Anti-Municipal Malice

Doug Ford proves cities need to stop taking crap and fight back

City Hall | by Paul Dechene

As I write this, Ontario premier Doug Ford says he will invoke Section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms — the dread Notwithstanding Clause. His goal is to overturn a ruling that found unconstitutional his legislation slashing the number of Toronto city councillors.

If his constitutional gambit is successful, Toronto’s government will shrink from 47 councillors to 25 — and each of those councillors will represent wards of 110,000 people or more.

Think about it. It’d be like reducing Regina city council to two people and a mayor. Good luck getting anyone to listen to you about the potholes on your cul-de-suc.

Doug Ford’s campaign against Toronto city council stinks of some petty grudge held over from when he was a thuggish councillor and his crack-smoking, wife-abusing brother was holding down the twin offices of Toronto’s mayor and chief laughingstock of North America.

Thus, as we watch this sordid electoral drama play out in Ontario, it’s time to revisit the thesis from my last city hall column. That being: Saskatchewan cities should secede from the province and become little, autonomous governing units of their own.

Ford’s legislation-through-spite reveals just how vulnerable Canadian municipalities are. Even though cities are the political entity that most directly represents over 80 per cent of our country’s citizens,[1] our constitution does not even recognize municipalities as a level of government. [2] Rather, they are bodies incorporated by and entirely beholden to provinces. They do the province’s dirty work when it comes to providing local infrastructure and collecting education taxes. But, as thanks, municipal governments can have their funding slashed to ribbons on a moment’s notice [3] or they can be dissolved altogether whenever a provincial government fancies.

All this may have made sense in the 19th century when nearly everybody in the country was eking out a living in the Great White North’s vast wilderness. But times have changed. Cities and towns are the engines of the Canadian economy and their governing bodies are best situated to represent the interests of the bulk Canada’s citizens.

It’s past time our constitution reflected that reality by making municipalities a level of government and thereby hiving them off from the vicissitudes of provincial spite and whimsy.

No city should have to go through what Toronto is going through.

We might look at Doug Ford’s antics, shake our heads and think “Never here.” But the saying goes that Saskatchewan is 15 years behind the times on everything.

Do we really want to wait a decade and a half for our provincial government to get all notwithstanding on Regina’s ass?

I suspect not. Especially when you consider the list of municipal humiliations is already starting to pile up.

Take, for instance…

The Pit Eternal

On Aug. 23, the Saskatchewan Building and Accessibility Standards Appeal Board found in favour of Westgate Properties and struck down the core of the city’s order to backfill the construction hole at the corner of Albert and Victoria.

Despite arguments from the city’s lawyers that Capital Pit is unsafe — an argument bolstered by a report from an engineering firm formerly employed by Westgate — the provincial board decided the site was safe enough and gave the developer three options going forward. First, Westgate could restart work on Capital Pointe provided it commits to complete the project by March of 2022. Second, Westgate could follow the city’s wishes and backfill the site — though the board gives them an extended deadline of April 2019.

Finally and most gallingly, the provincial board gave Westgate the option of installing permanent shoring at the site. Permanent shoring. Meaning the hole — and the surrounding traffic problems it is causing — could remain indefinitely and nothing would ever need be built there.

In the wake of this provincial, non-judicial body completely undermining municipal authority to govern development within its own boundaries, the city announced on Sept. 6 that it is appealing the board’s decision as “unreasonable” to the Court of Queen’s Bench.

The court will hear arguments on Sept. 27. If the court finds in favour of the city, it’s unlikely there would be any grounds for anyone to overturn that ruling through some surprise constitutional maneuver.

But then, who fucking knows anymore, amirite?

No More Wascana Development, Pretty Please

At their Aug. 27 meeting, Regina’s council decided unanimously to support a motion expressing the city’s opposition to any future commercial development within Wascana Park.

The motion was brought forward by councillors Bresciani, Hawkins and Stevens, and nine delegations came out to argue in support of it.

Delegations expressed discontent with the Provincial Capital Commission’s decision to allow Brandt Developments to partner with CNIB in a project to rebuild and expand the latter’s headquarters within Wascana Park.4 Delegations argued this development violates the spirit of the park’s mandate and was approved without adequate public consultation.

And while the Brandt development was a concern to those in the gallery, the delegations aimed much more anger at an earlier council decision to support to construction of the Conexus headquarters within Wascana Park on space adjacent to Darke Hall — construction that is currently underway.[5] The Conexus development had also received approval from the old Wascana Centre Authority board of directors, on which Mayor Fougere acted as chair and councillors O’Donnell and Young sat as city representatives.

During their discussion of the motion, council directed their attention — and frustration — towards significant changes in Wascana Park’s governing structure. Prior to the devastating provincial budget of 2017, the park was governed by the board of the Wascana Centre Authority which consisted of five representatives from the province, three from the City of Regina and two from the University of Regina.

According to Mayor Michael Fougere, this structure provided balance for all parties involved.

But then, the provincial government surprised everyone in their 2017 budget by disbanding that board and constituting a new one under the Provincial Capital Commission in which the province had three representatives while the city and university only had one each.

The result is that the provincial government has majority power to push through any changes to the park it wishes.

“The province can right now divest itself of [Wascana Park] property when it wants to, it can change the boundaries without the approval of the city and the university,” noted Fougere.

Ultimately, this means that council’s motion to stop future commercial development in Wascana Park only matters if the province opts to pay any attention to it.

Or, as Fougere put it: “This motion is symbolic. We do not have the authority to direct the PCC to do anything.”

The motion directed the mayor to pen a letter to the provincial government and the PCC expressing the city’s opposition to commercial development in the park and to call for public consultation on Wascana’s stewardship.

Time will tell if the province responds in the spirit of intergovernmental dialogue or if they toss Fougere’s letter in the recycling bin.[6]


Footnotes

  1. National average as of 2011 is 81 per cent of Canadians live in urban environments. Things break down differently in Saskatchewan, where only 67 per cent of people live in cities and towns.
  2. In finding against the Ford government’s law, the judge pointed out that his ruling should not be understood as constitutionalizing a third level of government. In fact, it seems the judge used section 2 (b) of Canada’s 1982 Charter — the section concerning freedom of speech — to justify his ruling against the Ontario government because the more obvious choice, section 3 which protects the right to vote, doesn’t apply to municipal elections. And this is why the judge’s ruling is vulnerable to use of the notwithstanding clause: the clause can’t be invoked against rulings on the right to vote but it can be used against rulings on freedom of speech. However, use of the notwithstanding clause can still be overturned by the courts.
  3. As we saw in 2017, when the Saskatchewan government “disappeared” municipal grants-in-lieu funding without warning or consultation.
  4. The Brandt building — in which the CNIB will be the anchor tenant — will not occupy a larger footprint within the park but it will be one-and-a-half stories taller to accommodate office space for the MS Society and other commercial tenants.
  5. The decision to enable the Conexus development by handing over city-owned parkland to the university was approved by the last council, before the election of councillors Bresciani, Mancinelli, Murray and Stevens.
  6. Recycling being one of those services that falls to cities to provide.