that’s pretty good. Like most politicians and city staff will tell you that’s a pretty good turnout. But when I heard that this meeting was happening, I started to hear from the counsellor staff who are organizing that they couldn’t find a space big enough. They kept getting more and more people signing up, and they finally moved it to a church on St Clair that has a huge cathedral space, and when I showed up, I was running late, I jumped off the subway, the streetcar, rather, and it was full, and the capacity in this church is like 1200 people, and I was kind of blown away by how many people turned up to hear a panel.
Jordan: So who is leading the charge on this? Who were the people on the panel in trying to normalize this idea?
Jennifer: So Counselor Josh Matt Lowe is a city councilor for the Yonge-Eglinton Midtown area. He and his staff put the meeting together, and he was joined by John Sewell, who is a former mayor of the city, and John is part of a group that formed essentially out of the council cut that was imposed by the Doug Ford government. So they now have a group of active citizens who are both fighting the province with protests and other kind of letter writing campaigns but they have this offshoot group that they thought would look for solutions, and what they came up with was to fight for this Charter City, and then there was academics, Cherise Burda from the Ryerson City Building Institute pays a lot of attention to governance, and policy issues. Another former counselor John Parker came, and an M P. P. Natalie De Rosie A who is actually a constitutional law expert as well.
Jordan: So there’s a pretty venerated, at least by Toronto terms, panel up there, and the house is packed. What was the mood like? How was the evening?
Jennifer: People were honestly like, I was surprised that they were up on their feet they were really, like cheering and applauding in a way I also haven’t seen at a public meeting. I was surprised to see, like not only the outpouring of support, but the like obvious desire for something to be done, and not just to stick it to Doug Ford, but to really find ways to protect the city’s interests and councilor Matt Lowe gave this speech at the beginning that just got this almost like riotous applause and cheering at the end and I’ve never seen a counselor get that kind of response at any other public meeting.
Jordan: Well one of the reasons we wanted to talk to you is because there was a ton of reporting on social media just from people who were kind of there, and saying that there was a real energy for the city to do something, and I had not heard the term charter city before, I don’t think a lot of people have, so if you can explain what that is, and what it would theoretically at least look like?
Jennifer: Yeah, so like I said, a charter city of this age old thing, there are charters in Europe dating back to like the 12th century, and the concept is pretty simple in that right now the way our Canadian Constitution is written, it only applies to the federal and the provincial level of government. So essentially cities get left out, and the best example I can give is in our charter of rights and freedoms it says that we have the right to vote, it’s this fundamental right that we have to participate in democracy. But it actually only refers to the right to vote in parliament, and the legislature not to vote in your local city council. Now we have all kinds of provincial legislation that guides municipal elections, but those are rights that have been given to us by the province, and theoretically can be taken away by the province. That sort of just exemplifies a very like broad issue, but on a more granular level what we have seen recently with the Doug Ford government is that they have the ability to change our budget midstream. They have the ability to change our land use planning, what we decide about what gets built, and how it gets built, even though the city has spent years of consultation and study on those plans. So the idea of a charter is that it’s just a document, it’s a written document that would be agreed upon, and in order to bring it into force, you would need the federal government and the Ontario government to agree that this city charter could exist, and it essentially creates this kind of firewall for the city that it would say in various ways that we have jurisdiction over our own affairs, and it can say whatever those writing the charter want it to say, and that was part of what was being discussed at the meeting is that we need to start thinking about what kind of powers we want, how we want to approach other levels of government with those demands, and then actually just start writing the thing and start debating it, and start moving it through the other levels of government to see if there would ever be an opportunity to have that brought into force.
Jordan: Well that’s what I find so fascinating about this is the details because there are lots of places, Toronto certainly included, that talk about secession when things start going the way they don’t like. Alberta has done it, Quebec’s obviously made a habit of it, but this would force us to spell out exactly what that would look like.
Jennifer: Yeah, I think that’s kind of like a scary ghost when you start having this charter conversation, and it’s important to talk about; In the sense it’s important to talk about what a charter isn’t, and it’s also important to talk about; Which I learned recently in terms of the legality that there used to be only one way to get constitutional amendments, which is sort of the legal process you need to go through to enact the charter, and in the old way, you had to have all of the provinces agree, which just is kind of a hornets nest right? Because as soon as you talk about giving, you know, a city or another entity special powers, you automatically have this question of Quebec, and we’ve been through that before, people don’t want to go through that again. It just kind of creates a mess. But they recently changed the way the process works, and by recently I mean, like in the last few decades, and the way it works now is if it’s a provincial specific amendment, you only need that provinces consent, and so the charter is also not separating the city from the province in a way that, like there will be borders, and we will have our own completely separate taxation scheme. The organizers of the event made very clear that this is not about separating ourselves from the province. There is a recognition that we are such an important part of the province. But it’s about setting sort of guidelines for who can meddle in whose affairs, and right now we have no jurisdiction as we are learning., over how the city conducts its own business.
Jordan: What were some, or maybe even just one if it really stood out, the key components when the panel started talking about what would be included in a charter? The first one that comes to mind for me is elections simply because we did a whole podcast last year when the provincial government axed the number of city councilors in Toronto, and there was a ton of feedback on just what that would do to how we govern ourselves a city. But we had no option, and I assumed that would be the first thing on the table.
Jennifer: Yeah, elections is definitely a big topic, it was a topic at the meeting. Like I said, John Sules group actually was born out of the change in the council makeup during the 2018 election, which, as you know, and if your listeners listen to your previous podcast, they would know that it just caused so much chaos when you disrupt something that’s been planned for years in the middle of a campaign, and there are rules that spell out how a Democratic municipal election should go, and I can’t imagine that a city charter would have any different idea of how the election itself should be run. I think the city clerk does like amazing work trying to make sure that all that stuff happens fairly with the budget that she’s given, but the idea is that the city would probably want to have control over how many wards, how many counselors per ward, and what are the boundaries of those wards. There’s already like established principle in law in place, you know, you hear about gerrymandering in the States all the time, when it comes to ward boundaries. That’s definitely something to be conscious of but there are are already precedents here that, you know, if someone were to Jerry Mander, let’s say if someone said, well, it’s not a good idea for the city council is to have control over this well, first of all, they did have control over it before, and there was an independent consultant that recommended the 47 Ward structure, which counsel accepted without amendment, and that was the structure that they were moving forward with when the election was interrupted. So it’s difficult to argue that they were special interest involved in what the city had come up with on its own for its own citizens, and so that I think the ward boundary issue would be almost obviously included in the city charter.
Jordan: Are there other examples of charter cities that we could look to? Are there any in Canada and the United States that would kind of prove…. give us a least a sense of what would happen?
Jennifer: So the interesting thing that I recently learned about Canada is that there are several cities in Canada that are called charter cities. Vancouver for example, actually has what they call a city charter. But what I’ve learned is that those documents are not similar to the documents that U.S. cities have, and the U. S. Cities being sort of true charter cities in the way I describe that there’s this specific constitutional jurisdiction. What the other cities in Canada have, I’ve found, is that there are rules like we have. We have a special City of Toronto act that the province enacted through legislation, and though they call their specific written document a charter, it’s more like what we got all those years ago, and they’re now just catching up to having some special legislative powers. It’s more helpful to look to the U.S. There are lots of areas like New York, for example, as a city charter. There are differences in that a lot of US cities run with strong mayor powers. Where as we have a weak mayor system, and those two things work hand in hand producing different results. So you can’t say that having a city charter would produce necessarily a governance style like New York. It would also involve changing our actual governance style at City Hall. But you can look to the fact that places like Chicago and New York do have jurisdiction over their own affairs, free from state interference, and I think those are some of the examples that are helpful when we are looking at the possibility of a charter here.
Jordan: If it was an idea that was actually going to take root, what would the next steps look like?
Jennifer: The interesting thing about the meeting which the participants were told quite clearly is that this is like maybe at best, you know, in five years, kind of possibility, and that’s because the political winds really have to be just right. It seems sort of obvious to the organizer’s and those behind this charter city push that they’re never going to be able to convince Doug Ford’s government to agree to a constitutional amendment.
Jordan: Probably not.
Jennifer: And we know we have a federal election coming up, and that could change the context of whether this charter city is possible. At the same time, they did raise the idea that it could become a federal election issue if they had the ability to kind of get it on the agenda, and the most important thing is they have to figure out first what do Torontonians want? What should the Charter say? And so what they’re working on is sort of a draft of what the Charter could say, and what they want to do is have a really robust public debate so that there’s a really strong, you know, grounds behind whatever this draft charter says. That they can feel confident that this is what the citizens of Toronto would like to see, and then try to assess whether the political winds are blowing in their favor, and use the connection that they have to convince their colleagues at those other levels of government to support the idea.
Jordan: Do you have any idea how the rest of the counselors down at City Hall are taking this?
Jennifer: Lately we’ve seen a kind of harmony at City Hall that we have not experienced, at least not in the six years that I have been there and that is because sometimes when you have a common enemy, you really see people working together. And that’s really been the case with Doug Ford, you’ve seen those who are often very critical of the mayor, for example, allying themselves in hand, standing next to him at press conferences in order to push back. I think what you said earlier about the whole expecter of like succession did come up in the 2018 election. John Tory’s main challenger, Jennifer Keesmaat sort of raised it in this sort of like offhand tweet, and she’s admitted you know, I was angry, it was before she actually signed up to be a candidate, and….
Jordan: But it followed her through the campaign.
Jennifer: It did. It really did, and in a negative way, like John Tory strategists were able to spin it as sort of like a blue sky like, you know, unwelcome idea. So I think it’s important that they get the message right if they want the Charter City idea to take root at council. But I think even more conservative counselors are really struggling with feeling like they don’t even have power in their elected roll to represent their citizens when things are being yanked out from under them. So I think it is possible that if they could agree on what’s most important to make sure that they have control over, that you could get even the most right wing or, you know, provincial loyalist counselors to perhaps come on board.
Jordan: When counselors and Torontonians say that they’re not being treated fairly by the province… first of all, I guess what are they talking about specifically? And in that context, are they being treated differently than the rest of Ontario? Or is this just kind of? That’s the provincial government’s approach, and it affects everybody.
Jennifer: I think there have been very specific actions that this provincial government has taken that disproportionately affect Toronto. When it came to, for example, the public health budget cuts, there were changes to the funding formula for areas outside of Toronto, but the cuts were most severe for Toronto, and the province has tried to justify why these actions are disproportionate, you know but we’ve heard from counselors and even city staff that they can’t make sense of why Toronto would be treated differently like there isn’t, in their view, a logical reason, they’re not buying the reason that the province is giving, and there are multiple examples. It’s hard to say the council cut, for example, when you started to get into the comparison, which some of my colleagues did at Queen’s Park, for example, the minister of municipal affairs…. the area he represents they started looking well, how many local councillors are in that area in comparing, you know, on a per capita basis to Toronto and some of the comparisons started to get pretty comical, right? Like if you apply the same counselor to resident ratio, some places, like shouldn’t even have a counselor like it maybe would just be like one person or a mayor, and yet none of those other areas were affected. There was some need the province said to align Toronto specifically with the ridings that the province and the federal government use. But why is that only true in Toronto? Why would that same logic not apply to the rest of the province?
Jordan: Given that this is not likely to happen under the current provincial government, what options does Toronto have in the meantime, to fight back against these kind of cuts in this kind of treatment?
Jennifer: So that was one of the questions from the audience at this meeting. Someone sent up a card and say what do we do now to survive? They asked the panel that, and the panel kind of laughed nervously, and everyone kind of laughed nervously because that’s the big question. It really doesn’t seem likely to me just trying to look at it objectively, that this government is interested at all in providing Toronto any kind of freedom, and so, you know, for the next several years this is what we’ve got, and because our legislative powers are so loose, and can be so easily taken away from us, I think it really comes down to average people, and that pressure from you know, we saw the autism protest, we’ve seen public health servants, you know, fight back against what they called arbitrary cuts. We’ve seen average citizens writing, and calling and volunteering to door knock so that more people were convinced to contact their local MPP. At this point, it’s more about trying to, like correct the direction that the province is going in, in hopes that they don’t continue aiming the bullseye directly on the city, and I think that will take a lot of ongoing cooperation between the mayor, and his allies, and those he’s usually not allied with send like a unified and single message both to public and directly to the province.
Jordan: Thanks, Jennifer.
Jennifer: Thank you so much.
Jordan: Jennifer Pagliaro, City Hall reporter at The Toronto Star. That was The Big Story, for more from us we are at thebigstorypodcast.ca. We’ve got all your episodes there, so enjoy and hit us up on Twitter too @thebigstoryfpn. We would love to hear from you. We could use new story ideas. Take the long weekend, think about it, come back to us with some, and if you like us, rate us, and review us and subscribe for free wherever you get your podcasts. That’s Apple, that’s Google, that’s Stitcher, that’s Spotify, Castbox, you know the drill. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, thanks for listening. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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