How meddling in local politics can be a killer for provincial governments

By Steve Paikin - Published on Jul 27, 2018
Premier Doug Ford announced at a Friday press conference that his government intends to cut Toronto city council in half. (Steve Paikin)



Whenever the province tries to make major changes to municipalities anywhere in Ontario, the resulting foofaraw almost always gets ugly.

So Doug Ford isn’t the first premier to try to force unwanted changes on unwilling hosts.

Go back four and a half decades to when a rookie premier named Bill Davis tried to amalgamate a number of local municipalities into larger governments. A politician named Hazel McCallion, who was then the mayor of Streetsville, was unalterably opposed to the Davis government’s efforts to amalgamate her village into a new city called Mississauga. Davis has enjoyed teasing McCallion ever since about the fact that, without his move, the now 97-year-old could never have become one of the longest-serving mayors in Canadian history. McCallion was the mayor of Mississauga from 1978 to 2014.

Davis’s other moves — amalgamating other local municipalities into Durham, Halton, Hamilton-Wentworth, Peel, and York regions — were so unpopular and controversial back in the day that they contributed to the premier’s near-defeat in the 1975 election. His government discovered that meddling politicians mess with ties to a local village or town at their peril.

Twenty years ago, it was another Tory premier, Mike Harris, who tried to impose his word on the unwilling municipality of Metropolitan Toronto. Harris took what many observers thought was a successful (if occasionally unwieldy) two-tier model of governance and amalgamated the old City of Toronto, North York, Scarborough, Etobicoke, York, and East York into a single-tiered system. Like Ford’s proposal, the so-called megacity solution was a provincially imposed, consultation-free exercise that similarly infuriated many folks. I also suspect it was a significant factor in the Progressive Conservatives’ near disappearance from the capital city over the next four elections, in which the party didn’t win a single general-election seat. It’s not an exaggeration to say that, while Torontonians won’t always quarrel with a provincial solution, they will storm the barricades if that solution is rammed down their throats without due process.

Now, Ford is forcing his own consultation-free outcome onto not only the capital, but also some of the surrounding regions. Muskoka, Niagara, Peel, and York will have their regional chair elections cancelled, an announcement that threw the campaigns of candidates such as Patrick Brown (Peel) and Steven Del Duca (York) into momentary chaos. Brown immediately decided to run for mayor of Brampton; Del Duca is still considering his options. But any way you look at it, it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that the government’s decision had less to do with public policy and more to do with the premier getting back at his former political adversaries.

No two situations are the same. The wisdom of Davis’s decisions on regional government have stood the test of time, notwithstanding Mississauga mayor Bonnie Crombie’s desire to secede from Peel Region. Harris’s decision to create the megacity is still met with anger in parts of Toronto. In fact, Ford’s decision to reduce the number of council seats in the city is, in some way, meant to clean up the mess Harris’s move created. (Harris wanted to amalgamate the six Toronto municipalities and cut the number of seats in half, but in the end, he compromised and let the new megacity have a much bigger council than he’d originally intended.)

It may well be that Ford’s decision will find favour with the majority of Torontonians. The premier does have a snappy point to make when he asks whether people would rather have more politicians or save $25 million.

But if the wheels begin to fall off the Ford government’s wagon, remember this day. It could go down as the day when it all began to fall apart.

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