Municipal ward boundary reviews ignore deep governance problems

Analysis: Municipal wards are redrawn periodically as cities grow. But politicians often draw the exercise out into a frustrating drama that misses the biggest shortcomings in our city councils
By John Lorinc - Published on October 20, 2016
Toronto city hall.
Toronto is in the middle of a three-year-long process reviewing the location of its wards. (Steven Kriemadis/iStock)



As a subspecies of municipal decision-making, ward boundary reviews exist in a kind of limbo. Aside from deeply engaged governance activists, most voters barely register this complicated re-districting process, which is triggered when the population differences between wards becomes too large.

While such exercises are largely ignored, there are important principles at stake, laid down by the Supreme Court of Canada and meant to ensure fair representation. Wards should, among other factors, reflect “communities of interest,” natural boundaries and ward history, and they should also create voter parity – that is, ensure each city councillor represents roughly the same number of residents.

But applying these high-level guidelines to the messiness of a city map is hardly a straightforward process. Some lines of demarcation are obvious, but once you’ve run out of ravines, rivers, highways and railway corridors, there’s a fair amount of subjectivity required when it comes to drawing borders.

Despite their significance, ward reviews don’t generate much in the way of media interest. In the past few years, Vaughan, Barrie, Oakville and Oshawa have all embarked on such changes; some are right in the midst of their reviews this fall. Yet these exercises have produced almost no news.

In sharp contrast, politicians pay almost obsessive attention, knowing what can happen to their electoral fortunes if the review process sheers off a vote-rich neighbourhood.

Toronto and Hamilton are different. In both cities, especially in the past year, news coverage of ward boundary changes has been more intensive, with reported stories and editorials encouraging the public to tune in. (Toronto’s three-year-long review process — now very much into extra innings — even comes with its own jazzy branding as a means of generating feedback from the public.)

Yet the imperative to engage brings strange and perhaps unwanted gifts. The process that produced these controversial proposed new borders — and it turns out that when people do start paying attention, changing ward boundaries can indeed become controversial — involved months of public consultations and other forms of stage-managed feedback.  All that preliminary work may now be undone by horse-trading among city councillors, and media coverage that foregrounds the griping of those unhappy with the outcome.

Case in point: a Toronto Star article quoted some residents of Toronto’s Upper Beach neighbourhood who were apparently mortified to discover their cozy, undeniably valuable enclave might become part of a neighbouring Scarborough ward if Toronto’s latest re-districting proposal goes through. “No one wants to live in Scarborough,” someone wrote — regrettably — on a Facebook comment string. 

Other complaints surfaced from elsewhere in the city. James Pasternak, a councillor from a northern part of the city, complained about the disappearance of his ward, with its apparently unique collection of Italian and Jewish neighbourhoods. (Toronto has dozens of neighbourhoods with adjacent or overlapping ethnic enclaves.)

In a city obsessed with housing prices and neighbourhood brands, it’s perhaps not surprising that some homeowners in a tony area might fret about losing an identity. But their concerns conflate two very different issues: the influence that municipal government can have on urban neighbourhoods, and neighbourhood identity per se.

Community labels, while affected on the margins by local decision-making, tend to reflect historical neighbourhoods, local real estate dynamics and the presence of key amenities, like good schools or lively retail strips.

It is true that in many neighbourhoods, the political representation and local political dynamics will shift as a result of the ward boundary review. Some councillors are better than others at securing improvements, like new park space. But in large measure, the form and composition of a neighbourhood is determined by factors that have little or nothing to do with the ward’s name, the location of boundaries or even its councillor. There are, in fact, many cohesive neighbourhoods that straddle neighbouring wards.

For example, the identity of Leslieville, once an east end Toronto working class enclave, has been radically re-shaped by two decades of de-industrialization and gentrification — not by ward boundaries past or present. In the Beach, right-wing, centrist and left-wing politicians have alternatively represented the area since the 1990s. Despite those ideological swings, the neighbourhood has moved steadily up the socio-economic and desirability ladder.

The real problem with Toronto’s review is that while new ward boundaries may improve voter parity between wards, it will do little to solve the larger governance deficiencies that have long dogged local government large Ontario cities: a ward councillor’s political supremacy, the unalloyed power of incumbency, and low voter turn-out — especially among tenants, low-income families and newcomers.

Map of current Toronto ward boundaries

Map of recommended new Toronto ward boundaries.

Other GTA municipalities, such as Mississauga and Brampton, also suffer from a striking disconnect between the make-up of the local councils, which are predominantly white, and the composition of the neighbourhoods, which are highly diverse.

As University of Toronto sociologist David Hulchanski has shown in his Three Cities studies, Toronto is increasingly sorting itself into very affluent and very poor enclaves, and there’s little indication that the decades-long decline of middle and mixed-income neighbourhoods will reverse itself anytime soon. Similar dynamics are unfolding in other large cities.

New ward boundaries, Ryerson University politics professor Myer Siemiatycki observes, are unlikely to give residents of lower-income areas more influence in local decision-making over crucial policy issues such as transit, social housing and subsidized day-care. (A council more attuned to the city’s demographics may, for example, have balked at a $3 billion subway running through a single-family residential neighbourhood, which Toronto is currently planning to do with its much-debated Scarborough subway.)

Alexandra Flynn, an assistant professor of human geography at the University of Toronto and former senior City of Toronto policy official, adds that council could have chosen to insulate the redistricting process from political interference, and the inevitable over-weighting of citizen complaints such as those surfacing in the Upper Beach. (Under the City of Toronto Act, council has final say on ward boundaries.) The recent federal riding boundary review was not subject to parliamentary approval, and with some jurisdictions, like Halifax, the provincial government delegates the process to an independent commission.

In cities like Toronto or Brampton, whose council recently rejected election reform measures meant to make local politics less insular, incumbent politicians with a clear personal stake in the outcome are making the final decision about the borders that will define wards for a generation. Says Flynn: “It’s a crazy way to make these kinds of boundary decisions.” 



The trouble with political map-making: How Toronto got here

In 2013 the City of Toronto embarked on a boundary review to address population changes that have created a dynamic where a high-density ward vote is now worth considerably less than one in a low-density — and in most cases predominantly suburban — ward. This has created imbalances between councillors, and have given certain regions of the city more influence than others relative to the sizes of their populations.

City staff asked the Canadian Urban Institute, a consulting group specializing in city policy, to help, and an expert advisory panel came up with a 47-ward scheme designed to give a stronger voice to under-represented, high-density areas. Mayor John Tory’s executive committee iced that plan in May, however, before it could come to a vote of the full city council, with Tory and others arguing that Toronto didn’t need more politicians.

The current 44-ward proposal, explains Ryerson's Siemiatycki, required officials to stretch and twist the old borders until the new ones reflected five representation principles laid down by the Supreme Court of Canada. In Toronto’s case, almost all the wards could change shape if the plan is approved.

That kind of change, however, is certainly not unprecedented, nor, indeed, should it be unexpected in an urban environment that is in a state of constant demographic flux. Municipal boundaries shift over time, as do larger political units. The pre-amalgamation cities of North York, York, East York and Toronto all saw their borders obliterated at the last review in 2000, even though those psycho-geographic identities continue to define neighbourhoods and their residents.

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