Supreme Court upholds Ontario law that slashed Toronto council

Canada's top court has upheld an Ontario law that slashed the size of Toronto's city council nearly in half during the last municipal election.

In a split 5-4 decision issued Friday, the Supreme Court of Canada found the change imposed by Ontario Premier Doug Ford did not violate the free-expression rights of candidates or voters.

Writing for the majority of the panel, Chief Justice Richard Wagner and Justice Russell Brown said municipal elections are "merely statutory platforms without a constitutional basis" and, as such, provinces can change the rules as they wish, barring "substantial interference," they wrote.

The majority found that residents had enough time to adjust to the new system before the October 2018 vote.

"Here, the candidates and their supporters had 69 days -- longer than most federal and provincial campaigns -- to reorient their messages and freely express themselves according to the new ward structure," the pair wrote.

"The Act did not prevent candidates from engaging in further political speech under the new structure. Candidates continued to campaign vigorously, canvassing and debating about issues unrelated to the impugned provisions, the size of council or the ward boundaries. And even had they not, nothing in the Act prevented them from doing so."

The dissenting judges, however, found the timing of the legislation did amount to an infringement of free-expression rights.

"The timing of the Act, in the middle of an ongoing election, breathed instability into the 2018 municipal election, undermining the ability of candidates and voters in their wards to meaningfully discuss and inform one another of their views on matters of local concern," Justice Rosalie Abella wrote on behalf of the dissenters.

Since the nomination period was extended to mid-September in light of the change, candidates and voters essentially had five weeks to adjust, she wrote, noting that only after nominations closed would they have the full picture of the situation.

The municipal campaign was well underway when the Ontario legislature passed a law that reduced the number of council seats in Toronto to 25 from 47, aligning them with federal ridings.

Ford -- a former Toronto city councillor and failed mayoral candidate -- argued at the time that the change would streamline council operations and save $25 million. Critics, however, denounced it as undemocratic and arbitrary.

Toronto successfully challenged the legislation in Superior Court, with the judge deeming it unconstitutional.

Ford threatened to use the Constitution's notwithstanding clause to push through the change but didn't have to invoke it because the province won a stay of the decision pending appeal.

Ontario's top court then delivered a split decision on the matter, with three judges ruling to overturn the Superior Court decision and two to uphold it.

The Supreme Court of Canada agreed to hear the city's challenge of the Appeal Court ruling, with a hearing held in March.

Friday's decision comes roughly a year before Ontario's next municipal vote.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 1, 2021.